‘Fiery’ Psaki ending tenure as a top White House messenger
WASHINGTON — Jen Psaki had been White House press secretary less than two weeks when a reporter asked whether Twitter's ban of Donald Trump had made President Joe Biden's life easier.
“We don’t spend a lot of time talking about or thinking about President Trump here," she responded, then added for emphasis: “Former President Trump.”
It was an early indication of what was to come with this press secretary. Her briefings were professional and typically congenial, but could turn pointed in a hurry. The sessions were informative but generally lacked the drama to draw big ratings on cable television.
Psaki, whose last day on the job is Friday, has answered reporters' questions nearly every weekday of the almost 500 days that Biden has been in office. That makes her a top White House communicator and perhaps the administration's most public faceafter only the president and Vice President Kamala Harris. Her departure could complicate how Biden's message gets out at a critical time for him, at least in the short term.
“Anybody with a brain would want her to stay because she’s so good," said Martha Joynt Kumar, a political science professor emerita at Towson University and director of the White House Transition Project, a nonpartisan group that tries to help streamline the transfer of power from one administration to the next.
Succeeding Psaki is Karine Jean-Pierre, the first Black woman and openly LGBTQ person to be White House press secretary. She takes over as the administration is navigating inflation and Russia’s war with Ukraine, and as the Democratic Party is bracing for a November election losses that could erase its control of Congress.
The White House says Jean-Pierre, who has been Psaki's chief deputy, will bring strong personal expertise and personality to the briefing room. She knows Biden well and has been a longtime adviser.
“I’ve had the honor of working with many White House press secretaries and no one has done the job as well as Jen Psaki," White House chief of staff Ron Klain, a veteran of the Obama and Clinton administrations, said in a statement. "I will miss her terribly as a colleague and friend, but I know we are in great hands with Karine following her lead.”
Psaki has not denied reports she is heading to MSBNC, where on-air personalities are mostly sympathetic to Biden and where Jean-Pierre herself is a former analyst. Such a move will do little to alter perceptions of Psaki on the left or right. Democrats see her as a champion of their causes; conservatives says she is standoffish.
Groups cheering Psaki are common across social media, including #Psakibomb, which has more than 22 million views on TikTok. Psaki’s sisters wore sweatshirts with the slogan during family Zoom calls, though it was more about gently poking fun at their sibling than making a political statement
But Psaki angered Republicans by likening the party's supporters who adhere to Trump's fabrications about the 2020 election to “silent lemmings. ” When she quipped early in her tenure that she did not know who at the White House could answer questions about Space Force, House Republicans said she was belittling a new branch of the armed services that is working to counter Chinese threats.
More recently, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a former Trump press secretary now running for Arkansas governor, said Psaki's failure to urge people to stop protesting outside the homes of judges represented “mind-boggling hypocrisy." A New York Post columnist called Psaki “the condescending face of the Biden administration.”
Colleagues say Psaki is an encouraging and selfless office leader who digs deep into policy, seeking an understanding that goes far beyond talking points. Psaki begins her mornings writing long, sometimes predawn emails to her staff, laying out what news is likely to drive the day. She later holds pre-briefing prep sessions, which are often long enough to be interrupted by other meetings, where White House press staffers assigned to track different issues talk about major themes in their areas.
“At the end of the day, she is a policy wonk," said Jeff Zients, Biden's former COVID-19 response coordinator. He called her a “once in a generation talent” adept in both policy and communication.
“She is intellectually curious, she asks the right questions and doesn’t stop asking questions until she’s satisfied that she’s gotten to the bottom of the issue,” he said.
A 43-year-old native of Stamford, Connecticut, Psaki is the mother of children ages 6 and 4. She served as State Department spokesperson as well as deputy press secretary and deputy White House communications director under President Barack Obama. Facing reporters mere hours after Biden was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2021, Psaki stressed the importance of “bringing truth and transparency back to the briefing room.”
Trump went through four press secretaries, including Stephanie Grisham who never held a briefing, and her successor, Kayleigh McEnany, who was fond of lecturing the media and simultaneously served as a campaign adviser. Trump preferred to engage directly with the public, through rallies and tweets before he was banned from that social media platform. He also sometimes held his own briefings and routinely spread falsehoods while openly antagonizing reporters.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said the job of press secretary has “been done well both on the right and the left” and requires respecting the media while answering questions in ways that provide real information.
She said Psaki had a "facticity to her work that is characteristic of good press secretaries and it presupposes confidence. It presupposes access to the president. It presupposes an understanding of what the administration’s position is that proves to be true.”
Psaki, who got COVID-19 twice while on the job, showed that striking a balance between transparency and advancing the administration's message could sometimes mean literally keeping her balance. While aboard Air Force One, she sometimes stood in the aisle taking reporters' questions right through landing.
“She made it clear that the press has a fundamental role in our democracy and even the most exasperating people in the press corps must be treated with dignity if not always with respect,” Mike McCurry, who was press secretary under President Bill Clinton, said of Psaki via email. “That’s a lasting legacy.”
Robert Gibbs, who was Obama's press secretary and helped coach Psaki before she took on the role, said she had resurrected the White House briefing room as “beneficial for democracy” after “it was dead” under Trump. Gibbs also noted that Biden has largely shunned sit-down media interviews, making his press secretary especially important.
“I think she was remarkably effective spokesperson for a White House that is probably more dependent on its spokespeople than the few most previous White Houses,” Gibbs said.
Psaki's office referred questions to other White House staffers who could discuss her tenure. But she recently told Fox News Channel's “MediaBuzz,” “I’m an Irish lass in my heart."
“Sometimes I get a little fiery in there," Psaki said. "But on most days, my hope and my objective is to not make it a gotcha moment and to make it a place where we are providing information, getting accurate information to the public through the press, through tough questions, through debate.”