ABC’s Jonathan Karl takes Joe Biden's “bridge” comments wildly out of context

Karl’s report on Biden’s agenda is riddled with misinformation and Republican messaging -- and the quotation of Biden’s “bridge” remark is flat-out dishonest

ABC News’ chief Washington correspondent Jonathan Karl on Sunday attacked President Joe Biden’s policy initiatives as extreme -- even as they remain broadly popular with the American public. Karl was so short of evidence for this claim that he had to resort to taking a statement from Biden in March 2020 out of context.

Less than 100 days into Biden’s presidency, his two major initiatives -- the COVID-19 relief package signed into law and the jobs and infrastructure proposal still making its way through Congress -- are overwhelmingly popular with the American people.

But ABC News is apparently more interested in ginning up controversy, as it led This Week on April 11 with a report from Karl attacking Biden’s agenda, complaining that he was “aiming to be a transformational president” in contrast to what he promised during the campaign.

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Citation From the April 11, 2021, edition of ABC News' This Week

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (HOST): Good morning and welcome to This Week. Eighty-one days ago, President Biden promised to attack the pandemic and its economic fallout with speed and urgency. The relief package has passed, nearly a quarter of the country fully vaccinated, more than 4.6 million doses yesterday alone, and the economy is coming back. The task now: addressing America's long-term challenges. With Congress and the country still divided, the degree of difficulty is high. Our roundtable ready to take stock of where things stand as we near Biden's 100-day mark. Chief Washington correspondent Jon Karl starts us off.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We choose hope over fear, truth over lies and, yes, unity over division.


JONATHAN KARL (CORRESPONDENT): During his campaign, Joe Biden offered himself as a candidate of unity and moderation, somebody who would work with Republicans, even suggesting he'd be a transitional president.


BIDEN: Look, I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else.


KARL: Nearly three months in, President Biden has blazed a different path, aiming to be a transformational president, acting to erase his predecessor's legacy and using his narrow Democratic majority to ram through the biggest expansion of government since LBJ.


BIDEN: We need to remember that government isn't some foreign force in a distant capital. No, it's us.


KARL: At first, Biden did reach out, at least symbolically. The very first members of Congress he invited to the Oval Office were 10 Senate Republicans. He invited them to talk about a bipartisan COVID relief bill. But Republicans weren't willing to go anywhere near as big as Biden wanted.


SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): I would predict that not a single Republican will support the $1.9 trillion plan.


KARL: So he signed the most expensive bill by far ever to pass Congress without a single vote from the opposition party.


BIDEN: This will do more to end child poverty in America than anything we've ever done.


KARL: Biden is now trying to go even bigger, proposing what would be the biggest public works program ever and big tax increases on corporations and the wealthy to pay for it. He's selling it as an infrastructure plan, but it's more, including big investments in roads, bridges, airports, and high-speed rail, but also a coast-to-coast network of electric vehicle charging stations, broadband for rural areas, replacing 100% of lead pipes in the country, and $400 billion to care for the elderly and people with disabilities. Once again, he says he wants to work with Republicans.


BIDEN: I'm going to bring Republicans to the White House.


KARL: But Republican leaders are now in a position of all-out opposition.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): This is a bold left-wing administration. I don't think they have a mandate to do what they're doing.


KARL: Even those 10 moderates who came to the White House last time around are digging in, responding this week to Biden's invitation by saying that the White House used their last talks to, quote, “justify its go-it-alone strategy." And Republicans are finding it can pay off to be the party of no in the face of a big progressive agenda. Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy boasting this week he raised more than $27 million in the first quarter of 2021, more than any House Republican has ever raised in a single quarter.

Still hanging over the Republicans: Donald Trump slowly emerging from his exile in Mar-a-Lago, still clinging to the lie that the election was stolen from him -- and even so, the most in-demand endorsement by far for Republicans running in 2022.

All that explains why Biden may want to and may need to bypass Republicans. But then the real challenge could be among Democrats. Joe Manchin of deep-red West Virginia, who knows just how powerful he can be in a 50-50 Senate, took his stand in an op-ed this week, saying Democrats, quote, “must avoid the temptation to abandon our Republican colleagues." So as the clock ticks down to Biden's first 100 days in office, at least one voice in the party is saying not so fast. Republicans may not be willing to deal, but as long as Joe Manchin is holding out, Biden will have no choice but to try.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Thanks to Jon Karl, for that.

