A spot in the official presidential delegation to visit the Vatican is always a highly sought position. Presidents typically bring along both policy aides and members of their team who are Catholic, for whom a meeting would bring deep personal meaning.
Among those who joined Biden on Friday were Secretary of State Antony Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, senior adviser Mike Donilon, personal aide Annie Tomasini, the first lady’s adviser Anthony Bernal and Dr. Kevin O’Connor, Biden’s official physician.
Presidents typically travel with their official doctor overseas, but they aren’t usually included in official engagements. Biden chose O’Connor for the White House doctor position when he was inaugurated in January, and the two men have a long history.
He served as Biden’s physician while vice president. He is a retired US Army colonel who served in the 82nd Airborne Division, the 75th Ranger Regiment, and the United States Army Special Operations Command.
Introducing him to Pope Francis on Friday, Biden explained O’Connor’s credentials.
“He is my doctor. They assign me a doctor,” Biden said, as Francis nodded.
After he introduced Tomasini — who has worked for Biden for years as one of his closest personal aides — he joked the Pope “just made me a hero.”
Presidential delegations to meet the Pope have sometimes turned contentious. In 2017, when then-President Donald Trump was visiting the Vatican on his first trip abroad, he left off his press secretary Sean Spicer, a move widely viewed as a snub.
CNN reported at the time that Spicer fumed to colleagues after being excluded from the President’s meeting with Pope Francis. He was eagerly anticipating meeting the Pope, but discovered at the last minute that he was not on the shortlist of White House officials selected to join the President for the private audience.
He did meet the Pope eventually when he traveled to Rome with a group of legislators and politicians.