Deputy press secretary TJ Ducklo lashed out at journalist Tara Palmeri, spurring conversations between Politico’s brass and the White House—and raising questions about behavior tolerated in the Biden administration.
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.
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 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 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.)
The following day, an editor at Politico reached out to the White House about Ducklo’s threats, spurring multiple conversations between the news outlet and senior-level officials on January 21, including White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield, and Biden senior adviser Anita Dunn.
In one of those calls, senior White House officials acknowledged that Ducklo’s handling of the call with Palmeri was inappropriate and said he would send a note to her apologizing for the comments. In another conversation, the same White House officials took aim at Palmeri by accusing her of breaking an off-the-record agreement with Ducklo and pressing Politico as to why the contents of the call had been revealed. Palmeri had only informed her editors of the contents of the call, which she had transcribed into her notes as it was happening, after they asked her about it.
Palmeri declined to comment. Psaki and Ducklo did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
When the series of calls between the White House and Politico had concluded, Ducklo sent Palmeri an email stating that he was sorry he lost his cool, but he did not delve into any specifics or apologize for threatening and sexually harassing the reporter, according to sources familiar with the exchange. Politico reported on Ducklo and McCammond’s relationship in Tuesday’s Playbook, after it was first revealed the previous night by People.
Ducklo’s alleged response to Politico’s reporting raises serious questions about behavior that is tolerated in the Biden White House.
“I am not joking when I say this: If you are 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. No ifs, ands, or buts,” Biden said during a virtual swearing-in on his first day in the White House.
Playbook highlighted those remarks on January 21 under the heading “Biden Sets Standard for Professional Behavior,” and asked, “Serious question on our minds this morning: Does this standard apply to how mid-level press aides treat reporters?”