The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Peter Doocy and Jen Psaki’s daily clashes have become a White House briefing room ritual

Their exchanges in the White House briefing room have become a sort of daily ritual. (Video: The Washington Post)

The White House press briefing room hasn’t been quite the same since Donald Trump left office. No more presidential promotions of dubious covid-19 remedies. No more lectures to the gathered reporters from Trump’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, punctuated by a crisp snap of her binder and a dramatic exit from the podium.

But there’s a new miniseries playing out in the briefing room: the daily thrust and parry between Fox News White House reporter Peter Doocy and President Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki.

Doocy, the son of longtime “Fox & Friends” co-host Steve Doocy, tends to come at Psaki with questions from Fox’s ever-lengthening list of culture-war issues. He can be aggressive in his questioning, sometimes interrupting Psaki mid-answer to make another query. The 34-year-old reporter learned his way around Team Biden by covering his presidential campaign last year.

Psaki, 42, usually maintains her cool, calmly reciting facts and counterarguments in reply. She often seems to anticipate what Doocy will ask but at times seems mildly exasperated by him. Her tell is sarcasm: “Welcome back,” she said amid scattered laughter last month, after Doocy returned to the briefing room from a brief hiatus and attempted to corner her again.

Rather than grumbling about Doocy’s approach — as her predecessors in the Trump administration did when confronted by reporters such as CNN’s Jim Acosta — Psaki has acknowledged that the White House needs Doocy. He is, after all, a conduit to Fox News’s sizable audience, which is unlikely to hear the White House’s side of the story from the network’s opinion hosts and pundits.

Psaki seems to recognize that the best way to guarantee a sound bite on Fox — especially about critical vaccine information — is to engage with its reporter. And so the two battle on, amid cheers and jeers from their audience on social media.

Here’s a breakdown of some of their more memorable recent exchanges:

June 28

“She turned her back while the anthem played. Does President Biden think that is appropriate behavior for someone who hopes to represent Team USA?”

Doocy was attempting to elicit criticism from Psaki of track and field athlete Gwen Berry, who turned her back on the flag in protest when the national anthem played during an awards ceremony at the U.S. Olympic trials. (Haranguing U.S. athletes who make political statements at the Games has become something of a summer sport among Fox commentators.)

Psaki does a fancy three-step in reply to Doocy. First, she dodges (“I haven’t spoken to the president specifically about this . . .”), then she pivots (“. . . but I know he’s incredibly proud to be an American, and has great respect for the anthem”).

And then the press secretary seeks the higher ground: “He would also say, of course, that part of that pride in our country means recognizing there are moments where we are as a country haven’t lived up to our highest ideals, and it means respecting the right of people, granted to them in the Constitution, to peacefully protest.”

July 2

“You say the president does not want to defund the police. Is the president concerned, then, that last year the now-associate attorney general, Vanita Gupta, said it was, quote, ‘critical for state and local leaders to heed calls from Black Lives Matter and Movement for Black Lives activists to decrease police budgets’?”

Doocy seems to be trying to link the Biden administration to a politically unpopular movement to defund U.S. police departments, amid widespread demonstrations last year against officers who disproportionately shoot and kill Black people.

He is asking Psaki about comments Gupta made last year — before she was appointed and confirmed to a top position in Biden’s Justice Department. Just as Doocy said, Gupta testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that leaders need to “decrease police budgets and the scope, role and responsibility of police in our lives.” She called for “shifting our approach to public safety away from exclusive investments in criminalization and policing toward investments in economic opportunity, education, health care and other public benefits.”

But Gupta later disavowed the defunding movement — “I do not support defunding the police,” she said during her confirmation hearings in March ­— bringing her into line with the Biden administration.

Psaki bats down Doocy’s question by citing his own network: Fox News reported in February that Gupta had the support of dozens of municipal police chiefs and the Fraternal Order of Police.

The press secretary’s fans praised her retort. But while Psaki’s response to Doocy may have made for good theater, it didn’t actually address Gupta’s shifting views over the past year.

