Jen Psaki on communicating with the press
The White House press secretary tells FT editor Roula Khalaf why there is a need to restore trust and transparency in a divided nation
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Jen, I think we would all agree that a return to traditional press briefings at the White House has been a welcome development. And but yet while we welcome the sanity it can be frustrating for reporters to have more scripted briefings. So talk to us a little bit about how you thought of your approach when you started the job. What were you hoping to achieve? And do you feel the pressure to be even more disciplined?
Well, Roula, first thanks for having this chat with me and for inviting me to be a part of this. It's such a pleasure. And I'm in the UK right now I guess. But I will say that when I first spoke with then president-elect Joe Biden about this job we had a conversation in Wilmington, Delaware, right before the event, right before we announced our foreign policy team actually. And Dr Biden was there. And one of the things we talked about was the importance of rebuilding trust with the American people and really with the global community to be honest. And the fact that the nerves of so many people around the country and the world had been frayed as a result of the period of time of the Trump administration. Policy sure we disagree with, but also the way the media engagement transpired during that period of time. And we really wanted to reset that.
So I would say that I think every day a part of my job is trying to rebuild that trust. And I tried to do that by doing a couple of things. One of them is resetting people's understanding of how government works. Things didn't work how they should have over the last four years. And part of what I try to do day in and day out is explain how a bill becomes a law and what policy making looks like. What is an NSC meeting, what is that? Why are we talking about it? What does it mean? That's part of rebuilding trust. And part of rebuilding trust is also taking questions from everybody in the room.
So if it ever feels scripted, I'm surprised to hear that actually, it certainly is not. And some of the questions that come up on a daily basis are out of I would never have predicted even with all of the news of the day that's going on around the world.
I want to talk to you about some of these questions. But I remember I think it was on your first day that you talked about a commitment to bringing truth and transparency back to the White House briefing room. And sharing information, you said, even when it is hard to hear. Can you give me some examples of when you did that during the first few months when the information was very hard to hear and yet you shared?
Well, I can think of a couple of examples. I mean, first, Covid. Of course, hearing any update on Covid where it wasn't conveying to the American people that everybody could go back to normal and there were no more deaths in the country was hard to hear. And one of the decisions we made that I was a part of during the transition was doing these Covid briefings three times a week and ensuring that we were leading with medical experts and doctors.
Now, those individuals doing briefings sometimes before I did a briefing wasn't always convenient to be honest. Right? Because they were sharing data. They were sharing statistics. Sometimes that looked good. Sometimes it didn't look good. And sharing that information and the fact that we had to at times re-evaluate our approaches or the tactics we were using, that's not easy. That's not always claiming victory. But it was important for the American public to understand how we were evaluating things.
There are also moments, I would say Roula, where we recognise almost in the moment that we're not doing our best in communicating what our policies are. And I always look back to the period of time where we talked about what our goals were in terms of reopening schools. And the first day I answered this question we had had a conversation among senior staff about how we answer the question on how we're going to open the majority of schools by 100 days. This is a huge issue as a mother myself to people across the country. It's something you talk to your neighbours about in the street. And we said, the first time I answered the question I said, well, more than 50 per cent of schools open one day a week.
That landed like a thud. Right? And that didn't sit well. And as we talked about it we thought that's not really representative of what our goal is. What does the president actually want to do? He wants schools to be open five days a week. And we went back the next day or two days later and we restated that. But these challenges are hard. And what we decided from the beginning is I mentioned the Covid briefings, but also we bring a lot of our cabinet members and policy experts to the briefing room who are not there to spin or provide political analysis but really answer questions about data and information in the policy processes.
Jen, what is the question or what are the questions that you dread most?
Such a good question. I would say the question I struggled with the most early on and it took me a while to grapple with is how can you give examples, have you achieved bipartisanship? We were at day 30, day 50, day 75, even day 100. How can you say you've achieved bipartisanship when there hasn't been a bill that's passed in a bipartisan manner? And sometimes the president often asks me: what are the reporters asking about today? And he asks me that because he wants to know how things are being digested out there in the public. To him it's a prism to the outside world.