Karl’s evidence is lacking.

To start with, many if not all of the elements of Biden’s jobs and infrastructure plan mirror the proposal put forth on his campaign website in 2020. An earlier page on infrastructure also mentioned many of these details explicitly, including ones that Karl finds controversial. Not only did Karl not mention these plans, but his analysis also makes the existence of such plans and proposals irrelevant: Karl privileges Republican messaging on infrastructure and lets it alone set the grounds for debate.

Secondly, Karl conflates unity with bipartisanship in Congress and pretends that Republicans being “the party of no” is a new thing. In reality, it was a plan hatched literally on the night of President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009; the difference now is that the Biden administration and other Democrats are confronting that GOP strategy head-on. You wouldn’t know any of that from Karl’s report.

Third, Karl erases the real widespread support for Biden’s policies. Around 72% of Americans approve of the COVID-19 relief law, according to one poll; another puts the support for the law at 75%. These numbers are virtually unheard of for legislation these days.

Similarly, the jobs and infrastructure proposal, titled the American Jobs Plan, is widely popular.


Multiple polls have shown broad support for the plan.


But to Karl, this unifying policy doesn’t count because it’s not what Karl (and Republicans) interpret as unity. Karl’s idea of unity is moderation -- but he never clarifies what he means by moderate; in his telling, just because Biden’s plans cost a certain amount, they cannot be moderate (even though progressive Democrats want to spend far more).

Fourth, Karl eliminates the context of climate change from these proposals entirely; while not surprising given the horrendous records of Sunday political shows and ABC News in particular on covering the climate crisis, it is horrifying to have a discussion of modern infrastructure without taking into account the crisis that is constantly challenging America’s existing and crumbling infrastructure.

Fifth, if Karl was the one drinking water from lead pipes, I doubt he would be on national network television portraying a plan to replace them as controversial. But privileged, well-to-do people like Karl are not the ones dealing with that. We know that utilities are less likely to replace those lead pipes in low-income communities of color.

But in terms of dishonesty, all of this misinformation pales in comparison to the worst moment of Karl’s report: His quotation of Biden saying that he would be a transitional president. In reality, Biden was saying that he would be a transition from his generation of Democrats to ones like then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) with whom Biden was sharing the stage at the time.

Watch for yourself:

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Citation From C-SPAN coverage of a March 9, 2020, Biden speech in Detroit, Michigan

JOE BIDEN: Folks, future generations are watching. In the years to come, they're going to look back and look back at this moment, and they're going to say when it mattered most, what did they do? What did they do? Did they save our democracy or are they part of the problem? And now at this moment, when there's so much fear in this country, so much fear in this country, when we have a circumstance where, in fact, American leadership is called into question, we need honest, trusted, truthful, reassuring leadership.

And look -- and that's what, if I'm given the honor of being president, I promise you I will provide to the nation.

So folks, it's time for America to get back up and once again fight for the proposition that we hold these truths self-evident, that fight for the notion that America has to lead the world and lead Americans to this new place in this new generation. Look, I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else. There's an entire generation of leaders you saw stand behind me. They are the future of this country.

They're the people who are going to -- look, when I announced my candidacy in Philadelphia and I said that I wanted to do it in Philadelphia, where the declaration and where the Constitution were first unveiled and furled, I said I wanted to do it because although we've never lived up to those aspirations, we've never before walked away from them. We've never before walked away from it. And folks, I believe with every fiber of my being that we have the capacity, every single generation saying this president, every single president has moved that arc of inclusion wider and wider and wider and wider. We can't let it shut down. The days of Donald Trump's divisiveness are soon going to be over. And when he's gone, when he's gone, we'll come back, get back on the road to building that more perfect union.


This remark was widely reported on at the time in the proper context. John Verhovek, who covered the campaign for ABC News, even tweeted it in that context:

It’s unclear how this remark acknowledging Biden’s role within the party has anything to do with how much Biden’s infrastructure plan would cost -- and Karl never says.

Karl has been criticized previously for laundering right-wing talking points; he has participated in right-wing events, called Donald Trump a “pro-gay rights” candidate in 2016, and apologized in 2012 for botching a report on Benghazi.