The next Jen Psaki? Who is Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s Covid stand-in auditioning at the press podium

Biden’s deputy campaign manager meets the press this week as Jen Psaki, sidelined by Covid, eyes a cable news deal, John Bowden writes

Friday 01 April 2022 15:40
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<p>White House communications director Kate Bedingfield makes her daily press briefing debut</p>

White House communications director Kate Bedingfield makes her daily press briefing debut

Kate Bedingfield’s debut in the White House press briefing room this week came under unlikely circumstances – the benching of two of her colleagues due to Covid-19. But her high-profile appearances could lead to greater visibility for Joe Biden’s longtime comms director.

“I know I am not the redhead you’re accustomed to seeing at this podium, but I hope you will hang with me nonetheless,” Ms Bedingfield, joked to reporters at her first briefing on Tuesday.

The lighthearted quip would have been unremarkable in a void. But it continues to mark a drastic departure from the chaotic Trump White House briefings, whose first impressions were made by Sean Spicer, who famously battled reporters’ assertions of reality at his tumultuous first appearance. Later, communications director Anthony Scaramucci pursued his own New York-flavoured style at the podium for a few days before being ousted after an expletive-laden tirade at a journalist.

Now, Ms Bedingfield has given her third White House press briefing in as many days, and with Puck News reporting that Ms Psaki may hang up her White House badge by the end of 2022, it’s becoming clear that the appearances are having the effect, even if wholly unintentional, of serving as Ms Bedingfield’s audition for the job. Ms Psaki has been eyeing a cable news contract, and her mostly likely destination is seen as MSNBC.

The 40-year-old Ms Bedingfield is a veteran of Joe Biden’s inner circle and first joined the president’s team the last time Mr Biden was in the White House. In 2015, she joined the then-vice president as his communications director, after originally serving a lesser role on the Obama White House media team and leaving government for a brief stint at the Motion Picture Association of America. Before that, she worked on the ill-fated 2008 presidential campaign of John Edwards.

Ms Psaki, by contrast, cut her teeth as principal press secretary for the State Department before taking on the White House communications director role Ms Bedingfield has now back in 2015 under President Obama, the same year Ms Bedingfield joined Mr Biden’s team.

In 2013, Ms Bedingfield married David Kieve, who would go on to work on climate policy for the 2020 Biden campaign and later in the White House. Mr Kieve’s resignation alongside another member of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality drew alarms from the environmentalist community, who warn that the administration has made little progress on work to lessen the impact of climate change.

Ms Bedingfield has now been a key member of Mr Biden’s political circle for nearly a decade and was tapped as his deputy campaign manager behind only Jen O’Malley Dillon for the 2020 cycle, when Mr Biden prevailed not only against Donald Trump but a crowded field of Democratic rivals. During the campaign, Ms Bedingfield was a frequent fixture on cable news, and became a recognisable spokesperson for Mr Biden’s team.

She isn’t the only one who could potentially be selected as the next White House press secretary, to be clear – her most clear competition comes in the form of Karine Jean-Pierre, the principal deputy press secretary and most commonly the top choice for the team if Ms Psaki is unavailable for daily briefings. Ms Jean-Pierre would be the first Black woman to serve as the chief White House press secretary, and already made history as the first Black woman to deliver a briefing in decades when she did so last year.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and Communications Director Kate Bedingfield wait for President Joe Biden to deliver remarks on 13 May, 2021

So far, Ms Bedingfield’s briefings have lacked the fireworks resulting from clashes between Ms Psaki and right-leaning reporters like Fox News’ Peter Doocy — a phenomenon observable in many of Karine Jean-Pierre’s briefings as well — but that could change if one or both of the Biden aides take on a more prominent public image. Her most memorable moment so far was her quick shutdown of a question about the “slap heard ‘round the world”, Will Smith’s smack on the face of comedian Chris Rock onstage at the Academy Awards.

There are a handful of others who could potentially serve as plausible successors to Ms Psaki, like the State Department’s Ned Price or even, according to Politico Playbook, a journalist or first lady Dr Jill Biden’s comms director, Elizabeth Alexander. But with the departure of Vice President Kamala Harris’s principal press secretary Symone Sanders, long considered a potential candidate for the top spot, at the end of 2021, it has become clear that Ms Bedingfield and Ms Jean-Pierre are the two top contenders.

Karine Jean-Pierre

The Independent reached out to the White House and Ms Bedingfield for comment on this story; neither responded immediately. The Biden administration has been tight-lipped about personnel changes, and far less prone to leaks from the communications team than was the last administration.

Donald Trump famously churned through press secretaries while in office and even saw one deputy press secretary resign in protest among a wave of fleeing officials in the wake of the January 6 attack.

Ms Psaki entered her 15th month on the job on Friday, a marathon stretch by the former administration’s standards, and publicly has not made any comments about her plans.

Two sources familiar with the matter told Axios she is in fact in exclusive talks with MSNBC - but no contracts have been signed yet. The sources said Ms Psaki is working closely with the White House counsel’s office on the legal and ethical terms of her departure.

She said last week that she planned to return to the office after a five-day isolation period at home and a negative Covid-19 test result, but the White House has not yet said when she will return to the briefing room.

The diagnosis is her second Covid-positive experience since joining the Biden White House; she was previously sidelined in late October due to the virus and returned to the podium 12 days later.

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