In her first appearance as White House press secretary, a prim Jen Psaki pledged to tell the American people the truth "even when it's hard to hear." Her job, she explained, wasn't merely to relay the positions of the president and his administration but also to "rebuild trust" with "the American people." Restoring normalcy to White House press briefings, she suggested, was the first step toward restoring decency in a beleaguered nation.
Psaki's promise was difficult to square with reality. Joe Biden, her boss, had just run the least transparent campaign in modern American presidential history. Biden, whose propensity for fabulism and gaffe-laden streams of consciousness were now hampered by a struggle to string together coherent sentences, would need to be further insulated from the press as president. While Trump, no Cicero himself, would engage in wild and unruly press conferences with the media, Biden rarely takes unsanctioned questions — often, and, oddly, admitting that he has been told with whom he may speak. Because of this, Psaki would take on an even larger role.
The New York Times remarked that Psaki had "tamped down the vitriol that colored news briefings" during the Trump administration. White House press conferences have always been aggressively uninformative, but in recent years they had become virtually useless. The antagonism in the briefing rooms during the Trump era — deployed to various levels of effectiveness by Sean Spicer, Sarah Sanders, Stephanie Grisham (who never held a briefing in her nine months in the job), and Kayleigh McEnany — reflected the president's own feelings about media. Yet it is also true that the press's obsession with partisan-generated pseudo-scandals, such as Russian "collusion," took up most of their focus and manifested itself in more grandstanding than useful journalism. It was a corrosive, if symbiotic, relationship.
The central problem with the Trump-age political media wasn't the hyper-critical view of the administration or even the detestation of the man in charge. Journalists should never be comfortable with those in power. It's the fact that the media rarely employ a healthy skepticism or antagonism when Democrats are in power. Watching the treatment of press secretaries is one of the best ways to understand the asymmetry.
Media hosannas fell on Psaki as she took to the lectern. A Vogue profile — accompanied by Annie Leibovitz's pictures — noted that Psaki exhibited "a mixture of warmth, humor, intelligence, and edge." "I really should not be impressed with a calm, professional, and factual press briefing," marveled New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb, "but I am where I am." A Washingtonian profile noted that not only was half the country "smitten" by Psaki, but "a swath of the White House press corps sounds quite taken with how polite she is."
Psaki's ability to dunk on reporters — though on most days, the only reporter willing to challenge Psaki is Fox News's Peter Doocy — has also garnered the press secretary widespread accolades from left-wing social-media circles, where the hashtag #Psakibomb is often trending on Twitter. Admittedly, Psaki brushes off questions with an icy, surgical precision. It's no wonder that Axelrod calls her the best press secretary he's ever seen. "She's unflappable," Obama's former senior adviser said. "It's very easy under the glare of those lights and the intense questioning to buckle or to become ornery. She never does. As Biden would say, she has a steel rod for a spine."
Psaki cut her teeth in the Obama White House, where she served in various roles, from traveling press secretary during the 2008 campaign to chief spokeswoman for Secretary of State John Kerry, before becoming White House communications director. She had memorably spearheaded the puerile hashtag diplomacy of "#unitedforukraine" and functioned as the kind of drab D.C. propagandist who excels in the loyalty-driven partisan environment of Washington. "I would argue that Obama doesn't give himself enough credit for what he's done around the world" is the kind of thing she would say.
More notably, Psaki had been one of the bureaucrats deputized to enact Ben Rhodes's "echo chamber," in which the Obama administration manipulated young, pliable, and incurious journalists into spreading misinformation about a nuclear deal with Iran, one of the administration's highest priorities.
The Iran Deal media operation was many things, but none of them were "transparent." In one 2013 incident, for instance, Fox News investigative journalist James Rosen — a reporter whom the Obama Justice Department had spied on in 2010, collecting telephone records, perusing personal emails, and tracking movements — attempted to refer back to a video of an exchange he had with Psaki regarding secret negotiations between the Obama administration and the Islamist regime in Iran. He couldn't find it. In the conversation, Psaki had accidentally blown the administration's claim that it had not been negotiating with Iran, saying "there are times where diplomacy needs privacy in order to progress. This is a good example of that." (The conversation was somewhat reminiscent of Nixon's hapless press secretary Ron Ziegler, who, after being asked if American troops were preparing to invade Laos, famously answered, "The president is aware of what is going on in Southeast Asia. That is not to say anything is going on in Southeast Asia.")
An investigation soon found that eight minutes of tape had been deleted to protect the administration. Psaki risibly denied knowing anything about how her conversation — cut from a video in the department she was running — had miraculously disappeared.
"It's one thing not to release sensitive information," veteran reporter Wolf Blitzer said, confronting Psaki. "It's another thing to lie to the media and the public. Is it ever justified for a U.S. government spokesperson to lie to the American people?"
"A fundamental value I've always followed is not to," Psaki claimed.
In the real world, Psaki has a nearly sociopathic ability to mislead people. She lies all the time. She will lie about small things, like claiming that Biden's dog, Major, was not biting Secret Service officers. She will lie to placate Twitter mobs, as she did when she falsely contended recently that Border Patrol agents were "whipping" Haitian migrants at the border. And she definitely lies about the big things.
During the disastrous pullout from Afghanistan, in which perhaps a thousand American residents were left behind to deal with the Taliban, ISIS, and remnants of al-Qaeda, Psaki would indignantly claim that no Americans had been "stranded." She made this claim even as Pentagon spokesman John Kirby informed others in the media that Americans were, in fact, "stranded" in the nation, after the State Department warned green-card holders to "keep a low profile," after generals lamented the fact that not every American could get out, and even after reports of Americans being hunted by the Taliban hit the Internet.
Certainly Psaki isn't responsible for the professionalizing of the White House fib. Yet it's difficult to think of a press secretary who's done it with the same ruthless proficiency. The vast majority of the political press corps allows it to happen. The sometimes cloying and obsequious coverage of her is merely a symptom of underlying problems with political journalism.
Psaki, for instance, had, when a political commentator at CNN, referred to the never-married senator Lindsey Graham on Twitter as "#LadyG." This kind of homophobic jab would probably destroy the prospects of any Republican press secretary, but it barely made a dent in the news. CNN's Brian Stelter, who made his name warning about Trumpian attacks on democracy, kicked off an interview with Psaki by asking her what the press was getting "wrong" about the administration. The Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple noted that people were "blindsided by the return of competence and civility to the White House briefing room."
Journalists prefer mendacity to be curated, managed, liberal, and, above all things, civil. In that regard, Psaki is perfect for this town.