Back to ‘normality’? How Jen Psaki’s first week compares to Trump’s press secretaries

Former state department spokesperson praised as much for what she is not doing at podium

Andrew Buncombe
Washington DC
Friday 29 January 2021 12:37
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki holds briefing
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It has been a pretty good few days for Jen Psaki.

On her very first outing as Joe Biden’sWhite Housepress secretary, her very first question was one that could only be described in the parlance as “a softball”.

“Do you see your primary role as promoting the interests of the president,” she was asked by a reporter for the Associated Press. “Or are you there to provide us the unvarnished truth, so that we can share that with the American people?”

The 42-year-old, who previously served as a spokesperson in Barack Obama’s state department, barely paused before responding. She said she had travelled the world on the government’s dime to “promote democracy”, and seen “the power of this podium, and the power of truth, and the importance of setting an example of engagement and transparency”.

She added: “So I will just state - because you gave me the opportunity - I have deep respect for the role of a free and independent press in our democracy and for the role all of you play.”

Not all the questions she has received in ten days or so she has been in the job were that simple. At the same time, Sean Spicer never had such an easier opener. 

Equally, so Spicer’s first interaction with the press corps was not to answer questions, but to read out a statement condemning media coverage of the size of the crowds at Donald Trump’s inauguration.

“At a time when our nation and the world was watching the peaceful transition of power and, as the president said, the transition and the balance of power from Washington to the citizens of the United States, some members of the media were engaged in deliberately false reporting,” said the stern-faced Spicer, very much aware his boss was watching.

The assessment of Psaki by most of the people who interact with her as reporters, squeezed inside the White House briefing room named for Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, the late James Brady, grievously injured in the 1981 assassination attempt on the president, appears largely favourable. So too, has that of the pundit class who pontificate abut her on television.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki holds press briefing

She has appeared friendly but not fawning, smart but not smug. She has provided a fixed amount of information on various topics, and vowed to get back to people if she does not have an answer. Veteran correspondents enjoyed the fact she asked the first question of a wire agency - a long-held tradition of such briefings - and vowed to hold one every day. Biden has also broken new ground by deciding a sign language signer be present for every briefing.

She also impressed by bringing experts or senior administration into the briefing room, such as Dr Anthony Fauci, Brian Deese, Director of the National Economic Council, and John Kerry, and just letting them talk.

Yet, much of the gushing about Psaki by Democrats and progressives - the activist Amy Siskind wrote on Twitter she had wept while watching that first briefing on the day Biden was inaugurated - has been less about what Psaki is, but what she is not.

Unlike Spicer, and unlike the Trump press secretaries who followed -  Anthony Scaramucci, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Stephanie Grisham, and Kayleigh Mcenany - Psaki has not yet had to go and bend the facts in favour of the the president. She is not like Kellyanne Conway, the president’s tireless adviser who added to the lexicon with her insistence on “alternative facts”.

Most of all she is not like Donald Trump himself, caught telling falsehoods so many times over the course of his four years - The Washington Postput its total at 30,573 - it appeared unclear whether he truly believed what he was saying.

While Psaki may deserve her honeymoon period, it is unlikely it will last long. She has already faced much more challenging questions, from the likes of a Fox News reporter Peter Doocy, who confronted her over Biden’s previous claim that Trump’s covid-related travel ban on China was “xenophobic”, despite Biden then introducing his own travel ban for South Africa.

“I don't think that's quite a fair articulation,” she said. “The president has been clear that he felt the Muslim ban was xenophobic. He overturned the Muslim ban. He also, though, has supported steps, travel restrictions, in order to keep the American people safe, to ensure that we are getting the pandemic under control.”

And several commentators have pointed out while it is good for the press to have a professional relationship with the government’s top spokesperson, it benefits nobody for that relation to be overly warm.

While it may be a novelty for Psaki to be promising to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, it is important to remember, other presidents have had “traditional” press secretaries, many of whom have had sometimes tense relationships with reporters, especially over controversial topics.

Writing in the Atlantic this week, Adam Serwer said Trump lied in a different way from previous presidents.

Yet he said it was likely the Biden administration would also find ways to mislead the media and the public, and the press needed to be alert to it. (As it happened, Post fact-checkers this week awarded their first “three Pinocchios” rating to Biden since he became president, indicating “significant factual error”, to his claim that foreign company contracts went up 30 per cent under Trump.)

“Presidential lies were destructive long before Trump appeared,” said Serwer.  “So the press and the public should resist the temptation to assume that the Biden administration will always be on the level, or that its dishonesties can be forgiven because Biden's predecessor wielded falsehood with such abandon.”

He said Biden’s team has already "sought to mislead the public by setting expectations for vaccinations that experts have said are too modest - which will allow the president to declare his approach a great success if the goal is exceeded”.

He aded: “Biden will lie. All presidents do.”

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