Frustration Among Reporters With White House Press Secretary Is Reaching a Boiling Point

From CNN’s Reliable Sources with Oliver Darcy:

Frustration among White House reporters with press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre is reaching a boiling point.

That is according to conversations I had on Wednesday with more than a half-dozen White House reporters who painted a picture of a White House press corps that has grown exasperated with Jean-Pierre and does not believe she is well equipped to handle their inquiries. The reporters, who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely, pointed to Jean-Pierre’s insistence on sticking to talking points and an episode last week where a key assertion she made from the podium ultimately did not hold up.

“She is arguably the least effective White House press secretary of the television era,” one veteran White House reporter told me on Wednesday, adding that the comparison excluded the Trump White House.

When asked for comment, a White House official, who declined to speak on the record, dismissed the complaints, telling me in a statement, “A lot of this sounds more like theater criticism than concern about ability to report facts for the American people’s benefit.”

Concerns inside the press corps with Jean-Pierre are not new. She has openly struggled to field basic questions inside the briefing room, relying, in agonizing fashion at times, on her binder of talking points to respond to simple inquiries. But the tension has escalated in recent days as President Joe Biden is confronted with questions about his past handling of classified documents.

“I think you can tell the temperature has gone up a lot in the last few days,” one White House reporter remarked to me on Wednesday.

In recent days, Jean-Pierre has faced a noticeably vexed White House press corps that is openly revolting against her. Many of the questions she has fielded have not been about the subject matter, but have centered on her very credibility and how she has performed in the job.

On Tuesday, for instance, she was repeatedly pressed about why she did not disclose on Friday that more classified documents had been recovered Thursday evening, a significant development that came hours before she indicated to reporters that the search for additional material had concluded.

“On Friday, you stood here, though, and were asked about this documents issue, by our count, some 18 times,” ABC News White House correspondent Cecilia Vega said. “At that point, the President’s lawyers had found these five additional pages of classified documents. So, did you not know on Friday that those documents had been found when you were at the podium? Or are you being directed by someone to not be forthcoming on this issue?”

Jean-Pierre said she had been “forthcoming on the issue” and reiterated information the White House counsel had previously released in a statement.

“Right,” Vega replied. “And we had that statement, so we knew what was in it.”

Later, NPR correspondent Tamara Keith, who is also president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, asked, “Are you upset that you came out to this podium on Friday with incomplete and inaccurate information? And are you concerned that it affects your credibility up here?”

Jean-Pierre replied that she was concerned about making sure the White House does not “politically interfere” with the Department of Justice’s investigation.

Those exchanges underscored the increasingly tumultuous dynamic playing out before cameras in the briefing room. Some of the reporters who spoke to me said they felt that asking questions at the briefings has become largely a fruitless endeavor as Jean-Pierre only robotically provides non-answers that have been prepared in advance.

“You just get the feeling that you’re wasting your time and whatever is in front of her in the binder is all she is going to say, no matter how many times you ask the question,” one White House reporter commented to me. “It’s just a painful waste of time.”

Of particular cause for concern, however, was the fact that the information Jean-Pierre provided the press last week ultimately proved to not be entirely correct. As one of the reporters I spoke to on Wednesday noted, it’s not ideal when the press secretary struggles to answer questions beyond prepared statements, but it’s far worse when she offers an answer that later proves to not stand up.

“There is the expectation that when you say something, it’s going to be true,” the reporter said. “That’s been the biggest credibility hit for her, it’s answering a question in a way that ends up not being true.”

The White House official I spoke to said Jean-Pierre has acted in a manner consistent with “prior White House Press Secretaries from both parties who have responsibly respected ongoing DOJ investigations and referred to the relevant authorities.” The official argued that Jean-Pierre “is wisely and appropriately affirming the White House’s position of total cooperation and being careful not to go further to respect the integrity of an investigation.” And the White House official stressed the White House counsel’s office has been taking questions from reporters.

“If reporters are concerned about substance and getting facts shared with them, they have had venues for that,” the White House official said.

Jean-Pierre does also have some outside defenders.

A former White House official who remains in touch with Biden world told me that he understood why reporters are frustrated with Jean-Pierre’s performance. But he suggested that he believed a lot of it is because she is refusing to deviate from the White House’s established messaging.

And Jennifer Palmieri, the former Obama White House Director of Communications, said Jean-Pierre is enduring the most difficult part of the job, facing a frustrated press corps every day without the answers they seek.

“It’s the nature of the job as press secretary and why the job is hard,” she said. “The slings and arrows get launched at the person at the podium, not the people making the decisions.”

Several reporters also stressed to me that they like Jean-Pierre personally. But that doesn’t mean the criticism isn’t warranted, they said.

“She is really liked, personally,” one reporter explained, “but that shouldn’t be an excuse for her competence professionally.”

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