And sometimes the way questions are asked prompt us to have a discussion about what do we mean by that? And how are we defining it? And are we defining it by Democrats and Republicans uniting and becoming one party? No, we're never going to achieve that. We're defining it more by how the public, whether we're putting forward and moving forward on policies, the public supports. That's bipartisanship. But things like that are hard to answer in the briefing room. It's different when you're having a conversation with someone. But in the briefing room you're having a back and forth with reporters. When they're big theoretical philosophical questions, it can be challenging to answer those in the briefing room.
So what did you settle on and does it convince on bipartisanship?
I think it convinces the American public. I think one of the things that a lot of my predecessors gave me advice on and I talked to many, many of them, not my predecessors from the Trump administration really, but most of the other ones. They all said, you have to remember you're talking to the American public in that room. You're having a conversation with reporters. That's important. They're going to push you. I completely understand and appreciate that given I served in the State Department in a similar role in the past. But you're speaking to the public. And the public is not all in one zip code. The public is all around the country or the public can be in the global community too. And that is often a recentering thing that I remember when you're having a back and forth about these philosophical questions.
So what's important to you is to send the message that you want to send, not necessarily to answer the specific question.
Or to win an argument. That was another piece of advice my predecessors gave me. It may feel good to win an argument to have a back and forth that's escalatory. It doesn't look good on television. It doesn't feel good to people watching. And that's an important thing to remember too.
It must feel weird to have a journalist asking you about how you do your job.
Can I ask you questions now? I want to ask you questions now about how you do your job. There you go.
But can you walk me through your day at the White House? How do you prepare for briefings? How do you anticipate what you may be asked?
Because I see that you weave through a lot of pages.
Yeah, I do. I do. Well, I have two little kids who are pre-schoolers. So my day can be messy. How it starts, I wake up in the fives as I like to say. It depends where in the fives and where in the week it is. And usually I have a whole life before I come to work. I try to check my email and respond to emails and call reporters back if they're doing a live shot or a morning piece. But I usually get to work around 7:30, 7:15, 7:30. And from the moment I get here I have meetings with senior staff. I have meetings with my team. By that time I've hopefully listened to sometimes NPR in the morning or morning podcasts. I've done a scan through of the newspapers. I look at Twitter.
One of the things that's changed so much over time, and I was in the press office in 2009 when former President Obama took office is even in that period of time, we even then would wake up and look what was physically on the front page of newspapers. And that would be an indication of what would drive our day. And then you would still look at that and you would plan your day a bit toward what was going to be on the evening news broadcasts. Now I think people who say the evening news broadcasts aren't important and physical newspapers aren't important are absolutely wrong. One, I love physical newspapers. That's my dream to have them all spread out on my table. I don't have that luxury in the morning.
But what's changed is now there is almost several news cycles that may happen between the moment when I wake up and the moment when we do the briefing. And oftentimes what's going to happen in the briefing is driven by things that are happening that morning. Maybe we're confirming a meeting with a member of the Senate in negotiations for the American jobs plan. Maybe there's a global event that's happened that we're responding to. And so a lot of it is just being constantly on top of what news is breaking.
But I have this incredible team. That's what people don't always see. Some of them come out and sit at the briefing room with me. But they are basically embedded or this is how we designed it with their own beats. Right? Just like reporters have beats. They are embedded in the teams. Somebody who does Covid, somebody who does the economy, somebody who does immigration and climate change.
And they prepare the briefing?
They prepare. And they stay closely interwoven with the policy teams. And I talk to the policy teams a lot. I'll go track down Brian Deese or Susan Rice or Jake Sullivan and ask them directly because I think that's what reporters are hoping for, sometimes the president depending on the day. I think what they're hoping for is really that insight when I come to the briefing.
And do you get to see the president every day?
Nearly every day. It depends on the day. I mean, sometimes I'll have prep with my team and I'll have another meeting and I won't see him before the briefing.
What's he interested in? What is it that he wants to know from you?
He wants to know what people are asking about and what is of interest to them and how things are being digested. And he'll often say to me if I say to him, oh, the press are really interested in how the American people are going to get their cheques from the American Rescue Plan. He'll say, what do you say? And I'll tell him here's how I explain it. And sometimes he'll say, OK, that's good. Or sometimes he'll say nobody knows what that means. He is a person who hates acronyms. He hates vernacular.
