The White House on Wednesday responded to questions about why President Biden asked if a congressional lawmaker who was killed last month had been in the audience during an event earlier that day by saying the lawmaker was “top of mind” during the president’s remarks.
Biden was delivering a speech at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health when he recognized the lawmakers who helped make the event a reality, including Walorski, who died last month in a car crash.
“I want to thank all of you here, including bipartisan elected officials like Rep. [Jim] McGovern (D-Mass.), Sen. [Mike] Braun (R-Ind.), Sen. Cory [Booker] (D-N.J.), Rep. … Jackie, are you here? Where’s Jackie?,” Biden said, referring to the late Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.).
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked multiple times about the gaffe during a briefing later in the day, where she repeatedly reiterated the notion that the congresswoman was “top of mind” for Biden because of her commitment to the issue.
“The president was naming the congressional champions on this issue and was acknowledging her incredible work,” Jean-Pierre said, adding multiple times that Walorski was “top of mind” for Biden. She did not answer questions about whether Biden’s comments were part of his prepared remarks or whether he would apologize to her family.
Biden will welcome Walorski’s family to the White House on Friday to sign a bill renaming a Veterans Affairs clinic after the late congresswoman and honor her legacy, Jean-Pierre said.
“I don’t think it’s all that unusual to have someone top of mind, especially as there’s a big event — two big events, today and also Friday — that’s going to occur,” she added.
When one reporter asked Jean-Pierre why Biden would think Walorski was alive and in the room even if she were “top of mind,” the press secretary disputed the premise.
“I don’t find that confusing,” she said, arguing the context of Walorski’s connection to the event was important. “I think many people can speak to sometimes when you have someone top of mind, they’re top of mind.”
During her time in Congress, Walorski made combating hunger and malnutrition a key part of her work. She co-chaired the House Hunger Caucus with McGovern, and she co-sponsored legislation with McGovern, Booker and Braun to convene the White House conference that took place on Wednesday. Such an event had not been held at that level in decades.
Biden issued a statement at the time of Walorski’s death mourning her loss and expressing condolences to her family. The White House also lowered flags to half staff to commemorate her death.
Biden’s verbal slip provided instant fodder for many conservatives who have argued the 79-year-old has lost a step and is not mentally fit for the job.
“I guess Biden forgot he issued this statement unless he didn’t actually issue this statement!?!” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted, referencing the statement from Biden in the wake of Walorski’s death.
“This man is not mentally fit to serve as President of the United States,” the conservative group Tea Party Patriots tweeted.
Biden has repeatedly pushed back on claims that he is unfit for office, pointing to his busy schedule and his ability to handle the rigors and demands of the job on a daily basis.
“If you think I don’t have the energy level or the mental acuity, then, you know, that’s one thing. It’s another thing, you just watch and, you know, keep my schedule. Do what I’m doing,” Biden said in a recent interview with “60 Minutes.”