Bully Pulpit No More: Jen Psaki’s Turn at the Lectern

WASHINGTON — Jen Psaki, President Biden’s press secretary, may be the most prominent spokeswoman in American politics, but political fame hits different in the post-Trump era.

The daily White House briefing, once a highly rated staple of daytime TV, rarely appears anymore on cable news. Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, two former Trump press secretaries, became B-list celebrities; after nine months on the job, Ms. Psaki has not even rated an impersonation on “Saturday Night Live.”

But a cult of Psaki has proliferated online, where clips of her restrained, if occasionally withering exchanges with reporters have established this once obscure political strategist as an unlikely cultural force. Her retorts earn “yas queen” praise from liberals, while conservatives jeer her attempts at spin, particularly over the past month, when the confluence of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, extreme weather and coronavirus confusion meant the questions were more pointed and the answers more scrutinized.

Ms. Psaki, 42, a veteran communications operative who was twice passed over for the top job under her previous boss, former President Barack Obama, is an unlikely avatar for the smack-down-happy, we-have-no-choice-but-to-stan culture of modern social media. A onetime competitive swimmer who grew up with a Republican father in Greenwich, Conn., she was until this past year barely recognized beyond the Beltway in-crowd, who knew her as a capable technocrat type with deep ties to Democratic leadership.

Now the hashtag #jenpsaki has 139 million views on TikTok, and its pun of a cousin, #psakibomb (the P in Psaki is silent — get it?), has racked up more than 13 million. She posed for Annie Leibovitz in Vogue magazine and answered questions on the N.P.R. show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” Olivia Rodrigo stood next to her for a briefing. Her exchanges with a regular foil, the Fox News correspondent Peter Doocy, often get memed.

As the TikTok user “fabiantiktoks30sclub” put it, in a clip with 65,000 likes: “Yassss queen jen psaki let the clown doocey have it!!”

Another moment caught fire online this month, as Texas was passing a law that effectively banned abortion in the state. A reporter from a Catholic news service pressed Ms. Psaki on why Mr. Biden, a Catholic, supported abortion rights.

“He believes that it’s up to a woman to make those decisions with her doctor,” Ms. Psaki replied. “I know you’ve never faced those choices. Nor have you ever been pregnant, but for women out there who have faced those choices, this is an incredibly difficult thing.”

Crisp and precise in her answers, even if she does not always respond directly to a reporter’s questions, Ms. Psaki, in her speaking style, is a contrast to Mr. Biden and his circuitous folksiness. In interviews, Washington correspondents often used the word “professional” — high praise in D.C. — to describe interactions with her, deeming her straightforward, detail-dense briefings a relief after an era when Mr. Trump’s press secretaries repeatedly insulted, denigrated and frequently ignored journalists.

‘I Promised Snacks’

To be fair, the bar may be rather low.

“It’s a breath of fresh air to not have people personally attacked on a regular basis,” said April Ryan, a correspondent for The Grio who has covered White House press briefings since the 1990s and received her own share of vitriol from the Trump administration.

But even Mr. Doocy, whose own profile has been raised by his tough questions to Ms. Psaki, offered generous words.

“It never feels like I’m getting smacked down or vice versa,” Mr. Doocy said in an interview, during which he expressed respect for Ms. Psaki’s professionalism and good humor about their frequent contretemps. “I understand why it looks like that, some of the ways that stuff gets clipped, but it doesn’t feel like that in the room.”

He said he appreciates her personal side, too. “When I got back from my wedding,” Mr. Doocy recalled, “she made a point to tell everybody in the briefing room that I just got married. That’s a transcript I can print out and show to my kids one day.”

(Lest one think that moment of Fox-Biden comity penetrated the partisan mists, consider that the website Mediaite rendered their exchange as: “Jen Psaki Sweetly Congratulates Fox News Reporter for Getting Married — Then Cruelly Destroys His Innocent Questions.”)

Mr. Trump’s final press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, held infrequent briefings, inadvertently exposed reporters to the coronavirus and was fond of insulting her interlocutors. She once rebuked the CNN correspondent Kaitlan Collins during a televised briefing by sneering from the lectern, “I don’t call on activists.”

