Notes on a Washington Media Scandal

Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
May 4, 2023

Washington is a city of second, third, and sometimes even fourth chances, where personal scandals rarely end a career. As Michael Schaffer once put it, “you’ll always eat lunch in this town again.” So it goes for T.J. Ducklo, the former White House aide who resigned in 2021 after a verbal altercation with me that was unprofessional and deeply personal. Ducklo, of course, is now heading back to Biden world in a communications job on the campaign. His return has been smoothed by effusive comments of support from female colleagues, in advance of the official announcement, lest anyone kick up dust about the whole thing. 

The truth about Ducklo, with whom I had never interacted before the incident on the night of Biden’s inauguration, is that he was a very aggressive defender of the president, which naturally rubbed some reporters the wrong way. Some thought he was demeaning, but nobody who approached me afterward said that he had ever crossed the line as he did with me. For what it’s worth, I never wanted Ducklo to be fired from the White House. I learned after our altercation that he was suffering with lung cancer during the campaign. But as with all things in Washington, it often comes down to how you manage the scandal rather than the scandal itself. 

I always thought that it could have been resolved if Ducklo and I had sat down together and a real apology was exchanged. Instead, Ducklo sent me a two-line email apology and Biden’s top advisor Anita Dunn called my editor to argue that I broke our “off the record” agreement by outlining the incident in an internal memo at the time. For a full month, I felt shunned by the White House, and by Dunn, who warned young press aides about reporters who break off the record, I was told, winking and nodding about what happened between me and Ducklo. “Reporters can’t be trusted,” Dunn said, according to a witness. (“Anita was emphatic to the team that TJ’s comments were totally inappropriate and that no staffer ever could behave that way under any circumstances, regardless of ground rules,” said Saloni Sharma, a senior advisor for communications in the White House.)