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The Press and the Process Question

How White House briefings have changed since the full press corps has been allowed in—and how they still need to improve.
July 2, 2021
The Press and the Process Question
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 30: White House press secretary Jen Psaki and Environmental Protection Administrator Michael Regan speak during the daily press briefing June 30, 2021 in Washington, DC. Psaki and Regan answered a range of questions during the briefing related to infrastructure issues during the briefing. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Nearly a month after the White House opened up daily briefings to the full press, things are slowly returning to a kind of normal. Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s daily—more or less—briefings are now before a full room of journalists rather than the much smaller group permitted under COVID restrictions.

Of course, Normal 2.0 is still different from the pre-pandemic days in the Trump White House. Trump’s insane, chaotic nature was good for ratings. His administration’s briefings were extended forays into the theater of the absurd which attracted upwards of 100 reporters who packed into a briefing room that only has 49 seats.

Under President Joe Biden, the briefings are less theatrical by design. Rather than turning up the heat, the Biden administration has decided to dial it down—and as a result the briefings aren’t carried live by most major networks and even with the briefings now open to everyone in the press corps, there have averaged only about 65-70 reporters in the room.

When I spoke about this with Jen Psaki earlier this week, she said she is still working through an effective way to navigate the briefing room so as many reporters as possible get to ask questions. She admitted it is often a challenge to get to the reporters in the back row.

Some pool reporters who were used to asking five or six questions in the sparse COVID briefings that had only 14 reporters have been slow to realize that they cannot—for the sake of everyone else in the room—monopolize the questioning anymore.

Psaki told me that one of her role models as press secretary is Mike McCurry—Bill Clinton’s second press secretary, generally considered the best to hold that job in the last forty years. “He is the only other press secretary to come out of the State Department,” she reminded me. McCurry once said that he learned from the questions reporters asked in the briefings what was on the mind of the country. He and Joe Lockhart—his deputy and then successor—sometimes advised their White House colleagues on how to adapt policy matters based on the questions we asked.

That’s the natural give and take of the briefing that was sorely missed during the Trump administration and one Psaki said she appreciated.

But in the first few weeks of full briefings under Psaki, it is apparent that both the press and the administration are struggling to get into a rhythm that benefits both.

There are a few problems here—on both sides of the lectern.

Jennifer Rubin wrote in the Washington Post this week that reporters in the briefing room “pepper White House press secretary Jen Psaki with question after question” about process instead of trying to inform the public about vital information about substance.

Rubin is right that, during this first month back, the press in the briefing room hasn’t been at its best. Her complaint about “question after question” about political tactics and process isn’t wrong. Sure, process questions can be important, and often matters of process cannot be separated from matters of substance. But it is true that the myopic journalistic focus on political process to the exclusion of substance is sometimes a problem.

From the other side of the lectern, though, comes a different problem: The Biden White House often dances around answers to press questions. This may be because Psaki has limited information and limited access to the president. Some press secretaries are more on the “inside” than others. To her credit, Psaki doesn’t make up answers, doesn’t lie, and doesn’t stretch the truth. But there are many examples of her refusing to provide answers—and I suspect that’s because she doesn’t have them.

For example, on Monday one of the serious topics of concern was the airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria. I asked this question:

Karem: Can I follow up on that real quick, Jen? Did—was there any consultation with Congress beforehand or our allies, regarding the airstrikes? And what’s the next step? I mean, it’s—you’ve had the airstrikes, but—are—is there a reach-out to Iran for dialogue?

Psaki: We completed a number of member and staff notifications prior to taking action and are continuing to brief members of Congress. And we’re also in close touch with partners in the region, but I’m not going to outline those from here.

Karem: But to—but, specifically, will there be any outreach to Iran?

Psaki: Well, I would say that we are, obviously, working through it. We just completed the sixth round of negotiations, as it relates to the Iran nuclear deal. We are—I don’t have a timeline yet for when those will reconvene. But I don’t have anything to preview in terms of other outreach to Iran.

Then another reporter jumped in and asked the obvious follow-up: “Don’t airstrikes hurt those negotiations though, Jen?”

Psaki is smart and sophisticated on matters of foreign policy and national security—again, she had been the State Department spokesperson. She told us at least twice that the administration wanted de-escalation in the Middle East, but it sounded like the only way to get there was through bombing Iranian targets. Escalating tensions to de-escalate them sounds a lot like bombing the Iranians into submission. But we did not get a solid answer to the question. We still have not gotten one.

As Rubin complained, the press was overly enamored with process related to the infrastructure bill during Monday’s briefing—when only CBS’s Major Garrett asked about what was actually in the bill.

But here again, when the press does turn to substance, the administration could stand to be more straightforward. On Wednesday, EPA Administrator Michael Regan outlined how the infrastructure bill will replace lead pipes and give every American clean drinking water: “It will ensure people have reliable access to safe and clean drinking water that they deserve,” he said. However, that’s not entirely accurate. There are millions of Americans in rural and some suburban areas who rely on well water. For a percentage of those homes, it would make sense to transition to city water—in some places it is cost-effective, and it can cut down on the risks of certain dangerous pollutants that can make their way into well water in some locations. So, I asked about that possibility.

Karem: Are you addressing that?

Regan: I think we’re looking at a range of options to look at water pollution—PFAS. I think we’ve got a number of budget requests in that we hope the Congress approves for EPA to really bolster its actions there. I think that there are a number of tools in this toolbox that the president is deploying to get at water quality—water quality protection for all citizens.

Karem: So there is money allocated for it? For it to address that water well issue—there is money in this [infrastructure bill]?

Regan: There—there’s water—there’s money in the president’s budget request for EPA to do a better job of looking at water quality protection for all Americans.

There was simply no definitive answer to the question. Does the money in the budget just fix the water lines for Americans who are already on them, or does it expand the reach of water lines to places where it is cost-effective and sensible to do so?

This is not a process question—it is a substance question that could directly affect millions of Americans. And it’s worth having some clarity on.

After a month with the press at full strength in the James Brady Press Briefing Room, the truth remains that the administration is very cautious to keep from telling the public too much—and Psaki has proved an adept tightrope walker, adroitly avoiding lying while not overreaching her carefully crafted talking points.

The press is walking a tightrope, too—holding the Biden administration accountable while hoping to avoid the rancor and acidic dysfunction that was the hallmark of the Trump era.

So far, the administration is failing to supply details and the press is too interested in discussing process instead of policy details the American people need to evaluate the current administration. Both sides of the lectern need to step it up.

Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy magazine. He successfully sued Donald Trump to keep his press pass after Trump tried to suspend it. He has also gone to jail to defend a reporter's right to keep confidential sources.