Ms. Psaki, who declined to comment on the record for this article, has tried to maintain a more functional relationship with the press corps. In July, she led the briefing room in an impromptu “Happy Birthday” song for Steve Holland, a Reuters reporter. Another time, she brought chocolate chip cookies baked by her mother-in-law. (“I promised snacks,” she told the press corps.)

She grew up in various neighborhoods in and around Greenwich, although Ms. Psaki describes her family as hailing from a less affluent background than that gilded locale suggests. Her mother, a psychotherapist, is socially liberal. Her father, a local real estate developer who once filed for bankruptcy, voted for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush; he switched parties after his daughter went to work for Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign.

As a child, Ms. Psaki admired Barbara Walters, although her parents throttled her television time, offering up episodes of “20/20” as rewards for good behavior. She graduated from Greenwich High School — alma mater of another famed White House press aide, the former Trump communications director Hope Hicks — and attended the College of William & Mary in Virginia, where she served as president of the Chi Omega sorority.

Visitors to Ms. Psaki’s office will find a copy of the classic newspaper article “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” hanging on a wall — “a reminder to believe in magical things,” Ms. Psaki tells friends. She keeps a makeup and hair kit beside her overstuffed, color-coded leather briefing book, a West Wing equivalent to George Costanza’s bulging wallet.

A New York Times crossword puzzle from 2017, which featured her name in a clue, “___ Psaki, White House communications director under Obama,” is framed above the fireplace. (That puzzle appeared on a Friday, the second hardest of the week; her name popped up again in a Sunday puzzle — the widest circulated — this past February, perhaps a sign of growing recognition.) Near the crossword is a photograph of Mr. Obama on his hands and knees in the Oval Office with her daughter, then an infant. ­

It was under Mr. Obama that Ms. Psaki rose to prominence, serving as traveling press secretary for his 2008 campaign, becoming chief spokeswoman for Secretary of State John Kerry, and eventually being named the White House communications director.

Still, she was twice passed over for press secretary — first in 2011 for Jay Carney, then in 2014 for Josh Earnest — an experience that Ms. Psaki recently said left her “devastated.”

“It was a tough moment in the administration,” Robert Gibbs, Mr. Obama’s first press secretary and a mentor of Ms. Psaki, said of the decision to go with Mr. Carney. “They probably just thought she was a little too young to handle some of that.”

David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s senior strategist, recalled: “There was a recognition that she was incredibly talented, but a feeling that she could get more seasoning doing a stint at State.” Now, he says, “Jen is as good as anyone I have seen in all the years I’ve been watching this stuff.”

Ms. Psaki has her own take. “I’m sort of, like, always a bridesmaid, and finally a bride,” she told Mr. Axelrod on a podcast this spring.

Back to the Beltway

She prepared for her current job through a series of practice briefings held over Zoom last December and January, with Mr. Gibbs and the former Obama press aide Eric Schultz impersonating reporters. “I was the one who tried to be like the biggest jerk or whatever,” Mr. Gibbs said, though he declined to specify which White House correspondent inspired his performance. “You want to get pushed the most and see what happens.”

Mr. Gibbs and others said that Ms. Psaki was most concerned with restoring normalcy to the press briefing, a Washington ritual whose credibility was eroded in the Trump years. Stephanie Grisham, one of Mr. Trump’s press secretaries, did not hold a single briefing. Her predecessor, Ms. Huckabee Sanders, urged Americans to watch a right-wing propaganda video “whether it’s accurate or not” and fabricated an anecdote about F.B.I. agents.

It was unusual, and highly deliberate, when Ms. Psaki staged her first formal briefing hours after Mr. Biden’s inauguration. Among her first words at the lectern was a pledge to tell the truth “even when it’s hard to hear.”

Not surprisingly, she has her share of detractors, especially on the right.

“I walked into the lion’s den every day — she walks into a bunch of kittens,” Sean Spicer, Mr. Trump’s first press secretary and now the 6 p.m. anchor on Newsmax, said in an interview.

