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WASHINGTON — White House press secretary Jen Psaki stood at the podium in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room for the last time on Friday, facing questions on crises old and new, foreign and domestic. She addressed the baby formula shortage and gun violence, immigration and war.
She also addressed the journalists seated and standing before her. “You have challenged me. You have pushed me. You have debated me — and at times we have disagreed,” she said. “That is democracy in action.”
Tearing up, Psaki acknowledged that her plans to “keep it together” were being undone in the moment. Her successor, principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, watched from a chair alongside several of her loyal deputies in the White House communications department.
Psaki’s husband was also there to mark her departure, though a cameo from President Biden that some had expected did not materialize.
A spokeswoman for the State Department during the Obama administration, Psaki did not work on the Biden campaign, but beat out several well-regarded candidates for the job when she was named to the position shortly after the 2020 presidential election. Her immediate task was to move beyond the atmosphere of animosity and recrimination that had marked the Trump years, when the president himself would sometimes spar with members of the press.
“There will be times when we see things differently in this room — I mean, among all of us. That’s OK. That’s part of our democracy,” she said at her first briefing.
An analysis by Business Insider found that Psaki held 224 briefings in all, more than the total conducted by all four of Trump’s press secretaries (Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Stephanie Grisham and Kayleigh McEnany). It was rare for her to go two consecutive days without a briefing, whereas, by contrast, Grisham did not hold a single briefing.
Psaki could sometimes be short with reporters, and progressives on social media delighted at the “Psaki bombs” she deployed to cut off unwelcome inquiries. Heated exchanges with Fox News correspondent Peter Doocy became a regular occurrence, one that seemed to benefit both the conservative network and the White House.
Psaki’s biggest misstep was likely her quip — made as a new coronavirus surge was underway — about the White House sending coronavirus tests to every American, an idea she plainly found preposterous.
“Should we just send one to every American?” Psaki fired back sarcastically at NPR reporter Mara Liasson, who had asked about making the tests free. Days later, the Biden administration announced it was, in fact, providing Americans with free tests.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, Psaki used her expertise in foreign affairs to capably detail the administration’s approach to the war without making the kinds of gaffes that complicate international relations. The invasion almost certainly prolonged her tenure at the White House by several months.
The Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, praised Psaki as “one of the best press secretaries ever,” even as conservatives were attacking her for telling a reporter during Friday’s briefing that parents seeking baby formula should “call a doctor.”
Psaki will soon start a new gig at MSNBC, where she is expected to be a high-profile on-air personality, especially as the congressional midterms approach. Jean-Pierre, the new White House press secretary, will begin work on Monday.