After four years of extreme tension between the news media and Donald Trump’s White House, incoming White House press secretary Jen Psaki is promising a much more respectful and informative relationship under Joe Biden’s administration.
“I think more than any point in history, and I don’t want to be overly dramatic … part of the job of the White House press secretary is to rebuild trust with the American people,” Psaki told National Public Radio in an interview released on Thursday.
“My goal every day will, of course, be to be truthful and transparent and to help peel the curtains back for not just the media and reporters, of course, those are the people in the room, but for the American people,” she said.
Without naming her four predecessors who served Trump, Psaki’s comments can be interpreted as a criticism of them, all of whom were accused of dodging transparency and peddling falsehoods to reporters.
Trump’s presidency kicked off four years ago with his then-press secretary Sean Spicer falsely arguing that Trump had “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe”. And Trump’s presidency is ending with his current press secretary Kaleigh McEnany pushing conspiracy theories and unproven claims of voter fraud from the White House briefing room.
One other key difference from Trump administration press relations, Psaki noted, will be a significant reduction in anonymous leaks coming from inside the White House. Reporters over the past four years have feasted on leaks from sources close to Trump, many of whom spoke to reporters to settle internal political scores or, in some cases, to shine a light on what were perceived to be the dangerous shattering of norms.
“I’ve told some journalists this, anybody who covered only the Trump administration who’s looking for a continuation of the ‘Game of Thrones’-style personnel sniping, they will be sorely disappointed,” Psaki said. “Our goal is for there to be a return to policy processes and policy briefings and policy experts who are going to be out there explaining what a COVID package may look like or what we’re going to do about immigration.”
While many reporters are welcoming Psaki and the promise of a return to the less outwardly combative pre-Trump relationship between the White House and the press, others are raising red flags. Some are pointing out that Biden, as well as the previous Obama-Biden administration, do not have the best track record regarding transparency or even their treatment of the press.
“Biden proved on the campaign trail that he disliked sharp, inconvenient questions like those about ‘court-packing,’ and snapped at reporters rather than answer succinctly,” wrote Politico senior media writer Jack Shafer earlier this month. “He snapped at a reporter who asked about his cognitive abilities. And he snapped at a reporter who asked him about the New York Post cover story about his son Hunter. Not very open. Not very transparent.”
Harold Holzer, a former congressional press secretary and author of the book The Presidents and the Press, told The Associated Press news agency earlier this month that many White House journalists “were horrified by their treatment in the Obama administration”.
“They were being told to consult the White House website for answers to their questions, Obama never showed up … unless it was to go give a cupcake on someone’s birthday, he didn’t answer FOIA requests,” Holzer said.
On top of that, many Washington reporters remember the aggressive stance Obama’s administration took to deal with leaks of sensitive information.
The Freedom of the Press Foundation noted that Obama’s administration put a record number of journalists’ government sources in jail.
Obama’s Justice Department prosecuted more people under the 1917 Espionage Act for leaking sensitive information to the public than all previous administrations combined, the AP reported.
As part of its investigations into leaks, the Justice Department under Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder combed through confidential communications between government sources and journalists.
It was revealed that during their investigations, the Justice Department obtained the phone records of a Fox News reporter as well as several AP reporters. In the case of the Fox reporter, James Rosen, the Justice Department also obtained a warrant to search his personal emails, tracked his movements in and out of the State Department, which he was reporting on, and eventually named him as a possible criminal “co-conspirator”.
Psaki was asked by the NPR directly whether Biden’s administration would return to the days of aggressive handling of leaks, but she did not answer directly.
“Obviously, there are different circumstances, as you well know, that came up during the Obama administration,” Psaki said. “And a number of those were overseen by the Department of Justice at the time. President-elect Biden has not even selected an attorney general yet.”
“But one of his priorities is returning that department to an independent department, one that does not have political influence from the White House, which will be quite a sea change from our current circumstance.”