Mr. Spicer often complains that White House correspondents who aggressively questioned the Trump administration now give Mr. Biden a free pass. (The correspondents disagree.) He also expressed displeasure over what he perceived to be a grievous insult on Ms. Psaki’s part. Speaking about why Trump loyalists were asked to resign from the board of the United States Military Academy, she told reporters, “I will let others evaluate whether they think Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer and others were qualified.”

“Jen chose to stand and question my qualifications and services to this country. Once she did that, the gloves were off,” Mr. Spicer said. (In 2017, when Mr. Spicer was roundly criticized for referring to Nazi death camps as “Holocaust centers,” Ms. Psaki was more magnanimous. “It’s a really tough job, everybody screws up,” she said on CNN at the time.)

Mr. Biden has urged Ms. Psaki to eschew acronyms and other governmental jargon, once chastising her for using the corporate term “R & D” — research and development — in a response. Unlike Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden does not usually watch briefings in real time, but he is known to catch snippets on cable news during the day when he has gaps in his schedule.

She has also conceded some missteps, like an early outing in which she seemed to lightly mock the Space Force, the new military branch created by President Trump. She now keeps a Space Force pin at her desk as a reminder of the impact of her words. (Absent from her office is the traditional flak jacket passed down cheekily among White House press secretaries; it apparently went missing in January.)

Mr. Biden is no one’s idea of a careful public speaker. (As Mr. Axelrod once put it, “He is not a precision instrument.”) Ms. Psaki’s primary task is to interpret and in some cases clean up his comments for the record, a responsibility that has been even tougher in recent weeks.

Rahm Emanuel, who worked with Ms. Psaki on Democratic campaigns and recommended her to the Obama team, said he texted Ronald Klain, Mr. Biden’s chief of staff, on the day her appointment was announced. “I said you’re going to count your blessings, in the days to come, that you made this decision,” he said. “You’re not going to have to worry about what goes on in that room.”

Mr. Emanuel said he played a role in Ms. Psaki’s personal life, too. He likes to take credit for nudging her future husband, Gregory Mecher, another Democratic aide, to ask her out on the campaign trail. (He later referred to himself as Mr. Mecher’s “wing man.”) The couple was married in 2010 under a mulberry tree at a Maryland estate; guests included Mr. Gibbs and the correspondent Jake Tapper.

They and their two children live in the Washington suburbs, not far from one of Ms. Psaki’s sisters, Stephanie, a senior adviser at the Department of Health and Human Services. Their families formed a pod amid the pandemic, and on Fridays she tries to leave the West Wing by 5:15 p.m. for a group pizza night. (Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Biden is not known for, say, firing his chief of staff as an end-of-week news dump and forcing his aides to scramble on a Friday evening.)

Ms. Psaki’s current internet stardom is a far cry from a darker moment of online infamy she endured earlier in her career, which friends say she now credits for giving her tough skin.

In the early 2010s, while serving as Mr. Kerry’s press secretary, Ms. Psaki’s name and likeness became the subject of a widespread anti-American campaign on Russian state TV. A leading pro-Kremlin propagandist, Dmitry Kiselyov, used his television program to coin the verb “Psaki-ing”: meaning an American who is confused and unable to understand basic information about world affairs.

It was a bewildering experience for Ms. Psaki, whose face was plastered across Russian propaganda outlets, to the extent that when her prospective job in the Biden administration was announced, some Russian news outlets wrote stories about it. “And so, Psaki returns,” one article read. “Carry popcorn.” In June, after he met President Biden for a summit in Geneva, Vladimir Putin described Ms. Psaki as “a young, educated and beautiful woman” who “gets things confused all the time.”

Some complaints from domestic critics are less about mental acuity and more about her approach to the briefings. “Rehearsed, scripted and boring,” Charlie Spiering, the White House correspondent for Breitbart News, wrote in an email.

For Ms. Psaki and her allies — who know the power of a certain bury-them-in-facts tedium — this may be more feature than bug. “You guys can be an ornery bunch, you know,” Mr. Axelrod said of the reporters who cover the White House. “She commands respect.”

Oleg Matsnev and Kitty Bennett contributed reporting.

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