There was nothing unusual about the end of a routine press “pool spray” before a private meeting between fire officials and President Joe Biden in Idaho. But conservatives have falsely claimed the video shows someone cut off Biden’s microphone, for fear he was veering off-script.
At a Sept. 14 hearing on the Afghanistan withdrawal, Sen. Jim Risch furthered that false narrative. The Idaho Republican demanded to know who “pushes the button” to cut off the president, and alleged that it shows Biden’s presidency is nothing more than “a puppeteer act” in which his speech — and perhaps his decisions — are controlled by others in the White House.
The White House video feed of an event with fire officials discussing wildfires in the West did end while Biden was speaking, but the entire event was never intended to be public. The press-covered portion ended as scheduled.
Let’s walk through what happened that day.
On Sept. 13, Biden visited the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, to talk with federal and state fire agency officials about how the administration could help with ongoing wildfires in the West.
The president’s public schedule for that day noted there would be “Out-of-Town Pool Spray at the Top.”
As the Associated Press explained in 2018, “Typically, the White House announces that a closed presidential event will include a ‘spray’ at the top, which means a small ‘pool’ of journalists representing print, radio, broadcast and wire services will be invited into the room at the beginning.” These “pool sprays” are routine, allowing the press access to gather some video and audio, before the private session begins.
Although these pool sprays often last just a couple of minutes, the one at the National Interagency Fire Center lasted 27 minutes.
The official White House transcript of the event ends with comments from George Geissler, chair of the National Association of State Foresters’ Wildland Fire Committee.
But the White House video feed picked up a bit more, as Biden addressed Geissler, saying, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course,” Geissler replied.
Biden then began, “One of the things that I’ve been working on, with some others, is …” That’s where the video feed cuts off.
The Republican National Committee, the New York Post and other conservative voices suggested suspicious intent was behind the video ending, despite the public schedule indicating there would only be a pool spray at the beginning of the event.
Raw footage posted by the Washington Post Fact Checker shows the camera veering away as Biden made his comment, and then briefly shows a small group of reporters filing out of the room.
The president is routinely followed by a “press pool” made up of a handful of national reporters. According to the White House pool reports that day — written by a reporter for the New York Times and emailed to media outlets, including FactCheck.org — the national press pool was “escorted into” the event at the National Interagency Fire Center at 12:08 p.m. and “escorted out” of the briefing “at roughly 12:35.” The next pool report notes that Biden left the briefing 35 minutes later, shortly before 1:10 p.m.
On Sept. 14, however, Risch, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, raised the issue during his opening statement of the committee’s hearing on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“One of the things we need to get to the bottom to is who’s responsible for this, who made the decisions [about the Afghanistan withdrawal]?” Risch said. “There’s real questions right now as to who’s making the decisions. We know for a fact the president of the United States is somewhat disadvantaged here, in that someone is calling the shots. He can’t even speak without someone in the White House censoring it or signing off on it.
“As recently as yesterday, in mid-sentence, he was cut off by someone in the White House who makes the decision that the president of the United States is not speaking correctly,” Risch said. “So I’d like to know who this person is. This is a puppeteer act, if you would, and we need to know who’s in charge and who’s making these decisions.”
Risch revisited the issue in his opening questions to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. As Risch demanded to know who in the White House “has authority to press the button and stop the president, cut off the president’s speaking ability and sound,” an amused Blinken repeatedly responded that there is no such person, that Biden “speaks for himself” and that he was unaware of what Risch was referencing. Here’s the entirety of the 2.5-minute exchange:
Risch, Sept. 14: I’m more interested in the top decision-making. Look, we’ve all seen this. We saw it as recently as yesterday. Somebody in the White House has authority to press the button and stop the president, cut off the president’s speaking ability and sound. Who is that person?
Blinken: I think anyone who knows the president, including members of this committee, knows that he speaks very clearly and very deliberately for himself. No one else does.
Risch: Are you saying that there’s no one in the White House that can cut him off? Because yesterday that happened and it’s happened a number of times before that. 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?
Blinken: There is no such person. Again, the president speaks for himself, makes all of the strategic decisions informed by the best advice that he can get from the people around him.
Risch: So are you unaware that this is actually happening? Because it happened yesterday at the Interagency Fire Center. It was widely reported. The media’s reported on it. And it’s not the first time it’s happened. It’s happened several times. Are you telling this committee that this does not happen, that there’s no one in the White House who pushes the button and cuts him off in mid-sentence?
Blinken: That’s correct.
Risch: So this didn’t happen yesterday nor on the other occasions where the media showed the American people that his sentence was cut off mid-sentence. Are you saying that didn’t happen?
Blinken: Senator, I really don’t know what you are referring to. All I can tell you is, having worked with the president for now 20 years, both here on this committee and over the last nine months at the White House, the president very much speaks for himself.
Risch: Well let’s take a different attack. He does speak for himself, but what happens when somebody doesn’t want him speaking? You’re telling us you don’t know anything about this, that somebody cuts him off in mid-sentence? Is that what you’re trying to tell this committee? Because everybody here has seen it.
Blinken: Senator, I’m telling you based on my own experience with the president over the last 20 years, anyone who tried to stop him from saying what he wanted to say, speaking his mind, would probably not be long for their job.
This isn’t the first time Republicans have alleged a video feed of Biden was suspiciously “cut off.” In March, a White House video feed ended just as Biden was about to field questions from Democratic House members about a coronavirus relief bill. In that case, the Q&A portion of the session with legislators was intended to be closed to the press, which is routine.
In both cases, Republicans have falsely spun a routine press protocol — allowing a pool spray before a private meeting — into something nefarious.
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