Fact check: Biden keeps repeating a false story about an Amtrak conductor he knew

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden repeated a vivid story he has been telling since at least his 2020 presidential campaign.

Biden’s story serves to illustrate both his connection with average workers and his fondness for Amtrak, the rail service he famously used for years to commute between Washington and his home state of Delaware. The story details a conversation he claims to have had with a particular Amtrak conductor as he was boarding a train as vice president.

But the story could not possibly be true — as some conservative media outlets pointed out after Biden told one version in late April.

Facts First: Biden was friends with the Amtrak conductor at the center of the story, Angelo Negri. But Negri had been dead for more than a year — and had been retired for more than two decades — before the earliest moment they could conceivably have had the supposed conversation Biden keeps describing.

Biden brought back the story about Negri during a Wisconsin speech he delivered on Tuesday to promote an infrastructure proposal from a bipartisan group of senators, which includes $66 billion in rail funding.

After pronouncing himself “Mr. Amtrak,” Biden said that “toward the end of my term” as vice president, “a headline came out in all of the papers” about how many miles he had flown on Air Force planes — 1.3 million miles or 1.7 million miles, he said.

As he was getting on an Amtrak train that Friday, Biden continued, Negri grabbed him affectionately by the cheek and said, “Joey, baby!”

Biden said he had been concerned Negri would be shot by the Secret Service, so he had assured agents that Negri was a friend. Then, he said, Negri scoffed that Biden’s number of miles traveled on Air Force planes was no “big deal” — because Negri and others had figured out that Biden had traveled a greater number of miles on Amtrak trains over his career in Washington.

Biden quoted Negri as saying: “At that retirement dinner, we calculated it.” He said Negri had explained the math, then concluded, “Joey, you traveled more on Amtrak.”

Biden’s account simply does not add up. Biden did not reach the million-miles-flown mark as vice president until September 2015, according to his own past comments. But Negri retired from Amtrak in 1993 and died in May 2014, according to an obituary published online and in the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey newspaper.

A real friendship

Negri’s stepdaughter, Olga Betz, said Wednesday that while she can’t confirm Biden’s story, she knows for certain that he and Negri were friends. Negri, she said, “adored” him and spoke of how he was “very thoughtful and personable with the conductors; knew them all by name.”

Betz said Biden often invited Negri and other Amtrak employees to his Senate office. And she said that when Negri retired in 1993 after decades working for rail companies, Biden hosted a party for him in the office — posing for photos with Negri while holding a cake that said, “Angelo Don’t Go.”

Betz also said that after Negri’s retirement, he would go to retirement dinners for other Amtrak employees and sometimes traveled to Washington, so he could have encountered Biden after 1993.

All that considered, it’s possible that Biden was misremembering the details of some real conversation he had with Negri prior to Negri’s death in 2014. Or Biden could have been mixing up Negri with another Amtrak conductor he spoke to in 2015 or 2016.

But the President has now named Negri in at least three inaccurate tellings of the story since October, sometimes delivering Negri’s supposed quotes in his interpretation of the man’s voice.

Another inaccurate version

The version of the story Biden told in April was slightly different from the version he told Tuesday. But that rendition, too, could not be correct.

In the April version, Biden claimed that the exchange with Negri had occurred during the “fourth or fifth year” of his vice presidency, which ran from early 2009 to early 2017. Again, Biden did not hit the million-miles-flown mark as vice president until he had been in the office for more than six-and-a-half years, at which point Negri was deceased.

There is yet another issue with the story. In both the April version and an October 2020 version — and less directly in the Tuesday version — Biden at least hinted that the encounter with Negri occurred when he was commuting to Delaware because his mother was dying. But Biden’s mother, Catherine Eugenia “Jean” Finnegan Biden, died in early 2010, more than five years before her son hit the million-miles-flown mark.

In addition, Biden was exaggerating at least slightly on Tuesday when he said there had been a “headline” in “all of the papers” about his travel as vice president. Multiple media outlets and journalists did at least passingly note Biden’s comments about reaching the 1 million mark and then reaching 1.1 million, 1.2 million and 1.3 million. And at least a couple of online publications published photo articles in 2016 that noted in their headlines that Biden had hit the 1 million mark. But while there might have been some headline in some newspaper, Biden hitting various travel thresholds was not widely treated by newspapers as headline news.

The White House declined to comment for this article. When White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked in early May about reports that Biden’s story was inaccurate, she said, “I haven’t seen that. But the President’s long history with Amtrak and appreciation for the hardworking employees is very well known.”