While giving opening remarks at a White House conference on hunger, nutrition and health, President Joe Biden called out for an Indiana Republican who died in a car crash in August.
“Jackie, are you here? Where’s Jackie,” he said looking out into the audience on Wednesday morning. “She was going to be here.”
Rep. Jackie Walorski was one of four cosponsors of a bill to fund the conference and had been an advocate for reducing hunger in America.
Biden, known for making slip-ups in public remarks, turns 80 years old in November and has faced regular attacks from Republicans over his mental fitness and he has said he intends to run for re-election in 2024.
In August, Biden and first lady Jill Biden issued a statement extending their condolences following Walorski’s passing.
“I appreciated her partnership as we plan for a historic White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health this fall that will be marked by her deep care for the needs of rural America,” Biden said in an August statement. “We send our deepest condolences to her husband, Dean, to the families of her staff members, Zachery Potts and Emma Thomson, who lost their lives in public service, and to the people of Indiana’s Second District who lost a representative who was one of their own.”
Reporters at White House press conference tried repeatedly to get an answer from Karine Jean-Pierre about President Biden trying to call out recently deceased Rep. Jackie Walorski at an event Wednesday morning.
Jean-Pierre said, “The president was naming the congressional champions on this issue and was acknowledging her incredible work…she was on his mind.”
Another reporter clarified the confusion: “I think we all get why she’s top of mind. You’ve made that case pretty effectively… I think the confusing part is why, if she is top of mind, does the president think she is living and in the room?”
“I don’t find that confusing,” Jean-Pierre replied. “Sometimes when you have someone top of mind, they are top of mind… Look, he was at an event. You all saw, you all watched, that’s why you’re asking about it… Again, he’s going to see her family in just two days, and she was on top of mind. That is not an unusual scenario there.”
“I have John Lennon top of mind just about every day, but I’m not looking around for him,” one reporter quipped.
“When you sign a bill for John Lennon as president, then we can have this conversation,” Jean-Pierre shot back.
“Karine, these moments of confusion are happening at an increased frequency. Americans are watching this and having concerns. What do you say to that? This is a legitimate question, we need to have some answers,” one reporter yelled after Jean-Pierre repeated that line to several of her colleagues. “We’re asking about the mental fitness of the president. This is a valid question.”
The White House also flew flags at half-staff in memoriam of Walorski and her aides who were also killed.
Condolences for Walorski, who had been a member of the House Hunger Caucus, were extended during the event by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) in remarks following Biden’s speech.
White House policy adviser Susan Rice said she “of course” misses Walorski, “who passed away in August” at the start of a panel session with lawmakers following the president’s remarks.
And a pre-produced video tribute to Walorski was played on the main stage of the conference in the afternoon. The video featured Walorski’s advocacy for solutions to hunger on the Hill both on the floor and in hearings.
At an afternoon briefing, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre did not acknowledge that Biden had misspoken. Jean-Pierre told reporters, many of whom pressed her to elaborate, that Walorski had been top of mind for Biden as he named the the hunger conference’s congressional champions. And the president, she said, will be honoring Walorski on Friday with a signing of bill to rename a VA clinic in Indiana after her. “That is what he was thinking of. He was thinking about her,” Jean-Pierre said.
Biden has a history of making gaffes
Biden has previously called himself “a gaffe machine” — a nod to his long history of verbal missteps.
As president, Biden has made a number of gaffes. For example, a year ago, he forgot the name of Scott Morrison, the then-prime minister of Australia, as he spoke to him during a video conference on a new defense partnership, calling him “that fellow Down Under.”
Critics have questioned whether his age is an impediment for Biden, the oldest person to hold the office. In an interview this month with 60 Minutes, Biden said that people should look not at his age but the job he’s doing.
“I think it relates to how much energy you have, and whether or not the job you’re doing is one consistent with what any person of any age would be able to do,” he said.
“There’s not things I don’t do now that I did before, whether it’s physical, or mental, or anything else,” Biden said. When interviewer Scott Pelley noted his string of legislative successes, he joked: “How’d an old guy do that?”