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Did Joe Biden really threaten to throw my phone?


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So, you may remember back in March, I set off a national news cycle with my viral fact-check of Sen. Katie Britt’s mendacious Republican response to the State of the Union. I ended up getting multiple invitations to come on CNN and MSNBC, among other outlets. That moment is, I suspect, what got me invited to the Biden White House a month later — an opportunity I took advantage of to ask the president a couple of burning questions.

My White House visit resurfaced over the weekend as the anecdotal lede in a New York Times story about Biden’s struggles to connect with social media “influencers”:

On a Friday afternoon in late April, President Biden brought celebrities and elite social media influencers together for a White House reception …

Jonathan M. Katz, an independent journalist and sharp critic of the administration, was shocked to get an invitation. When he met Mr. Biden, he pointedly asked about military aid to Israel and suggested he was supporting a “genocide.” Mr. Biden answered politely, but then appeared to grow impatient. “I know you’re a typical press guy,” he said. “I trust you as far as I can throw your phone.” Aides then ushered Mr. Katz away.

The episode, which Mr. Katz recorded on video and shared with his roughly 100,000 followers, was one in a series of Mr. Biden’s awkward attempts to manufacture online enthusiasm for his candidacy.

That story ended up splashed atop the next day’s front page, with my name and some of the president’s “impatient” words to me — as the reporter, Ken Bensinger, put it — above the fold. The polarities from March reversed. Now it was representative of the right-wing mediasphere showing up in my inboxes, most apparently driven by the aforementioned third-degree story in the conservative British tabloid, the Daily Mail:

Once again, that’s me: I am the “TikTok star” — a.k.a. “influencer,” a.k.a. “sharp critic of the administration.” (Or, you know, an independent journalist using all the tools at my disposal.1 )

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Anyway, long story short, the Fox News hit never happened. I replied with a question (would it be live or taped?), the producer never responded, and the matter — so far as I can tell — dropped. So much the better. Perhaps not surprisingly, the more liberal outlets who eagerly had me on two months ago don’t seem interested in picking up the slack.

But I know that some of you have questions, and we do have this newsletter together. So here are some answers to questions you have asked, and that an interviewer may have as well:

Why did I get invited to the White House?

I still have no idea. The invitation came from the White House social secretary through my literary agent. I assumed based on experience that when I got there, someone, probably a junior aide, would recognize me and say, “Hey, I just wanted to let you know I’m the reason you’re here, I made sure to invite you because of XYZ.” But that never happened. As far as I could tell I was the only journalist in the room. And I doubt Biden has read Gangsters of Capitalism. My guess, based on the presence of actual TikTok stars in the crowd, remains that I was invited because of my viral Katie Britt moment. But that’s just a guess.

Did I secretly tape the president?

Absolutely not. The event was billed as “a reception on the occasion of the White House Correspondents’ Weekend,” and Biden devoted a significant portion of his off-the-cuff remarks to talking about the importance of the free press in safeguarding democracy and making sure, in his words, “to break through to make sure that people get the truth.” I walked up to him, clearly identified myself as a member of the press, and held up my phone very clearly so he could see:

(Photo by Matthew Friend)

A bunch of other people were also recording in the room (including the TikTok comedian who took the photo above). Biden made clear that he knew I was both a reporter and that I was recording him when he came back to me, after a brief interlude with actor Diedrich Bader, and said what became the tabloid headline from our interaction:

BIDEN: And I know you're a typical press guy. You're grabbing me in front of this, all this, and I trust you as far as I throw your phone. I have a good arm, man.

ME: I’m sure you do.

BIDEN: I can throw it a long way. But my point is this …

Did the president really threaten to throw my phone?

I mean, technically? The first thing I posted on social media about our interaction was that he’d said that, because it was a funny thing for the president of the United States to say. I also understood that it was a idiom.2 I took it as a sign that he was annoyed that I’d come up to him in the middle of an otherwise friendly cocktail reception — an event everyone was supposed to be grateful they’d been invited to — and was asking him tough questions about his political liabilities. (See also: “typical press guy.”) At no time did I fear for the safety of my phone. Though it would have been very funny if he’d chucked it onto the South Lawn.

Did the Times describe our interaction accurately?

Again, technically. Though the way they wrote and edited it makes it seem like the aides “ushered Mr. Katz away” right after the “throw your phone” bit. But that isn’t what happened. After getting his annoyance off his chest (as I interpreted it), Biden got back to the meat of the answer — the bit that, for me, constituted the headline:

BIDEN: … But my point is this. I have made it very clear to the Israelis what they have to do in the near term. If they don’t, what’s going to happen.”

ME: What’s going to happen?

BIDEN: A lot.

ME: Is the U.S. going to cut off funding?

In retrospect, I interpret this as being a reference to his supposed (and seemingly unenforced) “red line” on the then-upcoming Rafah invasion, as well as perhaps the provision of more humanitarian aid; and the “what’s going to happen” was, at least in part, a foreshadowing of the “pause” on a single weapons shipment.

He then turned to talk to someone else (who asked him if he liked their suit). It was only then that the aides indicated that I should go away — which was a fairly typical thing for the aides of a powerful person to do, though annoying (to me). It would have been nice if the Times covered the substance of our conversation a bit more, but I get that’s not what the story was about.

Is Biden senile? Are the headlines like “Dementia Joe Biden Lashes Out at TikTok ‘Star’“ accurate?

Not in my experience and no. He was all there — more intense than I expected him to be, in fact. After quickly realizing that I wasn’t there to participate in the lovefest, he quickly pivoted and lucidly answered my questions. After he went away to have an entirely separate interaction with Diedrich Bader, he then came back to me, unprompted, to resume our conversation precisely where he’d left off. I’m not a gerontologist, but that seems like evidence of continued high-level cognition.

