Psaki tries to strike a new tone in the White House briefing room

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki walks out to brief reporters at the White House in Washington, on Inauguration Day, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. After the Trump White House's undisguised hostility toward reporters, President Joe Biden's press secretary promises to "share the truth, even when it's hard to hear."
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki walks out to brief reporters at the White House in Washington, on Inauguration Day, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. After the Trump White House's undisguised hostility toward reporters, President Joe Biden's press secretary promises to "share the truth, even when it's hard to hear." (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — Among the vexing personnel decisions Joe Biden faced after he was elected in November was who should be his White House press secretary — traditionally the most public-facing job in any administration — at a time when the concept of truth was up for debate.

It was not long before he started thinking about Jen Psaki, who had once been in contention for the job under President Barack Obama but had not worked on the Biden campaign.


Among the press jobs Psaki held in the Obama administration was as a spokesperson at the State Department, where she was comfortable delivering lengthy, policy-heavy briefings in a role often held by career foreign policy officials. And she was popular with Washington reporters.

“If you were creating a person to be Joe Biden’s press secretary in a laboratory,” said Dan Pfeiffer, who worked with her on the Obama press team, “it would probably be Jen Psaki.”


But it was unclear if she would accept the job. Although she was enlisted by two top Biden advisers, Jeff Zients and Anita Dunn, to help with the transition, she has two young children and was unsure of anything more permanent.

But Biden and his aides were persistent. After a postelection meeting with him and his wife, Jill Biden, in Delaware, Psaki, 42, accepted. What sold her, she said in an interview, was Biden’s personable approach to the job — he asked her about her family before outlining what he needed from the role.

“We talked about this moment in the country,” Psaki said, “and the tone that it was important to set. And the person who served in this role needed to be aligned with his thinking, but also his approach.”

Psaki (pronounced SOCK-ee) has come to the job at a difficult moment. She will be a critical player in reassuring Americans that the coronavirus pandemic can be soon defeated and in helping to restore the credibility of the White House with the news media and the public after four years of falsehoods and hostility from President Donald Trump and his aides.

“I knew there would be hard issues,” said Zients, who is now running the coronavirus response effort, “and I knew that she would be better at navigating them than anyone else.”

When Psaki took the podium Wednesday night in a highly unusual Inauguration Day appearance for an incoming press secretary, she was praised by Biden’s allies and some reporters for bringing a “normal” presence back to the role. Aware that a large percentage of Americans had just watched their version of “normal” leave the building, Psaki stayed away from that word and emphasized another: truth.

“If the president were standing here with me today, he would say he works for the American people,” Psaki said. “I work for him, so I also work for the American people, but his objective and his commitment is to bring transparency and truth back to government, to share the truth, even when it’s hard to hear.”

It was a striking departure from the message that had emanated from the Trump White House.

For a time, there was no message because one Trump press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, refused to hold any briefings. Another, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, would not answer when asked in the briefing room if she, like Trump, considered the news media enemies of the American people.

The principal spokesperson that a president installs is the face of the administration and tends to reflect who the president is as a leader. On the second day of the Trump administration, in 2017, Trump’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, channeled the anger of his boss on an elemental issue for the new president: crowd size.

It was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe,” Spicer lectured to a stunned press corps. It was a performance Spicer later conceded was a personal embarrassment, one he said he regretted.

“What Trump wanted was an extension of himself, which was somebody that would say what he hoped was true, not what was true,” said Robert Gibbs, Obama’s first press secretary. “Once the press secretary assumed that role, it closed off the briefing room as an effective vehicle to explain anything.”

It took only one briefing for Trump administration officials to start giving Psaki the kind of treatment they felt they had endured. One line of criticism on Thursday — an ironic one given that administration’s record — was that she had delivered the briefing without wearing a mask, and that Biden had appeared at the Lincoln Memorial without one on Wednesday night, even though the president was asking government employees to wear masks on federal land.

“If health and medical experts told me I should wear a mask while I was briefing, I would do it,” Psaki said in an interview. “But I am following the guidelines they are giving us, as is the president.”

At the top of her briefing on Thursday, Psaki immediately turned over the podium to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, who — after taking off his mask — said that working for Biden was “somewhat of a liberating feeling.”

So far, reporters have asked questions about the Senate’s coronavirus relief bill, Trump’s coming impeachment trial, Biden’s political future and even the Air Force One paint scheme. And, so far, Psaki dodged questions she did not want to answer and engaged on the ones she did. The takeaway: A calm press briefing void of personal insults and campaign-style videos is not necessarily a bad thing.

Psaki has promised daily briefings, save for weekends — “I’m not a monster,” she said on Wednesday — and a return of regular briefings with health professionals, which the Trump administration phased out as Trump lost interest in the fight against the coronavirus.

But Psaki told reporters in the briefing room that there would be moments of strain in the coming years.

“There will be times when we see things differently in this room,” she said. “That’s OK. That’s part of our democracy.” When asked how the Biden administration planned to combat a campaign of disinformation, Psaki said that one way to do so would be “accurate information and truth and data.”

As Psaki’s predecessors know, briefing room promises are easy to make and harder to keep. “I will never lie to you,” Kayleigh McEnany, Trump’s last press secretary, promised during her first briefing, finding that vow tested almost immediately.

Psaki is aware of the pressure, but she said Biden had been clear about his expectations: “If you mess up, I’ll tell you,” she said he had told her about the position. Psaki also said that she was working to not take questions from reporters or criticism from outside the building personally. (She has told her family not to look at Twitter.)

“I think that the important part is giving yourself the ability to say, ‘I’m a spoke and here’s the accurate information,’” Psaki said, using slang for her job. “The North Star for me is the president, and what he has conveyed very publicly is that’s how he’s going to approach things, as well.”

Psaki, a graduate of the College of William and Mary, was most recently a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank, and a paid contributor on CNN, a position she left in September. She does not see herself in the press secretary job for the long term.


She said on Thursday that she planned to stay at the White House for roughly a year, to get other aides ready for the podium.


“I think there frankly needs to be diverse spaces and voices as communicators,” Psaki said. “Women, certainly, but beyond that.”

c.2021 The New York Times Company

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