|T.J. Ducklo and Alexi McCammond|
The first mini-scandal of the Biden administration has come (and seemingly gone), leaving behind the foul smell of a press aide exhibiting bone-headed behavior toward a member of the media.T.J. Ducklo, a deputy press secretary, resigned over the weekend after being suspended for threatening a reporter who was writing about his romantic relationship with a reporter from another news outlet. From a report yesterday at CNN:
"We accepted the resignation of TJ Ducklo after a discussion with him this evening," said Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, in a statement. "This conversation occurred with the support of the White House chief of staff."Ducklo released his own statement on Twitter saying, in part, "I know this was terrible. I know I can't take it back. But I also know I can learn from it and do better."Ducklo was suspended Friday for one week without pay after Vanity Fair story published earlier that day a reporter from Politico was working on an article about his romantic relationship with a reporter from another news outlet.Multiple White House officials described the situation as untenable because they did not feel a one-week suspension was sufficient. Another source familiar with the situation said no one expressed that sentiment directly to the leadership of the press and communications office. This person said Ducklo's resignation was a result of a realization by the press and communications leadership that there needed to be a conversation with Ducklo about what was best for President Joe Biden, and whether his remaining on the job represented the standard this administration tried to set.
Biden knew about the situation, per CNN:
Biden was made aware of the situation involving Ducklo late Saturday afternoon, a White House official said, and the President supports his decision to resign.Psaki said Ducklo apologized to the reporter he threatened, Politico's Tara Palmeri, over the incident. She had reported on Tuesday that Ducklo had been in a romantic relationship with Axios reporter Alexi McCammond.Axios told Politico that McCammond "disclosed her relationship" with Ducklo in November and was "taken off the Biden beat." But Palmeri pointed out that McCammond's beat includes covering Vice President Kamala Harris and that she had commented glowingly on Biden after he was inaugurated.
From the Vanity Fair article that helped break the story open, under the headline “I Will Destroy You”: Biden Aide Threatened a Politico Reporter Pursuing a Story on His Relationship:
A White House official tried to quash a story about his relationship with a reporter by issuing threats and using derogatory language to another reporter pursuing it, according to two sources familiar with the incident. In a sympathetic profile Monday, People revealed that White House Deputy Press Secretary TJ Ducklo is dating Axios political reporter Alexi McCammond, who covered the Joe Biden campaign. But behind the scenes, Ducklo had previously lashed out at Politico reporter Tara Palmeri, who was reporting the story, exhibiting behavior that led to tense meetings between the Washington news outlet’s editors and senior White House officials.
After Vanity Fair published this account, the White House announced that Ducklo would be suspended for one week.The confrontation began on Inauguration Day, January 20, after Palmeri, a coauthor of Politico’s Playbook, contacted McCammond for comment while one of her male colleagues left a message for Ducklo, according to the sources. Ducklo subsequently called a Playbook editor to object to the story, but was told to call the Playbook reporters with his concerns. But instead of calling the male reporter who initially contacted him, Ducklo tried to intimidate Palmeri by phone in an effort to kill the story. “I will destroy you,” Ducklo told her, according to the sources, adding that he would ruin her reputation if she published it.
During the off-the-record call, Ducklo made derogatory and misogynistic comments, accusing Palmeri of only reporting on his relationship—which, due to the ethics questions that factor into the relationship between a journalist and White House official, falls under the purview of her reporting beat—because she was “jealous” that an unidentified man in the past had “wanted to fuck” McCammond “and not you.” Ducklo also accused Palmeri of being “jealous” of his relationship with McCammond. (Palmeri had no prior relationship or communication with McCammond before calling her to report on the Playbook item, which was a story that she was assigned and had not independently pursued.)
In my almost 40 years as a professional journalist, I've interacted with dozens, maybe more than 100, PR pros. While in various editorial positions at UAB, I worked under the same umbrella with the media-relations department. Along the way, I've picked up a few rules of the PR trade, and Ducklo violated several of them:
1. If you think a story is not worth reporting, keep that opinion to yourself. That's a decision for a reporter and her editor to make;
2. Answer questions honestly and as fully as you can. Be prepared to conduct research and get back to a reporter if you don't immediately know the answer to a question;
3. Never use vile, offensive language with a journalist. It makes your whole organization look bad;
4. Recognize that journalists work in a competitive business. If you appear to show favoritism or have a conflict of interest, journos likely will not view it with kindness;
5. There are plenty of attractive female journalists, but the press room is not a place to pick up women. If you don't create separation between your social life and professional life, you are asking for trouble;
5. Never, ever threaten a journalist.
PR can be a tough job, particularly when you get caught in the minefield between information a reporter wants revealed and information your boss wants kept under wraps. It's not unusual for PR types to answer, up the line, to someone who knows little about the profession -- whose expertise is in a totally unrelated field.
Ducklo is from Nashville, TN, and earned a bachelor's degree in political communication from George Washington University. He worked as a staff assistant for political consultants James Carville and Mary Matalin before becoming national press secretary for the 2020 Biden campaign.
In December 2019, Ducklo posted on Twitter that he had been diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. He reportedly still is undergoing treatments. Did dealing with a serious disease at a young age skew his judgment while in the White House? That's possible, but Ducklo's boorish behavior left the Biden team with little choice but to let him go.