On Monday, for the first time in more than two years, a presidential press secretary hosted a briefing before the full White House press corps. Eighty three reporters, photographers, and technicians filed into the West Wing’s Brady Briefing Room in accordance with new White House safety protocols.
Only about five wore masks. The rest, double-vaxxed, could relax and concentrate on the job at hand: holding a president accountable. The last time a press secretary had to undergo such scrutiny was 819 days ago—on March 11, 2019, when Sarah Huckabee Sanders hosted one of her last briefings.
After that, Stephanie Grisham took over, and for a year there were no briefings. Then by the time Kayleigh McEnany took over in April 2020 and resumed briefings, COVID restrictions reduced the number of reporters in the briefing room to just fourteen.
But as the country emerges from the pandemic, Joe Biden’s White House has been getting back to normal, including in its arrangements with the press. A couple of weeks ago, the number of reporters allowed in the briefing room was raised to two dozen. And then finally yesterday, Press Secretary Jen Psaki reopened the briefing room to everyone.
This was an important milestone. White House press briefings, no matter their reputation as clashes of egos, are a vital tool for helping the public understand what the president and the people who work for him are thinking and doing. They are also vital for the White House to find out what’s on the mind of the nation’s citizens. The tiny briefings under COVID restrictions were, as I’ve written elsewhere, much less intense and much easier to control. The dynamics of a packed briefing room are much better suited to uncovering new information and holding an administration to account.
Still, there was a little fanfare. Young press aides took pictures of the reporters packed into the briefing room. They’d never seen it that way, except on TV. One reporter said, “Welcome to the first day of school.”
Then a few minutes later Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor, walked into the room with Psaki and took questions about the president’s first foreign trip.
The Biden administration faces a huge uphill battle in foreign policy—not in the meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin planned for June 16, but in the meetings with our allies during the preceding days: in the G7, at NATO, in a U.S.-EU summit, and in bilateral meetings. After four years of Donald Trump’s unhinged policies, our allies want to know if they can trust us. PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor asked Sullivan a question along those lines, and when I got the chance I followed up with him. Our foreign policy swings back and forth between administrations. Our allies are cautious to make deals, because who’s to say that what we promise today will hold true a few years from now? “Now, you can’t assure anyone what’s going to happen after you leave, but what assurances and what will you tell our allies that, despite what we’ve seen in the past, that we have returned to normal?” I asked Sullivan. In other words, how do we persuade our allies that they can trust us?
“I think the best way to answer that question—and this builds on what I said to Yamiche—is what President Biden can do is show the rest of the world what America is capable of,” said Sullivan. “If we can lead the world in ending the COVID-19 pandemic more rapidly; if the growth we are powering for the American people here at home helps power a global economic recovery; if we can help rally, as the president did with his Climate Leaders Summit, action on climate—on the climate crisis so that we actually beat this thing, ultimately, that is going to be the best way for people to say, ‘Hang on, the United States can do this. They can deliver and we will stand up and stand behind them.’”
Sullivan also answered a question from me regarding ransomware and said the administration views it as a national security priority. “Will you look at ransomware as a national security priority? How will we address that in the G7?” I asked.
“Yes,” Sullivan said. “Ransomware is a national security priority, particularly as it relates to ransomware attacks on critical infrastructure in the United States. And we will treat it as such in the G7. We will treat it at such at every stop along the way on this trip.”
Another reporter later followed up on my question and asked for specifics. Sullivan said there were at least four ways to deal with the problem.
“First, how to deal with the—increasing the robustness and resilience of our defenses against ransomware attacks, collectively. Second, how to share information about the nature of the threat among our democracies. Third, how to deal with the cryptocurrency challenge, which is—lies at the core of how this—these ransom transactions are played out. And then, finally, how we collectively speak with one voice to those countries, including Russia, that are harboring or permitting cyber criminals to operate from their territory,” Sullivan said.
The asking of follow-up questions like that has been lacking during the last year as few reporters populated the briefing room, so it was encouraging to see the practice picked up in the first full-sized briefing during the Biden administration. This is a great example of how the dynamics of a briefing room packed with reporters serves the public interest.
Later, four different reporters tried to follow each other and get Psaki to discuss the ongoing legislative negotiations for infrastructure. President Biden has prioritized infrastructure, but the negotiations with the GOP have not produced the bipartisanship Biden hoped for. Many in his own party have said Biden is dragging his feet, hoping to get cooperation he’ll never get—so why, they ask, won’t Biden use reconciliation to get what he wants? When will the president move forward and leave the GOP behind?
Psaki never answered that question directly. She said the president was still negotiating and hoping for a “grand coalition” to move forward with the needed infrastructure bill.
I couldn’t let that go unanswered. At the end of the briefing I tried to ask the question again. When will the president get tired of negotiating with the GOP for a deal he’s obviously never going to get and simply move on? As she began to walk away from the podium I got her attention: “Jen, real quick—can you all set a deadline for when you’ll get a ‘grand coalition’ together? Have you set one for yourself?” I asked.
“I think somebody asked a similar question,” she replied.
“Yeah, but it wasn’t answered. That’s why I asked.” I said.
She replied with, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Yep. The White House is back to normal.