Karine Jean-Pierre and John Kirby Share an Uncomfortable White House Spotlight

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On the day she was named the first Black and first openly gay White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre said she hoped her appointment might inspire other people who, like her, never imagined occupying the pre-eminent role in political communications.

“I think this is important for them to see this,” she said in May 2022.

Americans are seeing less of her lately.

Since the Hamas terrorist attack on Oct. 7, Ms. Jean-Pierre has yielded the spotlight to a lower-ranking official, John F. Kirby. For months, Mr. Kirby has regularly co-hosted her daily briefings, often fielding more questions from journalists than she does, and appeared more frequently on major political news programs as the administration’s spokesperson.

Mr. Kirby, 60, a retired Navy admiral who previously worked at the Pentagon and the State Department, is better versed in foreign affairs at a time of war in Ukraine and the Middle East. He evinces a clarity and comfort at the lectern that can sometimes elude Ms. Jean-Pierre, 49, a more rote public speaker with less experience tussling with an adversarial press.

The White House attributes Mr. Kirby’s larger role to the flurry of international news and says he will brief less often once the Middle East crisis ebbs. But the perception in Washington that President Biden has allowed Mr. Kirby, who is white, to upstage a Black woman as the face of his White House has turned their double act into a third-rail subject.

“Can’t think of many topics I’d like to opine on less,” said one Biden supporter and Democratic strategist, who deemed the subject too politically and culturally sensitive to discuss with their name attached.

Many of the White House aides, Biden political allies and White House reporters interviewed for this article requested anonymity to address the fraught balancing act between Ms. Jean-Pierre and Mr. Kirby. Some said they did so in part to avoid lending ammunition to her vitriolic critics, like the right-wing provocateur Jordan Peterson, who have explicitly tied criticism of Ms. Jean-Pierre to her race.

Through a spokesman, Ms. Jean-Pierre and Mr. Kirby declined to be interviewed. Each issued a statement praising the other. (Mr. Kirby: “It’s a privilege to be in her company, to watch her work and to learn from her.”) Jeff Zients, the White House chief of staff, said that Mr. Kirby was “deeply valued” and that Ms. Jean-Pierre “deftly represents the president and his agenda every day.”

Administration officials emphasized that Ms. Jean-Pierre appeared in a variety of media outlets, including regional TV stations, Black- and Latino-focused platforms, print magazines and talk shows like “The View.”

“A lot of reporters in the briefing room focus on things like who had how much time at the briefing,” said Ben LaBolt, the White House communications director. “I just don’t think that’s how the country consumes information. I think they see Karine, they recognize her and they know her, and they’re glad that the president has got her by his side.”

Yet there are inescapable signs that Mr. Biden — who is facing a tough re-election campaign, low approval ratings, and concern among voters about his age and health — has come to increasingly rely on people beyond Ms. Jean-Pierre to sell his message to a skeptical citizenry.

Whereas Mr. Kirby used to travel with Mr. Biden only internationally, he recently began accompanying the president on domestic flights, ensuring that he can brief reporters even when they are not in Washington.

On Friday, a spokesman for the White House Counsel’s Office, Ian Sams, took center stage at a high-stakes televised press briefing after a special counsel report impugned Mr. Biden’s memory. Mr. Sams fielded 40 minutes of tough questions; Ms. Jean-Pierre, who spoke afterward, spent about half that time at the lectern. Past press secretaries have deferred to specialist spokespeople on niche matters like investigations and national security; typically, though, they did not become fixtures at the White House lectern.

And Mr. Kirby’s responsibilities are growing. On Sunday, he was promoted to a new position, White House national security communications adviser, that puts him in charge of communications across all executive agencies involved in national security. Ms. Jean-Pierre remains the press secretary, though Mr. Kirby will now rank alongside her as an “assistant to the president,” the highest staff title in the West Wing.

Before his elevation, Mr. Kirby had privately acknowledged, when asked, that he would one day like to be named press secretary, and he has expressed frustration that Ms. Jean-Pierre picked the reporters who ask him questions at briefings, according to several of the people interviewed for this article. Ms. Jean-Pierre has said she has no plans to leave her job before the election. Some details of their private comments were previously reported by Axios.

The situation was awkward from the start.

