Three years into Joe Biden’s presidency, reporters who cover the administration know what to expect when first lady Jill Biden appears: nothing.
The president, 81, has held the fewest press conferences or formal interviews of any modern commander-in-chief — leaving Biden’s jaunts across the White House South Lawn to and from his Marine One helicopter as the best chance for the press corps to get some face time.
When Biden is alone, he is far easier to bait with shouted questions, sometimes shuffling over around midnight for a give-and-take — despite the unflattering overhead TV lights forcing him to hold up his hand to shield his eyes from the glare.
However, the presence of Jill, 72, on such trips is a dead giveaway that there will be no questions, with the first lady making sure to hold her husband’s hand the entire way across the lawn.
Jill Biden’s role in shielding her husband from members of the media has come under new scrutiny after special counsel Robert Hur described the president in a report released Thursday as an “elderly man with a poor memory.”
Biden has only held three solo White House press conferences since taking office in January 2021. At the most recent, in November 2022, Jill arrived at the last minute and was seated at the very front of the State Dining Room by a beefy aide — who positioned her so that journalists could not see whether the first lady was urging her husband at any point to make a hasty retreat.
Such precautions may have been needed after Biden’s second White House presser in January 2022, a marathon affair in which the president droned on for nearly two hours and made several factual errors and noteworthy gaffes.
At that presser, Biden suggested a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine would prompt a minimal US response, leaving officials in Kyiv aghast and suggesting the president had given Vladimir Putin a “green light” to invade — which he did weeks later.
“Why didn’t anyone stop that?” Jill Biden fumed to aides, demanding an explanation for her husband being left to wilt before the world, according to excerpts from a forthcoming book by New York Times correspondent Katie Rogers, reported Friday by Axios.
“Everyone stayed silent, looking at one another, and then at her, and back to one another,” Rogers writes. “That included the most powerful man in the world.
“Her husband essentially played along, not offering an answer, even though aides had slipped him a card suggesting he end the press conference,” the book adds.
The first lady has also taken on the role of stage manager for her husband, leading Joe offstage by the hand at an event last month to commemorate the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot after repeated instances of the president hesitating or wandering in the wrong direction after making remarks.
Jill isn’t alone: White House staff have also gone to extensive lengths to prevent the president from potentially embarrassing interactions.
At that same January 2022 press conference that caused the first lady so much anguish, then-press secretary Jen Psaki — clad in a distinctive pink blazer — stood up after roughly an hour in an apparent attempt to bring the proceedings to a close.
Psaki sat back down as Biden continued to take questions, only to stand up again about 20 minutes later and walk to a door about 50 feet away from the press seating area in another apparent attempt to end the questioning, which continued for approximately 40 more minutes.
But the most notorious staff intervention took place at the White House Easter Egg Roll in April 2022, when then-director of message planning Meghan Hays, dressed in an Easter bunny costume, barged in to block Biden from answering an Afghan journalist’s question and guided him away from the rope line.
The White House press office has also played its part, introducing a Byzantine prescreening process to select which reporters are allowed to attend large indoor events that were open to all under past administrations — leading to muttering that those most aligned with the administration were most likely to be extended invitations.