Karine Jean-Pierre and John Kirby Share an Uncomfortable White House Spotlight

On the day she was named the White House's first black and openly gay press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre said she hoped her appointment could inspire others who, like her, never imagined serving a preeminent role in political communication.

“I think it’s important that they see that,” she said in May 2022.

Americans see her less these days.

Since the Hamas terrorist attack on October 7, Ms. Jean-Pierre has ceded the limelight to a lower-ranking official, John F. Kirby. For months, Mr. Kirby regularly co-hosted her daily press briefings, often fielding more questions from reporters than she did, and appeared more frequently on major political news programs as a spokesperson for administration.

Mr. Kirby, 60, a retired Navy admiral who previously worked at the Pentagon and the State Department, is more versed in foreign affairs at a time of war in Ukraine and the Middle East. He demonstrates a clarity and comfort at the podium that can sometimes escape Ms. Jean-Pierre, 49, a more routine speaker with less experience facing a contradictory press.

The White House attributes Mr. Kirby's greater role to the whirlwind of international news and says he will make briefings less often once the crisis in the Middle East subsides. But the perception in Washington that President Biden allowed Mr. Kirby, who is white, to eclipse a black woman as the face of his White House has turned their double act into a third-way issue.

“I can't think of many topics I'd like to voice my opinion on less,” said one Biden supporter and Democratic strategist, who deemed the topic too politically and culturally sensitive to discuss with his name attached .

Many White House aides, Biden political allies and White House reporters interviewed for this article requested anonymity to address the difficult balancing act between Ms. Jean-Pierre and Mr. Kirby. Some said they did so in part to avoid giving ammunition to her vitriolic critics, such as right-wing provocateur Jordan Peterson, who explicitly linked Ms. Jean-Pierre's criticism to her race.

Through a spokesperson, Ms. Jean-Pierre and Mr. Kirby declined to be interviewed. Each released a statement praising the other. (Mr. Kirby: “It's a privilege to be in her company, to watch her work and learn from her.”) Jeff Zients, White House chief of staff, said Mr. Kirby was “deeply appreciated” and that Ms. Jean-Pierre “ably represents the president and his daily agenda”.

Administration officials noted that Ms. Jean-Pierre has appeared in various media outlets, including regional television networks, Black and Latino-focused platforms, print magazines and talk shows like “The View.”

“A lot of reporters in the briefing room focus on things like who had how much time in the briefing,” said Ben LaBolt, White House communications director. “I just don’t think that’s how the country consumes information.” I think they see Karine, they recognize her and they know her, and they are happy that the president has her by his side.

Yet there are inescapable signs that Mr. Biden – who faces a tough re-election campaign, low approval ratings and concerns among voters about his age and health – is came to rely more and more on people other than Ms. Jean-Pierre to sell its message to a skeptical population.

While Mr. Kirby traveled with Mr. Biden only internationally, he recently began accompanying the president on domestic flights, ensuring he can brief reporters even when they are not in Washington.

A spokesman for the White House counsel's office, Ian Sams, took center stage in a high-stakes televised press briefing on Friday after a special counsel report challenged Ms. .Biden. Mr. Sams answered 40 minutes of tough questions; Ms. Jean-Pierre, who spoke next, spent about half of that time at the lectern. Former press secretaries have deferred to specialized spokespeople on specialized issues such as investigations and national security; However, in general, they have not become fixtures on the White House lectern.

And Mr. Kirby's responsibilities are growing. On Sunday, he was promoted to a new position as National Security Communications Advisor at the White House, which puts him in charge of communications for all executive agencies involved in national security. Ms. Jean-Pierre remains press secretary, although Mr. Kirby will now serve alongside her as “assistant to the president,” the highest title on the West Wing staff.

Before his elevation, Mr. Kirby had privately acknowledged, when asked, that he would like to one day be named press secretary, and he expressed frustration that Ms. Jean-Pierre chose journalists who asked him questions. questions during briefings, according to several of those interviewed for this article. Ms. Jean-Pierre said she had no intention of leaving her job before the election. Some details of their private comments have already been reported by Axios.

The situation was delicate from the start.