When Mr. Biden, in early 2022, chose Ms. Jean-Pierre to succeed Jen Psaki, his first press secretary, he did so despite the misgivings of some senior aides who believed she needed more seasoning for the job, according to three people with knowledge of the dynamics inside the West Wing.

Ms. Jean-Pierre, a daughter of Caribbean immigrants who grew up in Queens, served as Northeast political director for the Obama White House, Kamala Harris’s chief of staff in the 2020 election, spokeswoman for MoveOn.org and political analyst on MSNBC. A White House spokesman said her experiences “were widely agreed on as unique and important qualifications” for the role of press secretary.

None of those positions, however, involved a daily on-camera barrage from combative journalists, the kind of challenge that requires command over a dizzying array of topics and the verbal reflexes of an auctioneer.

To complement Ms. Jean-Pierre, Mr. Biden elevated Mr. Kirby, then his Pentagon spokesman, to a newly created position: National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications. The opaque title shaded the fact that Mr. Kirby, who had impressed Mr. Biden during the Afghanistan withdrawal in 2021, would share some duties with Ms. Jean-Pierre, like briefing reporters on foreign affairs.

At a May 2022 reception on the Truman Balcony, held in honor of Ms. Psaki’s departure, Mr. Biden was speaking with a group of aides when he tried to reassure Ms. Jean-Pierre not to worry about filling Ms. Psaki’s shoes, according to two people with direct knowledge of their exchange.

After all, Mr. Biden told her, “you’ll have an admiral looking over your shoulder.” The president’s tone suggested he wanted to be encouraging, the people said, but the comment landed with a thud. (A White House spokesman said the president did not make that remark.)

In the briefing room, Ms. Jean-Pierre had some growing pains. She was often reliant on talking points from her briefing binder, and some reporters grumbled that she occasionally seemed out of the loop; an NPR journalist asked if she had lost some credibility after erroneously declaring that no classified documents were found during a search of Mr. Biden’s home in Delaware.

Mr. Kirby began playing a more prominent role in early 2023 when the authorities identified a Chinese spy balloon floating over the Midwest and he became the face of the White House response.

Numerous journalists who cover the White House say Mr. Kirby can be more illuminating and accessible behind the scenes. Having worked in the military and government since the 1980s, he has deep relationships with reporters; on foreign trips, he will often end the day with journalists at the hotel bar. (Administration officials said Ms. Jean-Pierre meets with a variety of journalists in her office daily.) At a recent briefing aboard Air Force One, Mr. Kirby finished his portion and was returning to the president’s cabin when a reporter called after him.

“He’s leaving?” the reporter asked. “Admiral! Admiral!” Ms. Jean-Pierre summoned Mr. Kirby back to field an inquiry about Elon Musk’s reported drug use, the sort of topic usually handled by a press secretary.

Brian Karem, a columnist for Salon who covers the White House, called it “unusual to have two people working the press for an administration. You can’t have covered presidents since Reagan like I have and not noticed that it’s odd.”

Still, Mr. Karem said he much preferred the current setup to the years under former President Donald J. Trump, whose press secretaries assailed reporters and occasionally revoked their access. One Trump press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, did not hold a single briefing during her tenure. The Biden White House restored the tradition of holding multiple briefings each week.

“It sure is nice to have two people talking to us who will actually brief us,” Mr. Karem said, “rather than one person up at the podium insulting us, which is what we had in the last administration.”

April Ryan, a correspondent for The Grio who has covered presidents since the Clinton administration, said she found the gossip about Ms. Jean-Pierre and Mr. Kirby’s sharing of the spotlight to be “disrespectful,” noting the longstanding lack of diversity in the briefing room.

“That’s a white male-dominated space, and I’ve had my share of foolishness from that building,” said Ms. Ryan, who is Black. “I’m hypersensitive to disrespect toward Black women, because I know what that feels like and smells like.”

Ms. Ryan, who said she was friendly with both spokespeople, joked that she saw some irony in the White House’s reliance on him at the lectern. “Biden’s poll numbers have dropped in part because of foreign affairs,” she said.

For her part, Ms. Jean-Pierre has been candid about the pressure that comes with the trailblazing nature of her role. When she was named to the job, she told reporters that the significance of her promotion was “not lost on me.”

“I understand how important it is for so many people out there, so many different communities, that I stand on their shoulders,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said. “I just appreciate this time and this moment, and I hope that I make people proud.”

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