Psaki, Jean-Pierre absences give others White House audition

Patrick Semansky / Associated Press

When White House press secretary Jen Psaki and her deputy Karine Jean-Pierre tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days, a number of other staffers suddenly had the chance to effectively audition for the post.

Deputy press secretary Chris Meagher stepped up to the podium on March 22, minutes after it was announced that Psaki had been sidelined by the virus.  

Days later, deputy press secretary Andrew Bates appeared before reporters. On Tuesday, White House communications director Kate Bedingfield had her turn at the mic and then came back for a second day on Wednesday.   

“It’s been a bit of a tryout for all of them, or at the very least the opportunity to have a little face time,” one administration official said of the revolving cast a the White House podium.

Jean-Pierre is widely seen as the most likely successor to Psaki, who has said she is only likely to serve as press secretary for about a year.

She would be a historic pick, as there has not been a Black press secretary at the White House or a Black woman serving in that high-profile post.

“This administration really cares about showing diversity and representation, so breaking barriers is a big thing,” one administration official said. 

Jean-Pierre has also gotten to know Biden well since being on the road with him during the 2020 campaign, meaning the president has some comfort with her.

“It has felt like Karine has been groomed for this and it would backfire if she didn’t get it,” the source said.  

Another source close to the White House added, “It feels like the intention is for it to be Karine.” 

At the same time, that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a different pick, and the last week has at least given a number of people the opportunity to show their skills.

The White House did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment on this story.

It is rare for a White House communications director such as Bedingfield to pinch hit at the podium, but there are some who see her as a wild card to succeed Psaki one day.

Bedingfield was a top face for Biden to the press during his campaign and has previously taken questions from reporters at the White House. She’s highly experienced and seemingly at ease behind the podium, in one of the Beltway’s most high-pressure jobs. 

A Democratic strategist close to aides at the White House said Bedingfield is likely a leading candidate in replacing Psaki “because she’s a longtime Biden person.” 

But separately, a Biden administration official said roots with Biden are probably not the biggest factor for the president in picking a press secretary.

“I don’t think [the president] cares about that for the podium,” the official said.  

“It’s one thing to be in the room for policymaking, but I do think he’s willing to step outside the box” for the face of the White House, the official added, pointing out that Psaki herself didn’t have roots with Biden.

Neither did Jay Carney or Shailagh Murray, two of his press advisers during his time as vice president. Both were reporters before making the switch to the administration. 

Sources also said there will likely be other contenders for the role, including Ned Price, a spokesman at the State Department, and John Kirby, who currently serves as the press secretary at the Pentagon. 

Psaki said last year that she would likely only keep her position for about a year, saying at the time that other diverse candidates should be preparing for the role.

In a podcast interview with her former Obama White House colleague David Axelrod in May, she acknowledged, “I think it’s going to be time for somebody else to have this job in a year from now or about a year from now.” 

Psaki’s positive COVID-19 test came at a tough time for the White House, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Biden team was faced with a messaging crisis after Biden in an unscripted moment at the end of a speech in Warsaw, Poland, on Saturday said that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power.” The White House quickly moved to walk the comments back, as they signaled an important change in U.S. policy.

On Monday, Biden said he was signaling moral outrage with Putin but not a shift in policy.

When she was asked at a briefing last month if she could confirm she was looking for a job at CNN or MSNBC, Psaki indicated she is not ready to leave the podium yet.

“I have more than enough on my plate here. So you can’t get rid of quite yet. Sorry, Peter, for you on that,” she replied to Fox News’s Peter Doocy, with whom she has sparred since the beginning of the administration.

Tags andrew bates Biden David Axelrod Jen Psaki Joe Biden John Kirby Karine Jean-Pierre Kate Bedingfield Vladimir Putin White House

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