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Wednesday, January 25, 2023

OPINION:

Being a White House press secretary is like joining an elite club.

There have been only 35 official press secretaries in history, with President Herbert Hoover picking George Akerson — a journalist — as the first White House press secretary in 1929.


But let’s talk about that 35th one. Is Karine Jean-Pierre the worst press secretary to ever hold the post? She’s making a strong case for the title.

Sure, there was Sean Spicer. He was pretty terrible. And then there was Anthony Scaramucci, who flamed out in just days.

But in all my years of covering the White House and reading the news (my first job was as a delivery boy for The Washington Post in the early 1970s, when I used to sit on the sewer lid and read the latest stories about Watergate), I’ve never seen a press secretary quite this bad.

First, she usually appears with a “special guest,” some government official who takes questions. The reason: Less time for her to actually take questions. The briefings often take about an hour, so if the guest takes 30 minutes, Ms. Jean-Pierre has to hold court for only half an hour.

Second, she always carries a big book with all of the things she’s supposed to say — and she looks at it nonstop, even on the simplest of questions (“Does the sun rise in the east?” [Pause. Checks book. “Yes.”) The White House press team has put together talking points on nearly every conceivable topic that might come up, but I’ve never seen a press secretary go to the book as often as Ms. Jean-Pierre does.

And third, she doesn’t answer even the most basic questions.

There was a perfect example of this last week. Reporters have rightly been asking tons of questions about the classified documents found in President Biden’s garage. Still, KJP is deflecting them all, referring them to the Department of Justice or the White House counsel’s office (and I know from covering the White House for years that when you call them, they say, “Call the White House”).

So one reporter tried to ask a simple question, not about the documents but about whether the White House has taken action to make sure classified documents don’t show up in a pile next to the president’s Corvette.

“Just to be clear, my question is about procedures here at the White House and not about anything specific related to the DOJ investigation,” the reporter said. “So I’m just wondering how this episode has prompted a review of the process in which staffers handle classified information and how they are turned over to National Archives during a transition.”

“And to be clear,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said, “I’m going to refer you to my colleagues at the White House counsel’s office. They will be able to address that particular question. I’m just not going to address something that is even related to an ongoing legal process.”

Other reporters noted that DOJ and the counsel’s office aren’t answering questions. Karen Travers of ABC News, a White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) board member, told Ms. Jean-Pierre: “There was a formal request from the WHCA to have [White House special counsel] Richard Sauber come to the briefing and take questions. Would you commit to having the White House counsel come here and take questions?”

“That is something that I would refer you to the White House counsel’s office,” Ms. Jean-Pierre responded, noting that he had held one 45-minute conference call so far. “They have been engaged with all of you.”

Jacqui Heinrich of Fox News, another WHCA board member, pointed out that Ms. Jean-Pierre keeps referring reporters to places that offer no answers.

“Since so many of our questions have been referred to the DOJ and to the White House counsel’s office, I’m sure you can understand that we’re in sort of an information blackout,” Ms. Heinrich told Ms. Jean-Pierre. “DOJ refers us to the special counsel. They’re not holding any briefings. The White House counsel refers us to DOJ. So if you are not able to talk about this from the podium, would you invite a DOJ official to take our questions here?”

“No,” Ms. Jean-Pierre replied flatly.

For this, Ms. Jean-Pierre gets paid $180,000 a year.

One of the better White House spokespeople, Joe Lockhart, who worked under former President Bill Clinton, once defined what it means to be a press secretary.

“Your main job is to advocate for the press within the government,” he told The Washington Post in 2020. “You have to make sure that the information going out to the American public and to the world is accurate and complete.”

Ms. Jean-Pierre does none of that. Fire her and find someone who does.

• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at josephcurl@gmail.com and on Twitter @josephcurl.


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