White House press secretary Jen Psaki takes questions during a press briefing on April 4.
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Jen Psaki leaves the White House having held more press briefings than all of her Trump predecessors combined.
An expert on White House communications said this illustrates the differences between Trump and Biden.
Psaki said her goal was to re-establish a “tone of respect” in the briefing room.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki leaves her post on Friday having held more formal press briefings in the past 15 months than former President Donald Trump’s press secretaries held in four years, a sign that the tradition that once faced an uncertain future has been restored to its usual prominence.
“We were following an administration that did not do daily press briefings,” Psaki said during an event hosted by the Christian Science Monitor on Thursday. “It should be that this is a forum for people to ask difficult questions Monday through Friday.”
Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project, has kept meticulous records of the press briefings. Psaki has held 224 briefings as of Friday compared to the 205 formal briefings held by Trump’s press secretaries, according to Kumar’s tally.
Trump had four press secretaries during his single term: Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Stephanie Grisham, and Kayleigh McEnany. Grisham held the title for eight months but didn’t conduct a single on-record press briefing in the role.
By some other measures, Trump was more open than other presidents to taking questions from reporters himself. In a report marking Biden’s first year in office, the Committee to Protect Journalists largely praised his approach to the press, but also noted that many journalists wanted more access to the president directly.
According to Kumar’s count, Biden had done just 22 interviews with the media by the end of 2021 — a fraction of Trump (92) and President Barack Obama’s (150) respective outreach during their first year in office.
“Trump felt that he was his press secretary and communications director,” Kumar, who has attended press briefings since President Gerald Ford’s administration, told Insider. “That was the way that he operated. The briefings were not important to him.”
President Donald Trump speaks with reporters on Air Force One on October 19, 2020.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images
Trump vs. Biden era
The Biden White House has repeatedly defended the president against characterizations that he’s inaccessible to the press. Psaki has pointed to the fact that Biden routinely engages in informal gaggles and takes impromptu questions after speeches.
“I think that’s more of an issue related to the White House press corps,” Psaki told Politico in November, “than it is of concern to the American public.”
In terms of formal briefings with reporters, Biden’s record in his first year outpaced Trump’s, according to data compiled by the University of California Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project. Biden held a total of six solo press conference in 2021, compared to only one Trump held in 2017, signaling Biden’s adherence to tradition versus Trump’s inclination to deviate from it and engage with the press on his own terms.
During their time in the White House, Trump’s press secretaries defended their failure to hold regular briefings.
“I always think if you can hear directly from the president and the press has a chance to ask the president of the United States questions directly, that’s infinitely better than talking to me,” Sanders said in 2018.
Grisham offered that Trump was “his own best spokesperson.”
“To be honest, the briefings have become a lot of theatre,” she told Fox News in 2019. “And I think that a lot of reporters were doing it to get famous. They’re writing books now. They’re all getting famous off of this presidency, and so I think it’s great what we’re doing now.”
Yet despite Trump’s readiness to speak with the media, the relationship was marked by hostility. The former president would regularly attack journalists and undermine the role of the press, labeling news organizations “the enemy of the people” and “Fake News” when they ran stories and asked questions that he disliked.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki (R) speaks flanked by current Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre during a press briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on May 5, 2022.
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Psaki’s final day
Following the Trump years, Psaki said she sought to restore a sense of normalcy to the briefing room.
Her goal in the public-facing job was to “re-establish the briefing room as a place where there is information shared” and set a “tone of respect,” she said at the Christian Science Monitor event on Thursday.
Psaki added that the Biden White House prioritized regular press briefings to ensure that the American people and the rest of the world understood that “we value the role of the press, we value the role of debate” and of “democracy.”
A seasoned communications official, Psaki also reflected on her experience as the president’s top spokesperson in an era of heightened media distrust among Americans.
“No one should do this job if they don’t enjoy the back-and-forth of the press because it would be a very terrible existence,” she said. “I do enjoy it, and I learn something every day.”
Psaki grew emotional on Friday during her final press briefing, expressing her appreciation toward the president and first lady Jill Biden for entrusting her with the role.
“As I look back, I hope I followed the example of integrity and grace that they have set for all of us,” Psaki said on Friday, “and I’m incredibly grateful to them.”
The 34th White House press secretary also thanked her colleagues, and the reporters in the briefing room for “the work everyday you do to make this country stronger.”
Psaki has not yet announced her next job, but has reportedly secured a gig at MSNBC. Karine Jean-Pierre, Biden’s deputy press secretary, will replace her. Jean-Pierre will make history as the first Black and openly gay person to serve as White House press secretary.
Psaki said her advice to her successor, Jean-Pierre, along with any future press secretary, is to learn the president’s thinking on issues and to deeply understand the policy matters at hand.
“You are a spokesperson for him, and he is incredibly accessible,” Psaki said of Biden on Thursday. “I have found that I can ask him any question I want to ask him. And that I think is the service you are providing to the media and the press, and frankly, to the public.”
Politics, News, jen psaki, White House, Joe Biden, Sean Spicer, Stephanie Grisham, Sarah Huckabee Sanders
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