White House efforts to shield Biden’s missteps are unraveling

For three and a half years, Joe Biden was wrapped in a metaphorical ball of cotton wool by an anxious White House staff eager to protect him from the worst of himself.

Worried about signs of ageing and an increasing propensity for verbal missteps, they cut press conferences and media interviews to a minimum.

Meetings with members of Congress, frequent enough in his first year – despite it coinciding with part of the Covid-19 pandemic – were whittled down by two-thirds by year three.

Public appearances were tightly rationed and controlled, with the president speaking predominantly from an autocue.

Unscripted exchanges with journalists were deemed too hazardous, resulting in 81-year-old Biden staging fewer presidential news conferences than any US chief executive since Ronald Reagan. Even the traditional pre-Super Bowl television interview – a chance to reach the biggest audience ever likely to tune for a political broadcast – was given a wide berth for the past two years.

Now the approach has unravelled spectacularly, seemingly exposed as a desperate damage limitation exercise by last week’s floundering performance in a televised debate with Donald Trump that has left Biden’s presidential candidacy in dire jeopardy.

Democrats considering replacing him on the ticket accuse his handlers of putting up a wall of denial to counteract a years-long low murmur of talk about his age-related decline, only for the truth to burst into the open in a manner that greatly increases the chances of a second Trump presidency.

“We kind of just feel lied to,” an unnamed Democratic senator told Punchbowl website. “They’ve been shielding him from those types of settings for months and even after it became undeniable, they’re still lying to us.”

The complaint reflected a deep discontent with White House efforts to dismiss the abject debate display as an unrepresentative one-off.

That narrative has been starkly contradicted by a wave of fresh reports depicting an elderly president whose verbal and behavioural lapses have become more frequent in recent months.

Carl Bernstein – one of Washington’s most celebrated journalists for his work on the Watergate scandal 50 years ago – told CNN this week how multiple well-placed sources had disclosed to him that Biden’s debate appearance was not atypical but increasingly representative.

“These are people, several of them who are very close to President Biden, who love him,” he said. “They are adamant that what we saw the other night … is not a one off, that there have been 15 to 20, occasions in the last year-and-a-half, when the president has appeared somewhat as he did in that horror show that we witnessed.”

That view is supported by a catalogue of recent episodes in which the president either misspoke or appeared confused, and which the New York Times this week reported have been happening with greater frequency recently.

Last month, Biden seemed to momentarily forget the name of his homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, at a gala White House event to celebrate granting citizenship rights to 500,000 undocumented migrants married to Americans. “I’m not sure I’m going to introduce you all the way,” the president stammered awkwardly, before seeming to recover and remembering Mayorkas name.

In May, at a Rose Garden celebration of Jewish American Heritage month, the president tried to introduce a US citizen currently being held hostage in Gaza as a guest at the event, before again correcting himself.

At two separate fundraisers in February, he described, on the first occasion, meeting the former German Chancellor Helmuth Kohl at the G7 summit in 2021, and on the other, talking to the Francois Mitterand, the ex-French president, at the same gathering. Both leaders left office and died years before the summit.

At last month’s G7 meeting in Italy, European observers were said to be “shocked” at Biden’s state, according to the New York Times report, which cited an unnamed official who said the president appeared “out of it.”

One of the few recent occasions when Biden spontaneously interacted with journalists came after the special counsel, Robert Hur, called him a “well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory” in his report into Biden’s improper withholding of classified documents.

The president tried to defend himself at a White House news conference but instead reinforced the depiction by referring to Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president, “the president of Mexico”.

Now he will try to erase the image of over-shielded seclusion by granting an interview to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos tomorrow, an overture to the media that critics in his own party say should have immediately followed the debate fiasco.

Biden and his team hope that the event will effectively counter the impression of an addled president too vulnerable to face the outside world unprotected, thereby saving his candidacy.

But the offensive may have been complicated by the surprising role played in recent days by Biden’s son Hunter, who was convicted last month of three felony charges relating to illegal gun ownership and who, against all precedent, has begun attending White House meetings since week.

His appearance has drawn a less-than-welcoming response from some senior White House staff, according to NBC, which broke the story. “What the hell is happening?” one reportedly said.

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