Since the story of President Joe Biden and his possession of classified documents from the Obama administration first broke, the most scrutinized job has been that of White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
“As it related to an ongoing legal matter, I am going to refer you to the DOJ,” Jean-Pierre told frustrated reporters. “As it relates to anything you want to ask of us about this legal matter, I would refer you to the White House counsel’s office. I’m going to leave it there. I’m not going to go into it further.”
This line has not endeared Jean-Pierre to the reporters in the briefing room, disrupting what has often been a cordial atmosphere. Discrepancies between the few details shared in the daily briefings and later announcements from the Biden legal team have raised questions about her credibility.
“I understand that there’s a tension between protecting and safeguarding the integrity of an ongoing investigation with providing information publicly appropriate with that,” Ian Sams, a spokesman for the White House counsel’s office, told reporters about incomplete information that had been released in the past.
“The White House press corps has become increasingly dissatisfied with the press secretary since she has aerobically tried to force the lion’s share of document-scandal questions to the president’s legal counsel, whether they comment or not,” Tim Graham of the conservative Media Research Center told the Washington Examiner. “A scandal of this magnitude seems to be beyond her limited abilities.”
“KJP is in over her head,” Republican strategist John Feehery said. “Everybody knows it. She is not a traditional press secretary. She is not there to impart information. She is there to give the media the Biden talking points.”
The complaints aren’t limited to conservative circles. “She is arguably the least effective White House press secretary of the television era,” a White House reporter told CNN, specifically making exceptions for spokespeople for former President Donald Trump.
How the White House views Jean-Pierre’s performance is unclear. After the briefings got ugly, principal deputy press secretary Oliva Dalton did one gaggle aboard Air Force One. National Security Council coordinator John Kirby joined a briefing later that week, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm another on Monday.
Guests are not uncommon at the briefings, but they tend to field questions germane to their policy portfolios. They will be asked less about the documents, if at all. They also eat up briefing time.
“Some have wondered if she will last if this crisis deepens,” Graham said. “She already leans into help from spokesman John Kirby, who’s presumed to be more of an expert on national security matters.”
The White House has also held at least two calls for reporters with Sams from the counsel’s office. Those have been more detailed, but they are also more controlled events than the more freewheeling briefings.
“Democrats probably wish at a time like this that they still had [former White House press secretary] Jen Psaki fending off the scandal questions,” Graham said. “Instead, Jean-Pierre seems stuck in her notebook reading the same nonanswers over and over.”
Psaki praised the first Sams call, in which Republicans’ concern over Biden’s documents problem was concentrated with their response to Trump’s, as a “reflection of their recognition they need to be on more aggressive footing after last week” and the fact that “the best defense is a strong offense.”
The disclosure that former Vice President Mike Pence was also in possession of sensitive government documents could allow the White House to present this as a more systemic problem and frame Republican criticism as politically opportunistic.
Jean-Pierre’s defenders note that three powerful white men appear to have mishandled classified documents and it is the job of the first black woman to serve as White House press secretary that may be in jeopardy. “None of this is her fault,” a Democratic operative said.
Answering questions about issues under federal investigation has always been a challenge for the White House.
“We established a procedure for reporters to take questions about investigations to a separate location,” Mike McCurry, a former White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton, told the Washington Examiner. “The theory was: ‘You have special investigative reporters working on these issues; we will have a special team appointed to work with you on the answers you need.’”
“This was mostly about campaign finance issues, Chinese generals at the WH, etc., etc.,” he added. “Less about Monica [Lewinsky], which came later.”
Anything outside the normal briefing process still had to satisfy reporters’ requests for information.
“Lanny Davis and then later Jim Kennedy and Chris Lehane worked to go through things like WH visitor logs, ‘hot documents’ as we called them, and they met with reporters assigned to those stories,” McCurry said. “So when it came up at a WH press briefing, I could say, ‘Go see Mr. Davis’ (or then ‘Kennedy’ or ‘Lehane’), and that would put the inquiry where real info would be provided.”
Not everyone was satisfied. The Media Research Center’s Graham said that during Clinton’s scandals, his press secretaries “seemed to keep themselves out of the loop on purpose.”
“I still had my ‘moments’ when asked at the briefings,” McCurry said. “But I believe it helped lower the temperature in the briefing room.”
The temperature was lower at Tuesday’s briefing, perhaps owing to the Pence reports. The documents did not totally dominate. But Jean-Pierre still faced hostile questions, including one from a reporter who shouted about whether she was up to her job.
“She is only an inch deep when it comes to answering questions, hence the binder,” Feehery said. “So far, the media has been so anti-Republican that they have been willing to give her a pass. It’s up to the media to respond accordingly.”