Karine Jean-Pierre Takes Her Turn at the White House Podium

Her appearance was seen internally and externally as an audition for the press secretary job, which Jen Psaki has said she will leave after a year.,

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Karine Jean-Pierre takes her turn at the White House podium.

Karine Jean-Pierre, the principal deputy press secretary, held her first televised briefing on Wednesday.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

May 26, 2021, 11:21 a.m. ET

Karine Jean-Pierre, the principal deputy press secretary for the White House, held a televised briefing for the first time on Wednesday, a baptism-by-fire moment that came shortly after a mass shooting and a request from President Biden that U.S. intelligence officials delve deeper into the origins of the coronavirus.

In her first outing, Ms. Jean-Pierre was immediately pushed for specifics about why Mr. Biden had ordered a 90-day review of the latest analysis on the virus, including whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident.

She offered none.

“Right now we’re just going to focus on the president’s announcement on the 90-day investigation,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said when asked what would happen if Chinese officials refused to cooperate with investigations.

“We will have more to share after the 90 days,” she said when asked whether the results of the investigation would be made public.

Ms. Jean-Pierre showed little interest in getting ahead of the president or the administration, a tactic that is frustrating to reporters, but one that drew praise from members of the administration, including Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff. “History made (and a job well done),” he wrote on Twitter.

Ms. Jean-Pierre was the first Black woman in decades to address journalists on behalf of the president in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. (Judy Smith, a deputy press secretary for President George H.W. Bush, was the first Black spokeswoman to do so in 1991.)

Her appearance at the podium on Wednesday was seen both internally and externally as an audition for the press secretary job; Jen Psaki, the current White House press secretary, recently said that she intended to leave the post after about a year.

A former State Department spokeswoman, Ms. Psaki came to the job more battle-tested — and more familiar to the Washington press corps — than Ms. Jean-Pierre, who has worked on Democratic campaigns and as the chief public affairs officer at the liberal group MoveOn.

Ms. Jean-Pierre, 43, is not the heir apparent to replace Ms. Psaki; other names put forth include Symone D. Sanders, the vice president’s press secretary, and Ned Price, the State Department spokesman. But Ms. Jean-Pierre has had frequent contact with the White House press corps in recent months.

To get better acclimated to a White House where top officials tend to obsess over discipline in messaging, Ms. Jean-Pierre has delivered occasional news briefings aboard Air Force One, which is lower stakes than live television.

She is almost always in the room when Ms. Psaki holds briefings, which has allowed her to familiarize herself with reporters. And the two are friendly: Before the door to the briefing room opens, they often do a dance to shake off their nerves, Ms. Psaki said in an interview with The Times in January.

Ms. Jean-Pierre has made missteps along the way. When the White House rushed to publish an edited transcript this month, she mistakenly told reporters aboard Air Force One that the administration supported Ukraine’s interest in joining NATO. But at other times, she has impressed members of Mr. Biden’s inner circle, including when she kept cool when speaking to reporters minutes after the president tripped several times while boarding his plane.

“It’s very windy,” she told reporters. “I almost fell coming up the steps myself.”

Ms. Jean-Pierre was asked on Wednesday what it meant to her to be the second Black woman in decades to deliver a formal briefing.

“It’s a real honor to be standing here today. I appreciate the historic nature, I really do,” she said. “But I believe that being behind this podium, being in this room, being in this building, is not about one person. It’s about what we do on behalf of the American people.”

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