White House fends off tough questions about Biden’s mental fitness after debate performance

The White House on Tuesday fended off tough questions about President Joe Biden’s mental fitness, acknowledging his poor performance in last week’s debate while maintaining the president is still able to hold and run for office.

“First of all, I want to say, we understand the concerns. We get it. The president did not have a great night,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

She later added: “We’re not taking away from what the American people saw.”

Tuesday’s press briefing, the first since the debate, came as Biden has faced one of the toughest stretches of his presidency and with his reelection campaign reeling. Campaign officials are scrambling to calm donors who were shocked by Biden’s halting, hoarse performance. The White House announced Tuesday that Biden is expected to meet with Democratic governors and congressional leaders Wednesday after some demanded a meeting with the president. Some officials have been turned off by the Biden campaign’s dismissiveness over their concerns about the president’s health. And earlier Tuesday, a Democratic member of Congress became the first to ask Biden to drop out of the race.

The White House preempted the first questions from reporters by announcing Biden will appear in two high-profile events over the next week: an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that will air in part on Friday and a solo news conference during the NATO summit in Washington next week.

Such unscripted events are rare for the president, who by CNN’s count lags behind his most recent predecessors in formal press conferences. Thursday’s debate was the biggest audience Biden has had since his last round of debates against former President Donald Trump four years ago – exacerbating the shock some felt at his performance.

Asked whether Biden regularly presents himself the way he did at the debate, Jean-Pierre evoked a speech that Biden gave in North Carolina the day after the debate: “He understands that he’s not a young man,” she said, adding that his focus is going to be on continuing “to deliver for the American people on the issues that they care about.”

In a deeply reported piece published Tuesday, The New York Times reported that people in the room with Biden have become increasingly concerned with how he has recently presented himself, describing the president as seeming confused at some points during two high-profile trips to Europe in recent weeks.

Biden has increasingly indicated he is aware of the problems with his debate performance as the fallout within his own party has mounted. The president said during a fundraiser Tuesday that he “almost fell asleep onstage” during CNN’s presidential debate last week and blamed his poor performance on his grueling travel schedule, according to pool reports.

“I decided to travel around the world a couple of times … shortly before the debate … I didn’t listen to my staff … and then I almost fell asleep onstage,” Biden said during the fundraiser in Virginia on Tuesday evening. The remark was met with brief laughter from those in attendance, according to a recording of the president’s remarks.

Multiple reporters who were in the room said that they believed the “fell asleep” line appeared intended to be a joke and that Biden was trying to make light of the situation in a self-deprecating way, but it did not land, in their view.

Biden had nearly two weeks between his return on June 15 from Italy for the G7 meeting and the debate on June 27, according to a CNN review of his schedule.

Jean-Pierre reiterated during the press briefing that Biden had been sick during the debate last week – adding that he still had a cold. The president did not take any cold medication prior to the debate, she said.

“I would not see this as an episode,” Jean-Pierre said. “I would see this as what it was and what we believe it to be – which is, it was a bad night.”

She added the administration is “absolutely not” hiding information about the president’s health or ability to do his job.

Jean-Pierre also addressed recent reporting that Hunter Biden had been joining his father in recent White House meetings. NBC was the first to report on Hunter Biden’s participation in the meetings. Jean-Pierre said the president’s son, who was convicted last month on three felony gun charges, returned to the White House with his father after spending the weekend at Camp David and “walked with him into” a meeting to prepare for Biden’s Monday night speech on the Supreme Court’s decision in Trump’s immunity case.

“And he ended up spending time with his dad and his family that night. That is basically what happened,” Jean-Pierre said. “They were together at Camp David. They came back together.”

Jean-Pierre also declined to engage with a question from CNN’s MJ Lee on a CNN poll conducted following last week’s debate showing Vice President Kamala Harris outpacing Biden in a hypothetical race against Trump.

The poll shows Harris within striking distance of Trump in a hypothetical matchup: 47% of registered voters support Trump and 45% Harris, a result within the margin of error that suggests there is no clear leader under such a scenario.

Jean-Pierre offered a confusing response referring the inquiry to the president’s reelection campaign.

“What I can speak to, is the president’s record. What I can speak to what he’s been able to accomplish,” she said. “And the things that he’s been able to do and get done … is actually in line with majority of Americans. And I think that’s important to note, and again, I will say with age comes wisdom and experience. And that certainly it’s something that the president brings.”

Harris batted down the idea of running in Biden’s place during a brief interview with CBS Tuesday afternoon: “Look, Joe Biden is our nominee. We beat Trump once and we’re going to beat him again, period,” she said.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

CNN’s Betsy Klein and MJ Lee contributed to this report.

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