White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was saved by the bell Thursday when a time-keeper told her to wrap up her press briefing after she dodged repeated questions on when exactly President Biden was briefed on baby formula shortages and by whom.
Biden said Wednesday that he wasn’t told about the crisis until “early April,” but Jean-Pierre — during a second day of grilling about the timeline of the crisis — said he actually became aware in “late April.” She then backtracked and refused to say who told Biden, who waited until mid-May to invoke federal powers as parents became increasingly desperate.
Veteran journalists tore into Jean-Pierre, who became press secretary just last month, pointing out that they’d sought the same information Wednesday and were told she’d check with the president to confirm when he learned that a Feb. 17 recall and factory closure would cause nationwide formula shortages.
The uncomfortable-to-watch confrontations continued until a front-row reporter for the Associated Press reminded Jean-Pierre that she had wanted to wrap up by 4 pm, giving her an opening to leave the podium.
In one of the most cutting exchanges of the briefing, NBC News reporter Kelly O’Donnell told Jean-Pierre: “On the issue of who briefed the president on baby formula, to say there was no specific person is not a satisfactory answer.”
“When you have senior assistants to the president, there’s a paper trail, I’m sure, about briefings to the president,” O’Donnell continued.
“What I’m trying to say there’s so many issues that come up that is presented to the president, as you know, you’ve covered many administrations,” Jean-Pierre responded. “And there are just regular channels that that happen that go to the president.”
O’Donnell, president-elect of the White House Correspondents’ Association, interjected: “It looks like it’s evasive to not have the most senior people in the White House willing to say, ‘I had a conversation with the president about it’ or ‘I had, we talked about it in this context or in that context.’”
“We’re talking about the consumer side of it, of what you’re doing putting out and trying to get information,” O’Donnell continued. “But we’re also trying to understand the information flow in this White House. And it’s important for us to get that answer, which is why we’re going to keep asking it until we get that answer.”
Jean-Pierre said “you have every right to keep asking,” before adding, “There are regular channels. He is briefed by his senior White House staff. And that is just the process that we have.”
O’Donnell jumped in, asking, “the chief of staff [Ron Klain]then?”
“I’m not going to confirm who it was,” Jean-Pierre insisted. “I’m just letting you know that there are regular channels that we use. And, you know, it’s senior White House staff that want to elevate issues to him when the time comes, and they’re just regular channels.”
A showdown between Jean-Pierre and journalists was widely expected after she pleaded for time to ask Biden about his Wednesday afternoon remark that he learned of shortages in April — then waited until mid-May to publicly address the matter, including by invoking the Defense Production Act, leaning on the FDA to broaden imports and setting up an international air lift following GOP criticism.
Biden said he learned of formula shortages in “early April” following a virtual meeting with major formula manufacturers, where a vice president of the second-largest formula maker told the president “we knew from the very beginning” that the recall and plant shutdown by leading manufacturer Abbott would cause major supply problems.
If Biden did first learn of the shortage in April, it’s unclear what immediate action he took to address it. The issue did not come up publicly until then-press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about it during a briefing on May 9. Four days later, Biden insisted during a Rose Garden event that only “mind-readers” could have handled the situation better.
CBS reporter Ed O’Keefe on Thursday pressed Jean-Pierre, “Were you able to speak with the president about when he was informed in April?”
“He talked about it himself. He said he was informed in April,” she answered, referring to Biden’s original remarks at the Wednesday meeting. “So I don’t, I don’t think I need to. The president mentioned that, he said that. So I don’t need to clear that up. You’ve heard directly from the president on that.”
“What we were trying to figure out [Wednesday] is when exactly in April was he told — was it April1 1? Was it April 30? Was in April 15?” O’Keefe asked.
Jean-Pierre said, “I don’t have a date to share with you. What I can tell you is he spoke to this yesterday and he said it was in April.”
O’Keefe pushed on, “We’re trying to get a sense of how these things operate here inside the West Wing, and how they eventually rise to the level of presidential involvement that leads to things like invoking the Defense Production Act four or five months after the initial flags were raised.”
Again giving no new details, the press secretary said, “You’re asking me for a specific name. I’m telling you how the process works, and I’m telling you how it goes from White House staff through regular channels to the president.”
O’Keefe questioned the plausibility of the idea that Biden would have done nothing about the crisis if he had known about it in April.
“The idea that he was told about this in April, and then it didn’t get elevated until mid May — when Congress and when the press started raising bigger questions about this — begs the question of, well, then what happened in April, with this very curious, very detail-oriented president?” he said.
“We’ve laid out timelines over and over again,” Jean-Pierre claimed.
O’Keefe protested, “You gave us two dates and then told us generally in April that we was told about it.”
“Let me try again. Let’s try this again,” Jean-Pierre said. “By late in April, sales were going down and shortages were appearing. So that is what we learned in late April. And since then, through May, across the administration, we’ve aggressively invoked the DPA and used it three times… launched Operation Fly Formula… secured 80 million safe infant formula bottles from other countries and cut red tape and issued WIC waivers in all 50 states.”
“Again, the sales were going down and shortages were appearing in late April and that’s —, Jean-Pierre said.
“—that’s when he was told?” O’Keefe jumped in
“He said in late April, right?” the White House press secretary said.
A journalist shouted, “he said early April.”
“In April, I’m sorry, in April. Ok, he said in April, in early April,” Jean-Pierre said. “The point that I’m making is what we started to see in April were sales were going down and shortages were appearing. And when that happened, we triggered, the president made sure that the DPA happened, the Operation Fly Formula happened.”
Data shows the shortage is getting worse, not better. On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal, citing research firm IRI, reported that 23% of powdered baby formula was out of stock during the week ending May 22, compared with a 21% out-of-stock rate during the previous week. The normal out-of-stock range prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the outlet, was between 5% and 7%.