White House Briefings for Children: Jen Psaki Circles Back

The Biden administration’s first White House press secretary is keen that things will be done differently under her guidance. The jaw dropping, sniping sessions between the press and government that were characteristic of the Trump administration were going to cease. “When the President asked me to serve in this role,” Jen Psaki outlined in her first press briefing on January 20, 2021, “we talked about the importance of bringing truth and transparency back to the briefing room, and he asked me to ensure we are communicating about policies across the Biden-Harris administration and the work his team is doing every single day on behalf of all the American people.”

The press secretary’s job, in any traditional sense, is to dissemble, defend and justify the ill thought out or executed policies of the commander-in-chief. The briefing room is a place to stifle and shape rather than enlighten or inform. The new press secretary seems to think differently, she who is clear about “a common goal, which is sharing accurate information with the American people.”

Her January 20 briefing was tarted up by a deal of dangerous sincerity that marks the well-meaning ideologue. She reminded the press of having “travelled the world on trips to promote democracy, where I saw the power of the United States and, of course, the power of this podium, and the power of truth, and of the importance of setting an example of engagement and transparency.”

Drawing a line under the previous administration, she expressed cosy feelings about the fourth estate, having a “deep respect for the role of a free and independent press in our democracy and for the role all of you play.”

With the cringe worthy ingratiation out of the way, Psaki deployed a method that risks being an irritating hallmark of her tenure. Would the Biden administration, for instance, implement a death penalty moratorium? The answer: start with a general view of the President’s opposition to the death penalty but avoid details. “I don’t have anything more for you in terms of future actions or mechanisms, though. I can – I’ll circle back if there’s more I can share with you.”

On January 21, Psaki stroked away various questions with ever greater, circling vigour. To a question on whether the Defense Production Act had been invoked by the Biden administration she began with an expansive answer without actually answering the question, only to kill it off with a promise for future attention. “I’ll have to just circle back with you on what it – if it’s officially invoked in this moment, or if it takes some time. And we can circle back with you after the briefing.”

A question on whether President Biden would try to rein in religious conscious exemptions for such organisations as the Little Sisters of the Poor, a metaphorically airborne Psaki induced more giddiness. “I haven’t discussed that particular issue with him. I’m happy to circle back with you, but I don’t – there’s not a change in his position from what he said earlier this summer.” Ditto her reply to a question on whether the DC Statehood measure would find its way to the president’s desk within the first 100 days of the administration.

Psaki’s ascent is part of a waffling campaign beeping with promises of integrity, candour and commitment to accuracy. CNN’s Brian Stelter did not even bother concealing his political colours in praising the appointment. “Biden’s first day, and Psaki’s first day, sent a message that functional government is back.” Van Jones, also of the same news network, seemed overwhelmed by it all. “It’s just mesmerizing to watch a functional government doing functional government-type things.” He was astonished that there was a press conference to begin with, steered by a human, “and that person said words, and the words made sense, and somebody asked a question, and that person answered.” Presidential historian Michael Beschloss was grateful for the return of “civility and respect. What was old is new again.” He even gushed that it was “once again safe to let our children watch a White House briefing.”

Such banal commentary has served to avoid critiquing Psaki’s own shoddy performance, which has sought to single out the Trump administration for, to take one example, having no vaccine plan to speak of. When Trump critic and long standing director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, was asked if this was the case, he had to deny it. “We are certainly not starting from scratch because there is activity going on in the distribution.” The difference, rather, was in Biden “amplifying” pre-existing approaches.

To such questions as to why President Biden and his family were not masked at the Lincoln Memorial after he signed an executive order mandating the use of masks on federal property at all times, Psaki was ready with the spin. “I think, Steve, he was celebrating an evening of a historic day in our country. And certainly he signed the mask mandate because it’s a way to send a message to the American public about the importance of wearing masks, how it can save tens of thousands of lives.”

As to whether Biden’s conduct had been glaringly at odds with the executive order, Psaki suggested that, “we have big – bigger issues to worry about in time.” Transparency and accurate information evidently not being among them.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com