Reporters traveling with President Joe Biden to India for this week’s G20 summit won’t get the opportunity to lob questions to Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when the two leaders meet in New Delhi, despite multiple requests from the administration for more press access, the White House said Thursday evening.
“This meeting will be taking place at the prime minister’s residence, so, it is unusual in that respect – this is not your typical bilateral visit to India, with meetings taking place in the prime minister’s office and an entire program,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Thursday. “This is the host of the G20 hosting a significant number of leaders, doing so in his home, and he set out the protocols he set out.”
In a follow up exchange, Sullivan told reporters “of course,” the administration pushed for a pool spray of the meeting, as is customary when Biden hosts leaders at the White House, joking, “We spend our lives asking for pool sprays and other things” for reporters.
Modi, who has drawn international criticism from press freedom groups criticizing the Indian prime minister for a crackdown on independent reporting, has very rarely taken questions since assuming power.
During a state visit in June, Modi agreed to participate in a news conference at the White House after lengthy, delicate negotiations between the two sides. Indian officials initially balked at the White House’s insistence at holding one, two US officials familiar told CNN at the time.
The administration has been quick to point out the president’s willingness to criticize Modi on press freedom and humanitarian issues under his rule. During his visit in June, six Democratic lawmakers boycotted Modi’s address to Congress, with Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez citing India’s treatment of Muslim minorities in the country.
But Biden welcomed the Indian prime minister warmly to the White House, marking the occasion with a formal state dinner – only the third of his administration – for the controversial Indian leader, citing the two nations’ shared commitment to democracy.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Thursday the administration was “doing our darndest, doing our best” to ensure media access to the president during his travel to India for the summit.
A slew of officials, including Sullivan, White House communications director Ben LaBolt, deputy national security adviser Jon Finer, and deputy assistant to the president and coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell all contacted their Indian counterparts to argue for more press access during the visit – to no avail, apparently.
“We have reached out, we have made the request multiple times and at different pressure points, if you will – the NSC level, comms level, the folks on the ground who are doing a lot of hard work on the ground to make sure that this trip, not just for the president, for all of you, for all of us, is smooth,” she said. “And so, it’s been happening, we’ve been doing the work. I mean I would leave it to – I would leave it to the Indian government to speak for themselves.”
“Look, we are all trying to do our best, at the behest of the president, to get this done – and so we’re gonna keep working on it,” she added.
Instead of addressing reporters following the conclusion of the summit in New Delhi, Biden will hold a news conference in Vietnam, where the White House said it would be “easier” for the president to take questions from reporters.
“It was just logistically easier to do it – and it wouldn’t change anything, because it would have just been the president doing a solo press conference. So instead of doing it in India, he’s going to be doing it in Vietnam, that doesn’t change anything at all,” Jean-Pierre said.
Apart from Biden’s meeting with Modi, however, it’s unlikely there will be many formal engagements with world leaders while attending the G20 summit, Sullivan said.
“I can’t confirm any (bilateral meetings), and to be honest with you, I think you will not see, because of the way the schedule was structured, a significant number of formal engagements with other leaders,” he said. “I think most of the work that he’s going to do with a number of significant heads of state and government over the course of the 48 hours he’s in Delhi will be more informal, on the margins, not formal sit down bilats, so I don’t have any bilats to announce today.”