By BEN GITTLESON, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — The White House on Friday suspended a press aide who reportedly threatened to “destroy” a reporter working on a story about his relationship with another journalist.
Deputy press secretary TJ Ducklo was suspended for one week, without pay, after Vanity Fair reported he told Politico’s Tara Palmeri that he would “destroy” her for writing about his relationship with Axios reporter Alexi McCammond.
Vanity Fair reported Friday that in a conversation with Palmeri, who previously covered the White House as a correspondent for ABC News, Ducklo had “made derogatory and misogynistic comments” — including accusing her of being “jealous” of his relationship. “I will destroy you,” he told Palmeri, according to the magazine, which cited anonymous sources.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced Ducklo’s suspension on Friday, after the Vanity Fair piece was published, and called Ducklo’s behavior “completely unacceptable.”
During a Friday news conference, Psaki did not dispute any of the allegations reported by the magazine, nor did she when subsequently asked about them by ABC News. She told reporters that the White House communications director, Kate Bedingfield, had apologized to a Politico editor “immediately following” Ducklo and Palmeri’s conversation.
Palmeri declined to comment. Politico editor-in-chief Matt Kaminski and editor Carrie Budoff Brown said in a statement they had “raised our concerns about the incident directly with the White House at the time.”
“No journalist at Politico — or any other publication or network — should ever be subjected to such unfounded personal attacks while doing their job,” they said. “Politico reporters and editors are committed to forging a professional and transparent relationship with public office holders and their staff and expect the same in return.”
Politico wrote on Tuesday morning about Ducklo dating McCammond and how her employer, Axios, had handled the ethically thorny relationship.
The piece followed a flattering article about the relationship published the night before by People with the headline, “Reporter Forgoes Covering President as Romance Blossoms with Biden Aide Battling Cancer.” Ducklo has been receiving treatment for lung cancer, and several of his White House colleagues shared the story on Twitter.
On his first day in office, President Joe Biden set a high standard for his employees as he swore them in.
“I’m not joking when I say this,” Biden said. “If you’re ever working with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot — on the spot. No ifs, ands or buts. Everybody — everybody — is entitled to be treated with decency and dignity.”
Psaki told reporters that she had made the decision to punish Ducklo — with the approval of White House chief of staff Ron Klain — and that she had not discussed it with Biden. She called it a “significant step,” saying, “I take this very seriously.”
Ducklo, whose duties include fielding queries from reporters on COVID-19, health care and politics, had apologized to Palmeri “quite shortly after the comments were made” and again in writing,” Psaki said. She said he would not be assigned to work with Politico reporters again.
“He had a heated conversation about a story related to his personal life,” Psaki said. “I’m not saying that is acceptable, but I just want to be clear that it was not about an issue related to the White House or a White House policy, or anything along those lines. He is the first to acknowledge this is not the standard of behavior set out by the president, nor is the standard of behavior set by me, and I am his direct supervisor.”
A reporter pointed out to Psaki that the White House had known about the interaction for weeks but had only suspended Ducklo after Vanity Fair reported on it. She said the reporter was “right,” but noted that the White House had believed it was “appropriate at the time” to engage privately with Politico “immediately after the conversation occurred.”
Asked how the weeklong suspension comported with Biden’s day-one threat, Psaki would only say Ducklo’s behavior “doesn’t meet the president’s standard.”
“It was important that we took a step to make that clear,” she said. “And that included not just an apology directly from him, and apologies directly from us at the highest levels there, but also a step to suspend him for one week without pay. And that, in our view, was an important step to send the message that we don’t find it acceptable.”
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