After being friends for years, deputy White House press secretary TJ Ducklo and Axios political reporter Alexi McCammond finally admitted their feelings for each other in November 2020. Their feelings presented a professional conflict of interest: They met when Ducklo was the press secretary on Joe Biden’s presidential campaign and McCammond was covering it for Axios. After they both disclosed their relationship to their respective employers that same month, Axios said they took McCammond off the Biden beat — but she still covered Vice-President Kamala Harris, making the distinction between her old and new beats unclear. A People article published on Monday broke the news of their budding romance, which was an open secret in Washington. “TJ and I knew full well the unfair criticism our relationship might face,” McCammond told People, “but [we] knew that we weren’t going to let bullies get in the way of our own happiness.”
Enter Politico’s Tara Palmeri. On Friday, Vanity Fair reported that Palmeri, a reporter for Politico’s Playbook, asked McCammond about her romance before the People story was published (one of Palmeri’s male colleagues reached out to Ducklo). That’s when Ducklo, wanting to kill the story, subsequently made a menacing off-the-record call to Palmeri, instead of the male reporter who had reached out to him. According to Vanity Fair, he threatened to ruin Palmeri’s reputation and said, “I will destroy you.” He is quoted making additional sexist comments, accusing Palmeri of reporting the story because she was “jealous” of his relationship with McCammond and “jealous” of the fact that an unnamed man had previously “wanted to fuck” McCammond and not Palmeri. Gross.
Ducklo made the threatening call to Palmeri on Inauguration Day, which is also when President Biden addressed his new employees at a virtual swearing-in ceremony. “I’m not joking when I say this: If you’re ever working with me and I hear you treat another with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot,” the new president said. “No ifs, ands, or buts.” Yet, the administration placed Ducklo on a one-week suspension without pay after his threats were published. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said when Ducklo returns, he will “no longer be assigned to work with any reporters at Politico.”
“It feels like she is punishing us more than him,” an unnamed Politico reporter told CNN’s Oliver Darcy, since the White House is effectively cutting off communication between a high-ranking official and Politico, something that is neither here nor there for the White House, but detrimental to the entire Politico team.
One White House official, according to Vanity Fair, criticized 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 said she only told her editors about Ducklo’s threatening phone call when they asked her about it. Another recent time journalists debated whether to honor off-the-record agreements with a threatening source involved McCammond, strangely enough. In November 2019, she had an off-the-record conversation with former basketball player Charles Barkley, who told her, “I don’t hit women, but if I did, I would hit you.” She justified breaking their agreement and going public by tweeting that “threats of violence are not a joke, & no person deserves to be hit or threatened like that. Silence only allows the culture of misogyny to fester. And those kinds of comments don’t merit off-the-record protections.”
The McCammond-Ducklo-Palmeri debacle is part of a broader story about the Biden administration’s antagonistic relationship with the press, which isn’t as overtly hostile as the previous administration, but more underhandedly contentious. Palmeri observed on Twitter last week that, during daily press briefings, “If Psaki doesn’t like your question, she doesn’t call on you.” If Ducklo doesn’t like your question, I suppose you’re in for a lot worse.