Nearly two weeks after President Biden faced criticism for telling reporters during a Delaware beach getaway that he had “no comment” on the rising death toll in Hawaii from severe wildfires, the White House has claimed the president didn’t hear the question.
In a statement to The New York Times, Olivia Dalton, who serves as deputy White House press secretary, defended the president Thursday evening amid an onslaught of bipartisan backlash the administration has faced over its lackluster response to the deadly wildfires in Hawaii.
“He didn’t hear the question,” Dalton told the outlet. “He absolutely didn’t say ‘no comment’ in relation to Maui. And in fact, he had already spoken to the nation about Maui at that point, in addition to being in daily contact with senior staff, FEMA and state officials as he marshaled a whole-of-government response to the fires.”
While vacationing in Rehoboth Beach earlier this month, Biden was shouted a question by a reporter who was traveling with him for his response to the rising death toll from the wildfires in Hawaii.
BIDEN SHARPLY CRITICIZED AFTER SAYING ‘NO COMMENT’ IN RESPONSE TO DEATH TOLL IN HAWAII: ‘ABSOLUTELY TERRIBLE’
President Biden walks on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 15, 2023. (Nathan Howard/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
“Mr. President, any comment on the rising death toll in Maui?” the reporter asked.
“No. No comment,” Biden responded with a smile as he entered a vehicle.
Another reporter on the scene went ignored after he invited the president over to speak about the administration’s “Hawaii response.”
Biden’s “no comment” remark drew immense backlash from both sides of the aisle, including from one Hawaii Democrat.
“I campaigned for you. Now, when I lose dozens of my friends, family, and neighbors. This?” Hawaii state Rep. Mark Kaniela Ing, a Democrat who now serves as national director of the Green New Deal Network, wrote in a now-deleted post on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Kaniela Ing told Fox News Digital in a phone interview Monday that he found Biden’s remark “shocking” and out of character.
“When things like this happen… if you do the kind of work I do, when the wave crests, you’ve got to paddle hardest,” he said. “When tragedies like this occur, it’s shocking to see people just conducting business as usual. … On the one hand, you don’t want everyone to be in a perpetual somber mood, but on the other hand, how can you just carry on like that?”
“I think everyone deserves some time to take care of themselves, wind down, but, as someone in a leadership role, you need to be ready any moment to offer some empathy and solace and comfort to people that are facing a lot of trauma right now,” he added.
Wildfire wreckage is seen in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Kaniela Ing said he deleted his post because he thought Biden’s exchange with reporters may have been more nuanced than initially reported.
HAWAII DEMOCRAT SAYS BIDEN’S ‘NO COMMENT’ ON WILDFIRES ‘SHOCKING’: ‘I WOULD EXPECT MORE’
“Whether or not it was as dismissive as originally reported, it is quite disappointing,” he added. “I would expect more.”
The remark from Biden was also highlighted by Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis during the first GOP presidential primary debate Wednesday night.
“Biden was on the beach while those people were suffering,” DeSantis said. “He was asked about it, and he said, ‘No comment.’ Are you kidding me? As somebody that’s handled disasters in Florida, you’ve got to be activated. You’ve got to be there. You’ve got to be present. You’ve got to be helping people who are doing this.”
Pushing back on the criticism the president received, a White House spokesperson told Fox News Digital last week that the Biden administration was using the “whole-of-government” to respond to the deadly fires, which included Biden mobilizing federal assistance from various departments and agencies.
“The Biden-Harris Administration has mobilized a robust whole-of-government response effort to support immediate and long-term rescue and recovery efforts in Maui, Hawaii,” the White House spokesperson said.
The statement continued: “Since the onset of the horrific fires in Maui, dozens of Federal departments and agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security through FEMA and the Coast Guard, the Department of Defense through the Navy and Army, the Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Small Business Administration (SBA) have been working with state and local partners on the ground to assess ongoing needs and providing resources and personnel to support response efforts.”
Despite the apparent halfhearted “no comment” remark, Biden responded “within hours” of Hawaii officials reporting the fire, according to a White House fact sheet.
“Last Thursday, within hours of the devastating fires, President Biden signed a Major Disaster Declaration for Hawaii, and as President Biden told [Hawaii] Governor Josh Green, the Federal Government stands ready to provide additional assistance to ensure the state recovers,” it said. “This weekend, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell and U.S. Small Business Administration Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman surveyed catastrophic damage on the island and hosted a local press conference to reiterate the Administration’s commitment to supporting impacted communities, however long it may take.”
Burnt areas in Lahaina on the Hawaii island of Maui are seen on Aug. 11, 2023. (Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources via AP)
There are also nearly 500 federal personnel deployed to Maui as well as the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy, who are supporting maritime search and rescue operations, and U.S. Army helicopters, who are supporting fire suppression efforts on the Big Island, the White House said.
Maui County released the names of 388 people still missing Thursday more than two weeks after the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century, and officials asked anyone who knows a person on the list to be safe to contact authorities.
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The number of confirmed dead after fires on Maui that destroyed the historic seaside community of Lahaina stands at 115, a figure the county said is expected to rise.
Fox News’ Jessica Chasmar and Lawrence Richard and The Associated Press contributed to this report.