Eleven days after President Biden drew criticism for appearing to brush off a query about the deadly wildfires in Hawaii with a “no comment,” a White House spokeswoman said on Thursday that the president never heard the question.
Olivia Dalton, the deputy White House press secretary, made the clarification in response to a question from The New York Times. The White House has battled accusations that its response to the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century has not been fast or forceful enough, and the controversy over Mr. Biden’s remark gained new life on Wednesday as it became a Republican attack line in front of millions of viewers at the G.O.P. presidential debate.
On Aug. 13, just days after an inferno scorched the historic town of Lahaina on the island of Maui, one of the reporters traveling with the president on vacation in Rehoboth Beach, Del., shouted the question about his reaction to the rising death toll while Mr. Biden was entering a vehicle.
“He didn’t hear the question,” Ms. Dalton said. “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.”
To critics, Mr. Biden’s remark seemed unusually insensitive for a president who prides himself on empathy, and emblematic of what they see as a muted response in the days immediately after the fire. For days, the White House defended the president’s response to the wildfires without publicly addressing the apparent misunderstanding, even as the death toll climbed to 115, with more than 1,000 still missing.
Republicans, especially those who are seeking to unseat Mr. Biden, have seized on the comments as evidence of his dereliction of duty. Former President Donald J. Trump, the leading contender for the Republican nomination, put out a video statement the day after Mr. Biden’s reported remarks.
“To say ‘no comment’ is oftentimes fine, but to be smiling when you say it, especially against such a tragedy as this, is absolutely horrible and unacceptable,” Mr. Trump said.
During the Republican primary debate on Wednesday night, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida used Mr. Biden’s response to deflect questions posed by the moderator about climate change.
“Biden was on the beach while those people were suffering,” Mr. 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.”
Mr. Biden broke away from his vacation in Lake Tahoe to visit Maui on Monday, where he was praised by local leaders for a swift federal response. But the frustrations of at least some residents were still raw.
Among the crowds that lined the scorched streets of Lahaina as Mr. Biden’s motorcade drove through were people holding signs with messages such as “Lahaina needs relief now.” At least one simply said: “No comment.”