WASHINGTON — President Biden looked in the audience on Wednesday for Representative Jackie Walorski, Republican of Indiana, during a White House conference on ending hunger, apparently forgetting that Ms. Walorski had died last month.
“Jackie, are you here? Where’s Jackie?” Mr. Biden said as he thanked lawmakers who had sponsored legislation on the hunger issue. The president appeared to be confused at her absence and said something under his breath about whether she had planned to be at the event.
In fact, Ms. Walorski was killed on Aug. 3 in a car accident in her district, along with two of her congressional aides, when a vehicle she was in collided head-on with another. The driver of the oncoming car was also killed.
Mr. Biden did not correct himself during the remarks, but the incident quickly went viral on Twitter and other social media platforms, with some people seizing on the moment as evidence that Mr. Biden, who is 79, lacks the mental capacity to be president.
The president’s political opponents have been pushing that attack since he took office. White House officials have consistently rejected the charge, saying Mr. Biden remains intellectually engaged and sharp.
The Biden Presidency
With midterm elections approaching, here’s where President Biden stands.
- Defending Democracy: President Biden’s drive to buttress democracy at home and abroad has taken on more urgency by the persistent power of China, Russia and former President Donald J. Trump.
- A Tricky Message: Even as he condemns Trumpism, Mr. Biden has taken pains to show that he understands that not all Republicans are what he calls extremist “MAGA Republicans.”
- On the Campaign Trail: Fresh off a series of legislative victories, Mr. Biden is back campaigning. But his low approval ratings could complicate his efforts to help Democrats in the midterm elections.
- Questions About 2024: Mr. Biden has said he plans to run for a second term, but at 79, his age has become an uncomfortable issue.
After Ms. Walorski’s death last month, the White House put out a statement in Mr. Biden’s name saying that the president and the first lady were “shocked and saddened” by her death. The statement, just hours after the crash, said that “my team and I appreciated her partnership as we plan for a historic White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health this fall that will be marked by her deep care for the needs of rural America.”
It was at that conference on Wednesday that Mr. Biden appeared to believe that she was in attendance.
After the president’s remarks, Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, refused to acknowledge that Mr. Biden had misspoken or that he had forgotten that Ms. Walorski had died.
Instead, Ms. Jean-Pierre repeatedly said that the congresswoman was “top of mind” for Mr. Biden because he was honoring lawmakers who had worked on the hunger issue.
She said Mr. Biden was not only aware of Ms. Walorski’s death, but that he was also looking forward to meeting with her family when he signs legislation to name an Indiana veterans health facility in her name.
“The president was naming the congressional champions on this issue and was acknowledging her incredible work,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said. “He had already planned to welcome the congresswoman’s family to the White House on Friday — they will be at a bill signing in her honor this coming Friday. So of course, she was on his mind. She was top of mind for the president.”
Reporters asked repeatedly why Mr. Biden would appear to look for Ms. Walorski in the audience if her death was “top of mind” and he was thinking of the upcoming meeting with her family.
“The confusing part is, why, if she and the family is top of mind, does the president think that she’s living and in the room?” one reporter asked.
“I don’t find that confusing,” Ms. Jean-Pierre responded. “I mean, I think many people can speak to: Sometimes when you have someone top of mind, they are top of mind, exactly that.”
Ms. Jean-Pierre appeared to get frustrated by the repeated questions about Mr. Biden’s remarks. Asked whether there was something written in the teleprompter that confused the president during his remarks, she said that was not the case.
“You’re jumping to a lot of conclusions,” she said to the reporter. “I just answered the question. If that had been the case, I would have stated that.”
Ms. Jean-Pierre said she did not see the need to distribute the president’s remarks as they were prepared ahead of delivery, saying, “I’m not understanding why that would be necessary.”
At the end of her daily briefing, Ms. Jean-Pierre gave her final answer to the question.
“I’ve answered it multiple times already in this room, and my answer is certainly not going to change,” she said. “All of you may have views on how I’m answering it, but I am answering the question to the way that he saw it. And the way that we see it.”