What's most important to him is the tone, which is something we've also talked about. He and I have talked about the tone we're projecting and conveying to the public, especially after the last four years. And also speaking in an accessible way. We don't need to underestimate the intelligence of the American people. We should explain exactly what we're doing, how we're negotiating, the specifics of a policy, but we don't need to over vernacular it. We need to make it accessible to people and that's important to him.
So you get your news from mainstream media, but also presumably from social media. Do you tend to look at what's trending that morning and do you look a lot at opposition media or Republican media?
Sure. All of it. All of it. I mean, I have four screens in my office of TVs so I have all different cable channels up that have different biases of sorts just to see what everybody is talking about. Certainly we also look at Twitter. And we sometimes are critical of Twitter and how it doesn't represent the American elector. It doesn't. It's quite liberal and coastal and white. But it is also a driver of the conversation. And when we are thinking about what is happening in the media and what the media is digesting. A big audience for Twitter is the media. And also you can see how people are thinking about things and what topics are on the minds of reporters.
And what's the president's media diet? I think I've seen reported that he gets a lot of news from Apple News on his phone.
He does get some from Apple News, but he also gets a physical print out of a clips packet in the morning that's done by a clip service that we all get in the White House. So he's delivered that in the morning. He gets his PDB that's delivered and he also gets a set of clips. He also has most of the major daily newspapers that are in the outer Oval Office outside of the Oval Office that he sometimes scans. And he doesn't watch TV all the time. He's got a busy schedule. But he'll see clips or chyrons as he's going from meeting to meeting as well. So he consumes information from a lot of different sources and sometimes he's asking us how did this play or how was this digested or what are the follow up questions people are asking about a particular topic?
Let me ask you a couple more questions just about how the president deals with news. He took a long time to do his first White House press conference. Although he does occasionally take questions from reporters on the cuff. Why is he so reluctant to face reporters straight for a lengthy period of time?
You know what's funny, I know that's the perception but having travelled with him a lot he sometimes takes questions from reporters two or three times a day when he's on the road. And same thing here in the White House. And actually one of the presidential historians who sometimes delivers packets to us gave me a packet last week that showed that he took questions on 77 of the first 100 days from reporters just spur of the moment. Maybe he's at an event and they're shouting questions. Or he's going to take off at the helicopter. So he actually enjoys that back and forth and takes questions I think more than almost most presidents in modern history in terms of the frequency of how often he takes questions from reporters.
So it is he prefers the small group chats because I also notice that he gave his first interview with a print outlet, not actually as an interview but as a phone call with a columnist. Is this a model of what he likes? I mean, every president has his or her own way. Every leader has his or her own way of dealing with the media. What is his preferred approach? Is that something that you're still developing?
Well first, I mean, he's been in public office for more than 50 years. So I will say that he has a huge value for the role of the media and the role the media plays in communicating with the public. And that is something that's incredibly useful when you're in my job because he recognises the value of the briefing and what I do every single day. And gives me great feedback or gives his own points of view that I can convey to the public. I wouldn't say it's a model yet. I mean, he does enjoy that back and forth in these spur of the moment moments.
We'll do more press conference. He's done a number of TV interviews as well. We'll do more of those. He does enjoy talking to columnists and having bigger picture conversations. I'm sure we'll do more of those. But he's not somebody in my experience who puts limitations on what he's going to do. We want to be accessible. He wants to be available. And I bet he will do more of all of those different formats.
Some journalists are wondering why there are so few leaks coming out of the White House compared of course to the Trump White House. And even the early, if you remember, the early years of the Obama administration. Is there less underlying division and tension or is it you're just much better at hiding them?
I will say I'm new relatively so to the Biden universe. There are many people who have worked for him, which is a real credit to him, for decades. And even people who are in their 30s who have worked for him for five, six years or longer. This is the culture of this White House is very much you put your head down, get to work, do your thing, be a part of the team, and let's communicate it out to the public. There's not a lot of Game of Thrones drama here, which feels like it may be a bit of a shift from the last four years.
Now, there are times as you know because there are a lot of good enterprising, smart, well sourced reporters where there is information published in advance of our rollout. Right? My view is good on them. They're being a good reporter. They're working their sources. Now, it's a pain in the neck to us when it happens when there's reports about our budget or the American jobs plan or whatever it may be in advance of a rollout. That, to me, is not a damaging leak. It's a pain on the neck in the moment. So some of that still does happen where information gets out before we are necessarily ready to put it out to the public. But I think your people are seeing less staff rivalries or fisticuffs in public because it really is not a part of our daily lives.
