By Glenn Kessler / The Washington Post
“It’s been widely reported that somebody has the ability to push the button and cut off his sound and stop him from speaking. Who is that person?”
— Sen. James E. Risch, R-Idaho, questioning Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a hearing on Afghanistan, Sept. 14
Risch, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, decided to veer into conspiracy theory when it became his turn to question the secretary of state about the administration’s messy withdrawal from Afghanistan. To wit: Who’s that person behind the scenes secretly controlling President Biden?
Blinken appeared taken aback by Risch’s line of inquiry — “there is no such person” — but he clearly has not been living in a right-wing news bubble. Risch, for his part, seemed appalled that Blinken did not know what he was talking about: “Are you unaware that this is actually happening? It was widely reported and it’s not the first time it’s happened.”
So what’s going on here?
Biden, at age 78, is the oldest person to become U.S. president, exceeding the previous record set by Republican Ronald Reagan. (Risch, we should note, is also 78.) Just as Democrats frequently poked fun at Reagan’s slow-paced schedule and his intelligence, Republicans are determined to portray Biden as a doddering fool at the mercy of his handlers.
So, for instance, at the inauguration there was the viral claim that Biden’s earpiece told him to salute Marines because he supposedly repeated the phrase “salute the Marines.” Actually, Biden said “good-looking Marines.”
Then, in March, the Republican National Committee tweeted that a White House feed was cut to avoid Biden answering questions during a House Democratic virtual retreat. The right-wing Twitterverse erupted in outrage. But, in reality, Biden did answer questions from House members. It just was never intended for the question-and-answer session to be public, in what is known in the trade as “open press.” The Q&A session was intended to be “closed press.”
The RNC once again led a parade of misinformation with a tweet on Monday.
As if on cue, right-leaning news organizations took the bait. The New York Post headlined: “White House live stream cuts Biden mid-sentence as he goes off script.” The Greg Jarrett website opined: “The toughest job in the world might be the person responsible for cutting off President Joe Biden’s microphone at exactly the appropriate second during public appearances.” Fox News anchor Sandra Smith asked: “I don’t know, is somebody telling him that he can’t continue and now are they to the point where they are controlling when he has to end his speaking?”
And then it ended up in a senator’s questioning during an important hearing.
But once again the RNC made a mountain out of molehill, based on a misunderstanding of what was happening.
The president’s official schedule for that day had this notation:
“12:15 PM: THE PRESIDENT receives a briefing from Federal and state fire agency officials National Interagency Fire Center, Boise, Idaho — Out-of-Town Pool Spray at the Top”
What does “pool spray at the top” mean? Generally, that means a small group of reporters (“the White House pool”) will hear some opening remarks at the beginning of a meeting and then are ordered to leave as the president begins to engage in a discussion. In most cases, that’s relatively brief, a few minutes or so, but in this instance about 25 minutes of opening remarks by fire officials was recorded.
But in White House pools, reporters and cameras leave when the media handlers tell them it’s time to go.
This was confirmed when Washington Post video editor Adriana Usero located the raw footage of the event.
In the video, you can see that the last official to speak, George Geissler of the National Association of State Foresters, finishes his remarks and Biden starts to ask questions. “Can I ask you a question,” he says. “One of the things I have been working on …” At that moment, the camera swerves to the right and you can briefly see the pool is being escorted out before the camera turns off.
The video in the RNC tweet was from the official White House video feed, which for obvious reasons did not include the section when the camera swerved away. So the tweet gave the impression that Biden was cut off mid-sentence. In reality, that was the end of the pool spray at the top.
We sought comment from Risch’s staff and the RNC but did not receive a response.
Once again the RNC has made a mountain out of a molehill. The right-wing media, in an eagerness to keep alive a narrative of an elderly president controlled by his staff, quickly followed suit. It’s especially dismaying that a senior senator like Risch would fall prey to such nonsense and waste valuable time on it during an important national security hearing.
Biden may be old. He’s also a self-described “gaffe machine.” But, let’s not forget, Democrats had dismissed Reagan as an “amicable dunce” manipulated by his staff and then Reagan’s diary entries revealed a president much more hands-on and engaged than was believed during his presidency. So readers should be wary of partisan efforts to craft a narrative out of misleading clips.
Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting @GlennKesslerWP, or sending him a message on Facebook.