If not quite over, the honeymoon is starting to fade.
The touching romance between the Biden administration and the news media that cover it—which began with such ardor and emotional release on Jan. 20—has finally begun to cool down to the sort of businesslike, occasionally bickering liaison that is only to be expected of an arranged marriage between two hoary institutions of American democracy.
Four years after White House press secretary Sean Spicer devoted his first formal briefing to yelling at the assembled journalists about “deliberately false reporting” of the crowd size at Donald Trump’s inauguration—before storming off without taking questions—Joe Biden’s top spokesperson, Jen Psaki, stood at the podium for the first time and delivered a heartwarming tribute to “the role of a free and independent press in our democracy and for the role all of you play.”
“That has certainly been my perspective throughout my career, and my goal was to return to accuracy and transparency from the podium,” Psaki—a former Obama White House official and State Department spokesperson—told The Daily Beast on Friday, elaborating on her own inaugural address. “But also [to acknowledge that] there would be moments of disagreement, and that was part of democracy, right?”
The job of the White House press secretary—which encompasses being interrogated on live television on behalf of the president and the entire United States government on issues foreign and domestic, substantive and trivial—is by far the highest-profile role that the 42-year-old Psaki has played on the global stage.
Her every word, past and present, is now subject to intense scrutiny, as with her tweet last August mocking Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina as “Lady G,” a reference to the Washington-insider joke that the 65-year-old Graham is a closeted gay man (which he has steadfastly denied).
Right-wing media outlets and various Republican operatives especially have characterized Psaki’s tweet—prompted by Graham’s antagonistic grilling of former acting attorney general Sally Yates over her role in the Trump/Russia investigation—as “homophobic,” although The Advocate, a prominent gay publication, defended it in light of Graham’s public record of anti-LGBTQ policies and rhetoric.
“I don’t believe anyone should be spreading conspiracy theories or attacking public servants, and that’s what that tweet was about,” Psaki said in her first public comments on the flap. “I sent it six months ago, long before I was involved in the Biden White House [when she was an on-air commentator for CNN]. And I think anyone who’s known me for more than three minutes—which is not any of the people who are attacking me on Twitter—knows that I am a longtime, lifelong advocate—long before most people were—for LGBTQ rights in the community. But yes, it’s painful, and you try not to let some of this stuff bother you, but sometimes it does.”
Two-and-a-half weeks in, Psaki and the White House press operation are getting largely positive reviews from reporters on the beat, who, during the Trump presidency—even before the COVID-19 pandemic—had become accustomed to not having any briefings at all or even getting their emails answered. During her rare appearances in the briefing room, Trump’s fourth White House press secretary, Kaleigh McEnany, used the occasion mainly to launch personal attacks on reporters, praise Trump and spin falsehoods.
“It’s great to have a return to briefings and a useful exchange for reporters to get their questions answered,” said the Associated Press’s Zeke Miller, president of the White House Correspondents Association. “But it’s not just about the exchange of information; it’s about the potent symbol that that forum sends around the world, but also in Washington—that the government is not above taking questions from journalists. It’s an important principle that’s good to see.”
Ironically, given the bad blood between the 45th president and the press, it’s unlikely that Washington journalists will ever have the near-naked visibility into the machinations of Team Biden that they enjoyed with Trump and his often-warring minions.
“With Donald Trump, you always knew what was going on in the cortex of his brain, minute to minute, because he was tweeting it,” said Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty. “It is true that Biden himself is rarely seen except in kind of scripted settings. It’s not perhaps as transparent as it was, but it’s a lot more orderly.”
A veteran White House correspondent, who asked not to be further identified, said: “Jen Psaki is having daily briefings and she is actually letting people ask follow-up questions, and she’s not doing a little political speech at the end with a video on how awful the press is! There’s probably a natural human tendency to be, like, ‘Wow!’”
Making an implicit invidious comparison to the previous regime, CNN White House correspondent John Harwood tweeted: “Jen Psaki is a very disciplined briefer.”
Yet CBS 60 Minutes correspondent John Dickerson, who covered Bill Clinton and the second Bush White House for Time magazine, argued that the Biden White House is hardly doing anything extraordinary.
“The Biden team is just doing the expected things that they’re supposed to do, but because it’s such a departure from the previous administration, it seems like—actually it is—quite a hairpin turn,” said Dickerson, whose book about the American presidency, The Hardest Job in the World, is out next month with a new edition.
“The contrast with the Trump administration is huge in all kinds of different ways, not just stylistic,” Dickerson told The Daily Beast. “The basic agreement between those in public office and members of the press was constantly up for grabs and a matter of dispute in the Trump administration. They didn’t feel the obligation to perform the explanatory, informational role of the presidency and the executive branch. They would have briefings, but the briefings weren’t for the purpose of explaining, they were for the purpose of spinning the story.”
Indeed, during the previous administration, White House reporters were frequently left in the dark—sometimes for days—about what exactly was in many of the executive orders that Trump signed with his trusty Sharpie and then displayed during Oval Office photo ops. By contrast, when Biden signed several executive orders on the first day of his presidency, the White House press office not only provided reporters with the actual wording, they also included explanatory fact sheets.