Why did I use the term “genocide” to describe Israel’s actions in Gaza, and why did I cite it to the International Court of Justice?

I use the word following the arguments of genocide scholars including Raz Segal, Omer Bartov, and Amos Goldberg (all of whom, for what it is worth, are both Jewish and Israeli), as well as the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, Francesca Albanese, among others. I cited it to the order the ICJ issued in the case brought by South Africa on Jan. 26. As Oona Hathaway, a professor at Yale Law School and the director of the Yale Center for Global Legal Challenges, told the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner:

I think what this decision is saying is that Israel has engaged in acts that could plausibly constitute violations of the Genocide Convention—both genocidal acts and perhaps incitement to genocide—and that there’s enough here that’s been alleged, that those allegations are plausible. So they haven’t found that genocide has necessarily taken place, but the situation is dire enough that it is necessary for the court to issue these provisional measures.

As Israel’s defenders have not tired of pointing out, on the same day I went to the White House, the former chief judge of the ICJ, Joan Donoghue, gave an interview to the BBC in which she said that the court did not rule on the plausibility of the genocide claim itself but rather whether “Palestinians had a plausible right to be protected from genocide and that South Africa had the right to present that claim in the court.” As I noted in my initial write-up, Donoguhe — a former State Department officer — is no longer a court official, and thus speaking on her own behalf, not on that of the court or the other 16 judges who participated in that decision.

For instance, Judge Abdulqawi Yusuf of Somalia wrote in March: “The Court has to base itself on the existence of objective indicia relating to the possible commission of genocide. If such indicia exist, which is the case in Gaza, the Court cannot take the position of a powerless bystander in the face of the possible commission of acts which are so offensive to the conscience of humanity.” Judge Georg Nolte of Germany further wrote that the worsening conditions, including the deprivation of food, “reflect a plausible risk of a violation of relevant rights under the Genocide Convention.” Even the Israeli judge on the court, Aharon Barak, seems to have believed the majority had ruled (erroneously in his view) on whether the claim of genocide per se was plausible, stating it had “relie[d] on four sets of facts,” including figures for deaths, injuries, and damage to infrastructure and potentially genocidal statements by Israeli officials.

The confusion here seems to be baked into the process; as legal scholar Marko Milanovic has written, the ICJ has never really explained what “plausibility” means, and different judges likely have different ideas about the term, which they paper over in the interest of forming consensuses. In any case, I stand by both my use of the term and the citation.

Do I think Donald Trump will be a better ally to Palestinians, or comply more fully with international law, if he wins this November?

Of course not.

OK, so what was I trying to do? Don’t I remember “Hillary’s emails?”

I was trying to do my job. I’m a journalist who was granted a group audience with the most powerful man in the world, and it would have been malpractice not to use it to ask him some questions — just as it would have been malpractice not to post about Senator Britt’s lies when I discovered them. The difference is that the obsession over Hillary Clinton’s “emails”3 — and Biden’s age vis a vis Trump’s, perhaps — are arguably “scandals” that were invented by the media. Whereas his crucial support for the mass slaughter is a real, ongoing catastrophe that affects tens of millions of people in this country — not to mention the millions trapped in Gaza — and is going to influence voters’ decisions whether reporters ask him about it or not.

Also, my first question was an invitation to rephrase or restate a position — his demonization of the student protests — that is plausibly costing him support among young voters. He did not avail himself of the opportunity.

Was this the weirdest interaction I have had with a president?

It’s up there. It beats out nearly running headlong into George W. Bush at a post-quake home construction site in Port-au-Prince (he remembered me as “AP Man!” and further observed, “AP Man is a Yankee fan” before quite literally running away). Or the time, on a separate occasion, I watched Bill Clinton completely lose his shit at a group of staffers and cuss them out for five minutes straight. Being pinned against Hugo Chávez by a press scrum on a tarmac as he rambled on for what felt like an eternity was also memorable.

The grand champion though is still the time Haitian President René Préval got back at me for asking about his cancer treatments at a press conference. The next day, he invited me to sit next to him while he passed out presents to dozens of disabled children at a pre-quake Christmas celebration at the National Palace. Préval glanced at the crowd of a hundred or so dignitaries, parents, and kids, turned to me, and said he wanted to check my prostate.

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Correction (6/20/24): I originally misstated Omer Bartov’s name. Thanks to reader Alex Wallace for the catch.

1  Still grateful to Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop, who wrote on the occasion of my Britt video: “That it took Katz to fact-check Britt’s claim was not, as some observers have implied, a failure of ‘the media,’ if only because Katz is very much a member of the media and not just some random guy on TikTok—indeed, Katz is a very well-known journalist and TikTok is a perfectly legitimate mechanism for the delivery of journalism (even if a lot of what gets delivered on the platform is not legitimately journalism).”

2  I also get, and wrote in my initial write-up, that saying he trusted me as far as he could throw my phone and that he could “throw it a long way” could technically mean that he trusted me a lot. But I interpreted both statements as him expressing in two different ways how much I was annoying him. Which, indeed, is my job. (This post originally said “cliché,” but idiom is a much better word. Thanks to reader John Darnielle, a.k.a. The Mountain Goats, for the suggestion.)

3  A catch-all that actually conflated several separate stories: Clinton’s (legal) use of a personal email server while she was at the State Department, Russian-backed hacks of her and her aides’ email accounts, and just anything that involved an email sent by or about Clinton that could get the word “email” into a headline.

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