Friday’s White House briefing was unexpected in multiple ways

Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre briefed reporters moments after a man set himself on fire outside the Trump trial courthouse  (EPA)
Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre briefed reporters moments after a man set himself on fire outside the Trump trial courthouse (EPA)

Just before today’s White House press briefing when one of your correspondent’s more recognisable colleagues, Peter Doocy of Fox News, was seen delivering a breaking news update about a gruesome scene unfolding 230 miles to the north. Outside the New York courthouse where former president Donald Trump was standing trial, a man had handed out a number of conspiracy-laden pamphlets to bystanders and then, to their collective horror, set himself ablaze.

Video shared on social media showed the man standing still as the flames burned him before eventually collapsing, while police officers ran to discharge fire extinguishers onto his burning body.

Moments later in Washington, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked to react to the macabre events taking place on that Manhattan sidewalk.

Ms Jean-Pierre replied that it was “very sad news” and “a developing situation” about which she had nothing to report other than to refer further questions to local authorities in New York.

“I don’t have anything beyond what you are reporting. It’s just happening. It’s developing,” she added.

Your correspondent has been on the White House beat for nearly a decade now and can report that it’s not surprising that the president’s top spokesperson would not have been fully briefed on a self-immolation incident in another city which took place minutes before she was set to start her daily press briefing. At the point at which she spoke, the man had not yet even been identified by the NYPD.

But what was unusual was the press secretary’s seeming inability to discuss anything about an incident of a more global import that took place last night.

Despite repeated requests, Ms Jean-Pierre repeatedly declined to answer questions about Israel’s apparent retaliatory strike on the Iranian city of Isfahan, the location of an Iranian airbase and a nuclear facility.

She even went so far as to warn the press corps in advance that she would not be addressing the strikes. Instead, she simply reiterated statements made by Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier in the day, when, at a press conference alongside the Italian foreign minister, he said the US had no involvement in the strike.

The attack appeared to be Israel’s response to a large but largely unsuccessful Iranian missile and drone strike over the weekend.

“I know there’s a lot a lot of interest in reports from the Middle East overnight, and we understand that. I’m going to say it now, though: I know you all will certainly ask me about it, that we do not have any comment on the reports at this time,” she said.

Ms Jean-Pierre would not even offer an answer as to why she was left unable to comment.

The White House’s relative silence stood in stark contrast from the relative openness it exhibited earlier in the week, when a trio of top defence officials were made available to brief reporters about American involvement in the successful defence Israel had launched against the more than 300 separate munitions launched its way by Iran.

In the wake of that defensive success, which reportedly saw 99 per cent of the Iranian rockets and drones shot down, President Joe Biden urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “take the win” and asked him not escalate further.

But Mr Netanyahu — whose continued longevity on the Israeli political stage seems tied to his ability to prolong the state of war that has existed in the country since October 7th — has never made a habit of showing much deference or respect for American presidents. At least, not when those presidents are members of the Democratic Party.

Instead of heeding Mr Biden’s advice not to escalate matters, the embattled Israeli leader — who, like Mr Trump, is facing a criminal trial and must remain in power to avoid prison — chose instead to send Israeli munitions into Iran.

At the end of it all, the Israeli attack on Iran has left a usually open White House uncharacteristically silent.

If the point of saying nothing is to deescalate the situation by not inflaming tensions in Tehran, such reticence will be understandable in hindsight.

But given the state of tensions between Mr Biden and Mr Netanyahu, we may never get an explanation for why the White House had nothing to say about the Israeli retaliation.