“Fact sheets are back,” Psaki said. “We love facts sheets here. Making policy hip again is our goal.”
Over at the state department, the freshly confirmed secretary, Antony Blinken, gave diplomatic beat reporters a rousing endorsement of their work—noting that he, too, “started my career as a journalist” (in his case, as a columnist for the Harvard Crimson and an intern at The New Republic). “You keep the American people and the world informed about what we do here,” Blinken said—earning several grateful thank-yous from the state department press corps. “And you hold us accountable, ask tough questions, and that really does make us better.”
A current White House correspondent said a sense of relief among the press corps is only natural. “There’s this huge exhale when you have a secretary of state stand up and, first of all, do a press conference, which Mike Pompeo rarely did, and when he did do it he was just a total asshole,” this person said. “Now it’s kinda like, here’s Tony Blinken and he’s actually answering some questions and he’s not berating people for asking the questions!”
Not surprisingly—after Trump repeatedly branded working journalists “liars,” “scum,” “fake news” and worse—some of the post-Trump euphoria was bound to be excessive. Describing a display of lights at the Lincoln Memorial, CNN political director David Chalian claimed: “Those lights that are just shooting out from the Lincoln Memorial along the Reflecting Pool — it’s like almost extensions of Joe Biden’s arms embracing America.”
MSNBC political analyst John Heilemann was predictably derided by Breitbart News for this on-air description of the inauguration scene at the Capitol: “The sight of the Clintons and the Bushes and the Obamas, the Avengers, sort of the Marvel superheroes back up there together all in one place with their friend Joe Biden.”
John Dickerson, however, credibly denied reports in The Daily Mail and the New York Post that he had ever referred to Biden’s ascension as “America’s happy ending”—especially given the unfortunate double entendre.
“Exactly one of the reasons I never would have used that phrase!” he said. “I also don’t believe it substantively.”
At the White House on Day 2, meanwhile, Washington Post reporter Annie Linskey posed gauzy queries about the meaning of “unity”—formerly known as the standard student-election platform of every high school politician—not only to Psaki but also to President Biden. In its appeal to sweetness and light, if not substance, Linskey’s question was reminiscent of then-New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny’s ethereal challenge to Barack Obama at the beginning of that presidency: “What has… enchanted you the most about serving in this office?”
Unity and enchantment have notoriously brief half-lives in Washington. Less than a week after Linskey’s question in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, Psaki became visibly annoyed with Politico’s Anita Kumar when the longtime White House correspondent pushed her on why President Biden had not yet spoken to Chinese dictator Xi Jinping and whether it was the administration’s strategy to keep Xi at bay.
“I don’t appreciate the, like, putting words in my mouth,” Psaki snapped at Kumar—the equivalent of a hard hockey check that startled the reporter, who seemed only to be seeking clarification on what Psaki meant by “strategy.” (Kumar declined to comment.)
“People should know that I’m not gonna be a pushover up there,” Psaki told The Daily Beast. “And I’m not going to allow people to put words in my mouth or misconstrue what I said. And that exchange was, in part, because the reporter spat back, ‘well, this is what you’re saying,’ and I said, ‘that’s not what I’m saying.’ It’s important to be clear and concrete and very specific, because you’re still speaking on behalf of the government.”
The same day as that back and forth, The Daily Beast reported certain members of the White House press corps’ increasing discomfort and irritation with the Psaki team’s attempts to find out what individual correspondents planned to ask her at briefings. It’s an effort to provide the press with more complete answers at the televised briefing, according to defenders of the practice—or, in a more ominous interpretation, a way for Psaki to avoid questions she doesn’t like.
“I call on every person every day,” Psaki pointed out, noting that only 14 masked-up reporters attend each socially distanced briefing. “And that’s part of what I think the role is, too. It doesn’t matter what the political persuasion of the media outlet is.”
Indeed, since the presidential campaign, Fox News’ Peter Doocy has become a convenient foil for President Biden, who during a recent photo op answered Doocy’s perfectly legitimate question—what did he discuss on the phone with Vladimir Putin?—“You!” as he walked away. “He sends his best,” Biden added sarcastically.
But whenever Doocy has attended the briefing, Psaki has called on him.
“Our job is to provide information about a range of things and if somebody has a very unique and particular interest, I want to be able to say, ‘I went and talked to the person who’s an expert on Bangladesh, and here’s what they had to say.’ And I want to bring them to the briefing room,” Psaki said.
“But there’s a complete mischaracterization of what we do—which is be a resource to reporters before the briefing, after the briefing, at night, first thing in the morning, to try to explain, provide information, get a sense from them for what’s of interest, what aren’t we explaining well, what more information are you looking for, what expert are you looking to talk to?”
Psaki joked: “If I got a book of questions that were gonna be asked, that would sure make my job easier.”
As this tempest in a teapot blew up into a category-4 hurricane on Newsmax and Fox News, Politico media columnist Jack Shafer tweeted: “Happy to see that the Psaki honeymoon is over.”