White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre’s performance at briefings has reportedly frustrated beat reporters — and some Biden administration officials — in a “rocky first month” since replacing MSNBC’s Jen Psaki in the key messaging role.
Her answers have baffled reporters, and even made some of her White House colleagues wince. She has increasingly found herself sharing the podium or splitting briefings with John Kirby, who has been taking the lead on foreign policy and at times appears to function as a co-press secretary.
She was unaware that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland had tested positive for Covid and didn’t know Biden had been with Haaland two days before at a Memorial Day event. “Oh, were they?” she said, to which the reporter pointedly noted pictures of the pair.
And when asked that day about the president telling Naval Academy graduates that he had been appointed to the academy in 1965 — a claim met with skepticism — Jean Pierre said: “I didn’t hear that part of the speech.”
Reporters were confused by her refusal to answer questions at a recent briefing about the last time the president had been tested for Covid-19, something her predecessor regularly disclosed. (He tested negative, senior officials later told NBC News.)
Press secretaries can’t possibly keep tabs on every story line so it’s not unusual for them to acknowledge when they don’t know the answer and pledge to find more information after the briefing.
But that has been a more common response for Jean-Pierre in her first weeks than her predecessor. In her first 10 briefings as press secretary, Jean-Pierre said she didn’t have the information being sought 20-plus times more than predecessor Jen Psaki in her first 10 briefings, according to a review of the transcripts by West Wing Playbook.
And while White House reporters love to complain about non-answers from communications officials, many have privately grumbled that when Jean-Pierre does have answers, they are often vague and rarely stray from the pre-written talking points prepared in the binder at the podium.
“At a certain point it wouldn’t surprise me if people started voting with their feet,” one White House reporter told POLITICO, predicting the lack of news from the briefings could result in waning attendance of reporters.
“She is so focused on not making a mistake that she doesn’t let herself speak freely,” another reporter said. “A lot of her responses end up becoming… it appears that she’s reading from a page.”
Some Biden officials leaped to Jean-Pierre’s defense — with some allies and black communications officials in the White House’s orbit purportedly alleging that the administration “has set her up to fail” through Kirby’s frequent presence at briefings.
Deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates defended Jean-Pierre’s handling of the role thus far.
“She’s here precisely because of her respect for the indispensable role of the free press in our democracy,” Bates said in a statement.
“She is proud of her briefings — which often run longer than the modern average and have included multiple Saturday gaggles. She loves the back-and-forth with the White House press corps, and her door is always open for any feedback its members are interested in giving directly,” Bates added.
Another White House official told the outlet that reporters “would grumble regardless of who is at the podium and find ways of critiquing those individuals.”