How do you know a press conference involving Joe Biden turned into a disaster? Usually the fact that it involves Joe Biden is enough, but yesterday’s briefing on the baby-formula crisis managed to exceed even the usual Biden bumbling. For some reason, the White House decided to have Biden participate in a Zoom meeting with CEOs from formula manufacturers and then take questions afterward. In that Q&A, Biden admitted that no one told him about the crisis until April despite press coverage of shortages stretching back to October 2021, and the February shutdown by the FDA of the main supplier of formula to food-stamp programs.
And even that timeline has a big problem:
"Biden: “I became aware of this problem in early April”
It took Biden until May 13 to first mention the baby formula crisis. pic.twitter.com/RjNhFduQHF"
— Republican Women of Mercer County 💪🇺🇸 (@RWOMC) June 2, 2022
It took the White House another several days after that to take any action on the crisis, and that turned out to be a hastily posted website with uselessly redundant information about the shortage.
Karen will have more later on Biden’s response yesterday on the shortage, but this sets up why the White House’s response to Biden’s presser is so instructive. Karine Jean-Pierre desperately tried to walk back Biden’s admission without success, as reporters other than Peter Doocy finally sharpened their questions about Biden’s performance. They sent Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, to spin Biden’s admission with CNN’s Jake Tapper, who wasn’t buying it. After Deese admitted that he knew about the FDA’s closure of the Abbott production facility in February, Tapper wondered why the one person with the authority to deal with the shortage didn’t get looped into the situation:
CNN’S JAKE TAPPER: “Karine Jean-Pierre, your press secretary, just said this has been a whole of government approach. That doesn't include the president?”
BIDEN ECONOMIC ADVISOR BRIAN DEESE: “Relevant officials from across the government were focused on the effort” pic.twitter.com/vfNxQUA3E2
— RNC Research (@RNCResearch) June 1, 2022
TAPPER: I guess I still just don’t fully understand why you didn’t tell the President until April. If the problem was reported to the FDA last fall, the FDA didn’t check it out until, I think, December and then they shut down the factory in February. The President, the guy who — the only one who can invoke the Defense Production Act to force companies to produce this incredibly direly needed infant formula. He’s not told until April.
Karine Jean-Pierre, your press secretary, just said this has been a whole of government approach. That doesn’t include the President?
DEESE: The FDA took the appropriate measures to shut down the facility in February. And when that happened, the FDA and the relevant officials from across the government were on — focused on the effort to try to increase production from other producers, and also figure out how quickly they could get that facility back online. It took too long to get that facility back online. It took too long to get Abbott to agree to a consent decree.
Once it was clear that that facility was not going to be able to come back online, it was clear we were going to need to even more greatly increased production, particularly of those specialty formulas. But I want to be very clear that the President’s role in this has been, at the right and appropriate moments when we needed to do things like the Defense Production Act, when we needed to take extraordinary measures like Operation Fly Formula, he has been informed, he has directed the action that we have taken.
TAPPER: OK. So, the whistleblower complaint in the fall, the FDA waited till December to act, waited until February to shut the plant down, President Biden wasn’t told about until April, you don’t think any of that should have been done more quickly or sooner? You think everything just went exactly how it’s supposed to?
Deese tried then to lay it off on the FDA and Abbott, claiming that Abbott stalled on the consent decree, which delayed the process. But at that point the facility was already shut down, and besides that, shortages had already been noted by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal for months. The CEOs told Biden during his call that they warned the FDA at the time of the shutdown that their action would create immediate shortages, in fact. That also cut against Deese’s spin, and Tapper again blasted Deese for it:
DEESE: … And as a result, we are in a position where we had to then take extraordinary measures to rely on production from other facilities. Those extraordinary measures required the direct — the President’s direct intervention. And that’s what the President has directed and that’s what the President has done.
TAPPER: I don’t need the FDA to investigate itself to come to the judgment that they did not act quickly enough. And on behalf of all the frustrated moms and dads and guardians out there, I hope you don’t either.
The only “whole of government” aspect to the formula crisis is that the whole of government didn’t do anything about it until the press finally amplified the story a couple of weeks ago. That’s when Biden’s team scrambled for some kind of response, first with the lame website and then with a Defense Production Act order that won’t work, thanks to the broken supply chains that created the shortages in the first place. Now they’re flying in airlifts of formula from Europe rather than lifting the tariffs and labeling restrictions that keep Europe and Canada from supplying the US normally.
Be sure to read Karen’s upcoming post later today, which goes into more depth, but it’s clear that the White House knows that Biden stepped in it yesterday. Expect to hear a lot more damage-control spin today.
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