In her press conference at the White House on Friday afternoon, press secretary Jen Psaki explained the administration’s decision to suspend deputy press secretary TJ Ducklo for one week without pay after Vanity Fair reported that he threatened a Politico reporter about a story. Psaki pointed out that Ducklo and her department apologized, and argued that the suspension was “a serious punishment.”
Maybe it does seem like a serious enough punishment to Ducklo. (According to the People profile at the heart of the situation, he’s battling lung cancer.) The way Psaki, his direct supervisor, ducked and dodged her way through follow-up questions suggests she might know it falls a little short. Because it’s not serious enough. It’s not even really a hard call: TJ Ducklo has got to go.
We’ve just spent four years watching Donald Trump’s staffers do their jobs ineptly, cruelly, and dismissively. At every turn those staffers faced no reprimand. Cabinet members ignored court orders. Press secretaries lied gleefully, without a care in the world. It was in response to these four years of miserable, unpunished dysfunction that Joe Biden made his pledge—in a video message to staffers on his first day in office—that if he heard of any of them treating their colleagues with disrespect or talking down to someone, “I will fire you on the spot. No ifs, ands, or buts.”
Well, here you go, Joe. According to Vanity Fair, Ducklo told Politico Playbook’s Tara Palmeri—who’d been assigned to follow up on a People story about Ducklo’s romantic relationship with a different reporter—“I will destroy you.” He accused her of only chasing the story because she was “jealous” of the other reporter because previously another man had “wanted to fuck” the other reporter “and not you.” He declared he would ruin her reputation if she published the story.
Ducklo sure treated Palmeri with disrespect. He sure talked down to her. His comments hit the sweet spot of being both misogynistic and unprofessional. In addition to making it clear he’s a creep, they also make it clear that he’s not that well suited to a job that depends on maintaining relationships with reporters and carefully managing stories so they don’t blow up in your boss’s face. His weak-tea apology didn’t even get into specifics: “I lost my temper in a way that was unprofessional. … I should have done a better job at keeping my emotions in check.” It’s all a classic, Trump-administration-level example of crude hubris, the kind of thing you say when you think your position makes you untouchable.
Joe Biden can show that no one is untouchable. His administration has been given the gift of an early opportunity to live up to the promise Biden made on his first day in office—to show voters who chose Biden (in part, to make the federal government a place of decency) that he takes their concerns seriously. “We’re going to be judged,” he said that day, on “whether or not we restore the integrity, the competency of this government.” TJ Ducklo’s tantrum showed neither integrity nor competence. Fire him, Joe. Pay his health insurance, but get him out of there. No ifs, ands, or buts.
Update, Feb. 12, 2021, at 4:25 p.m.: This article has been updated to include information about Ducklo’s cancer diagnosis.