And is this partly a very conscious reaction to the way that the White House was run in the previous four years? Is this something you all discuss?
I think that it is the personality and the tone set by the president. And some of that people saw play out on the campaign trail. So I don't know if it was as conscious as let's sit around and discuss who were going to be as a White House team. The tone is set from the top. I think that was true the last four years. And I think it's true now. And there's an expectation by this president to treat your staff well and with kindness and support. There's an expectation that we're going to keep our heads down and not become the story. We want the policymaking and the work we're doing on behalf of the American public to be the story. And that's the tone and expectation that's set from him. So I think that's really what it's a reflection of.
The previous president had developed a new way of communicating and that is direct communication with the public through Twitter, through social media. Isn't there a benefit in trying to reach voters directly through social media? Because I mean, Ron Klein for example is very active. But a lot of other people are not. What do you think about that? And is that something that you're still thinking through?
Absolutely there's a benefit. And I was a part of the group that decided that former President Obama should have his own Twitter account. So I have long been an advocate for the fact that it's important as the White House and government to do the daily briefing, to answer those tough questions. But part of our goal is also to reach the broad swathe of the American public. And they don't all watch the briefing. In fact, many of them do not. They don't all watch the evening news. They don't all read daily newspapers.
And so when you're trying to meet people where they are, social media or a range of social media I should say not just Twitter or Facebook but engaging with influencers, engaging with others who have audiences that are unique from the traditional White House platforms, there's a responsibility to do that. Because our job is to communicate with the entire public to govern for all people. So the president has a Twitter account. I have a Twitter account. Many people in this place have Twitter accounts.
As I'm often reminded, making announcements on Twitter or just bland statements, it really doesn't wash. Nobody pays attention.
Maybe you don't pay attention. Well here's the thing. You may not pay attention. But when the president does a video from the road or others in the White House do a video from the road, sometimes they reach millions of people in the public. And ultimately that's part of the goal. And some of the goal is to pull the curtains back and explain what we're doing and why we're doing it. That's not spreading conspiracy theories contrary to the last president. It's not trying to say something so outlandish it goes viral. It's trying to provide information to the public and using these platforms through that means is useful. Do we support every way and mechanism that a lot of these platforms operate? No, we don't. But at the same time they are still important means of communicating with the public.
Let me just ask you two last questions. The first is, what's been your panic moment in the last three months?
I am not a big panicker. I'm not just saying this. I'm a pretty cool cat, not every moment. But I will say the first briefing, the day I did the first briefing, so just to set the scene here. The Trump team was still coming out of the building. We were coming into the building. It was during Covid. We had to meet a bus to take a bus because the security was so intense. And I was going to do my first briefing that night. This had not been done before to my recollection of doing one the first day. But to us, it was important to set the tone.
And I remember people texting me that day that and saying very dramatic, I mean, supportive things, but my friends were texting me and saying the weight of the world is on your shoulders or don't mess it up. And I'm thinking, phew, OK. So there was I think that moment when I was walking down the hallway to do my first briefing I had a little shimmy to just kind of shake off the nerves. That was a moment where I think I wasn't panicked but I felt the weight of what I was about to do and the tone I was hopefully going about to set.
And finally, Jen, you've said that you're likely to do this job for one more year or so. Is that still your plan? And why would you want to do it for only a short period of time?
Well first it's an amazing job and you serve at the pleasure of the president. I mean, he could fire me tomorrow and I would have had a great run here. Hopefully not but especially since we're in Europe. But I would say that when I came into this job I felt it was one, an honour to be a part of rebuilding trust. Also to be rebuilding up a great group of future press secretaries who would serve in this role or other roles in the future. And I have two little kids. I am far from I think this has been a little bungled out there walking out the door on day, 365 at all. And I have flexibility and I can stay longer and likely will stay longer. But I think being a part of this period of time, lifting up future people, and also remembering for myself that I have little kids and I don't want to miss moments are all factors for me even though this is an incredible job and an incredible place to be a part of.
Jen, thank you for taking the time. And I hope that I'll meet you in person soon.
I'll look forward to it. Thank you so much.