When Mr. Biden, in early 2022, chose Ms. Jean-Pierre to succeed Jen Psaki, his first press secretary, he did so despite the reluctance of some senior aides who felt she needed more experience for that position, according to three people with knowledge of the dynamics inside the West Wing.

Ms. Jean-Pierre, daughter of Caribbean immigrants who grew up in Queens, served as Northeast political director in the Obama White House, chief of staff to Kamala Harris during the 2020 election, spokesperson for MoveOn .org and political analyst on MSNBC. A White House spokesperson said her experiences “were widely considered unique and important qualifications” for the press secretary role.

However, none of these positions involved a daily barrage of combative journalists in front of the cameras, the kind of challenge that requires mastery of a dizzying array of topics and the verbal reflexes of an auctioneer.

To complement Ms. Jean-Pierre, Mr. Biden elevated Mr. Kirby, then the Pentagon spokesperson, to a newly created position: coordinator of strategic communications for the National Security Council. The opaque title overshadows the fact that Mr Kirby, who impressed Mr Biden during the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, would share some tasks with Ms Jean-Pierre, such as briefing journalists on foreign affairs.

At a May 2022 reception on the Truman Balcony, held in honor of Ms. Psaki's departure, Mr. Biden was speaking with a group of aides when he tried to reassure Ms. Jean-Pierre not to worry about replacing Ms. Psaki, according to two people with direct knowledge of their exchange.

After all, Mr. Biden told him, “you will have an admiral looking over your shoulder.” The president's tone suggested he wanted to be encouraging, the people said, but the comment was resounding. (A White House spokesperson said the president did not make the remark.)

In the briefing room, Ms. Jean-Pierre had a few growing pains. She often relied on talking points from her briefing binder, and some reporters complained that she sometimes seemed out of the flow; an NPR reporter request whether she had lost some credibility after falsely stating that no classified documents were found during a search of Mr. Biden's home in Delaware.

Mr. Kirby began taking on a larger role in early 2023 when authorities identified a Chinese spy balloon floating over the Midwest and he became the face of the White House response.

Many journalists who cover the White House say Mr. Kirby can be more enlightening and approachable behind the scenes. Having worked in the military and government since the 1980s, he maintains close relationships with journalists; on trips abroad, he often ends the day with journalists at the hotel bar. (Administration officials said Ms. Jean-Pierre met daily with various journalists in her office.) recent briefing Aboard Air Force One, Mr. Kirby was finishing his portion and returning to the president's cabin when a reporter called him.

“Is he leaving?” » asked the journalist. “Admiral! Admiral!” Ms. Jean-Pierre summoned Mr. Kirby to conduct an investigation into Elon Musk's reported drug use, the kind of subject usually handled by a press secretary.

Brian Karem, a columnist for Salon who covers the White House, called it “unusual to have two people working in the press for one administration.” You can't have covered presidents since Reagan like I have without noticing that it's strange.

Still, Mr. Karem said he much preferred the current setup to the years under former President Donald J. Trump, whose press aides assaulted journalists and sometimes revoked their access. One of Trump's press secretaries, Stephanie Grisham, did not hold a single press briefing during her tenure. The Biden White House has reinstated the tradition of holding multiple briefings each week.

“It's certainly nice to have two people talking to us who will inform us,” Mr. Karem said, “rather than just one person at the podium insulting us, as was the case under the last administration .”

April Ryan, a correspondent for The Grio who has covered presidents since the Clinton administration, said she found rumors about Ms. Jean-Pierre sharing the spotlight with Mr. Kirby to be “disrespectful,” pointing to the lack of long-standing diversity in the world. briefing room.

“It’s a white male-dominated space, and I’ve had my share of mischief in this building,” said Ms. Ryan, who is black. “I am hypersensitive to disrespect towards black women, because I know what it looks and smells like.”

Ms. Ryan, who said she was friendly with both spokespeople, joked that she saw some irony in the White House's reliance on her to the audience. “Biden’s poll numbers have fallen in part because of foreign affairs,” she said.

For her part, Ms. Jean-Pierre was candid about the pressure that comes with the pioneering nature of her role. When she was appointed to this position, she told reporters that the importance of his promotion “did not escape me”.

“I understand how important it is to so many people, so many different communities, that I stand on their shoulders,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said. “I just appreciate this time and this moment, and I hope I make people proud.”

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