July 16

White House press secretary Jen Psaki responded to Fox News’s Peter Doocy’s questions about misinformation on social media during a July 16 news conference. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

“For how long has the administration been spying on people’s Facebook profiles, looking for vaccine information?”

Doocy walks right into this one. His question would be a legit “gotcha” if it had a factual basis, which it does not.

Doocy cites statements by Psaki and Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy that about a dozen people have been the source of much of the vaccine misinformation that circulates on Facebook. Doocy suggests that the White House must have determined this by snooping on people’s Facebook profiles, likening such behavior to “Big Brother.”

But he appears to be unaware of Murthy and Psaki’s source: a report published in March by a group called the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which identified a dozen individuals who’ve spread misinformation shared by millions on social media. Rather than “spying,” the center found this out by simply looking at the individuals’ publicly available Facebook pages.

Psaki was prepared to correct him.

“That was quite a loaded and inaccurate question,” she replied, and continued over Doocy’s objections: “This is publicly open information, people sharing information online, just as you are all reporting information on your news stations.”

But Doocy wouldn’t quit. “But, okay, these 12 people, who you have on a list, 12 individuals, do they know that somebody at the surgeon general’s office is going through their profiles?” he asked.

Psaki battled through Doocy’s objections and finally offered, “I’m happy to get you the citation where that comes from. There’s no secret list.”

July 19

“Would President Biden ever call former president Trump and say, ‘I need your help. Let’s cut a PSA and tell people to go [get vaccinated?]’ ”

Not an entirely unreasonable question — just a disingenuous one.

Biden’s administration has been pleading with the unvaccinated to get a coronavirus shot for months, with limited results. Since many of the vaccine-hesitant are Trump supporters, enlisting the former president as an advocate might conceivably persuade them.

But Trump would have to cooperate, which appears improbable given his repeated claims that Biden cheated him out of winning the 2020 election.

Moreover, Trump has rarely urged people to get inoculated, despite getting a coronavirus shot himself and periodically claiming credit for the vaccines’ rapid development. CNN reported in April that Trump has expressed little interest in working with other former presidents to promote the vaccine, and has not appeared in a PSA video despite some aides urging him to do so.

Psaki artfully sidesteps. Her response doesn’t criticize Trump by name and doesn’t commit Biden to anything — but she suggests to anyone watching that it’s not the current president Doocy needs to convince.

“We’ve seen almost every former president play a role in putting out a PSA making sure people understood in the country that the vaccine is safe and effective,” Psaki tells Doocy. “We don’t believe that requires an embroidered invitation to be part of. But certainly any role of anyone who has a platform where they can provide information to the public that the vaccine is safe, it is effective, we don’t see this as a political issue. We certainly welcome that engagement.”

July 20

“Is there any concern that this trip that was intended to advocate for voting rights is now a superspreader event in Washington?”

Doocy is referring to a visit to Washington by a group of Democratic state lawmakers from Texas who were avoiding Republican-backed efforts to vote on a bill that would restrict voting rights in the state. At least six of the lawmakers tested positive for “breakthrough” coronavirus infections after the trip, despite being vaccinated, although there have been no reports of further spread.

Hypothetical superspreader events appear to be a pressing issue for Doocy. At Monday’s news conference, he asked whether former president Barack Obama’s upcoming birthday party might become one. But his questions — perhaps inadvertently — recall the very real superspreader outbreak at the White House last year, after Trump hosted a party that ignored mask and social-distancing guidelines.

Psaki doesn’t even comment on Doocy’s “superspreader” setup. Instead she uses the question to reiterate some basic scientific messaging about vaccines: “We certainly understand there will be breakthrough cases. Even vaccines that are incredibly effective are not foolproof. . . . Here’s the good news, though. We know that these vaccines, that these individuals have been vaccinated. It means it protects from death. It protects from serious illness. It protects, for the most part, from hospitalization, so that is a good sign.”

July 22

“Now that the Education Department admits that they made a mistake in their guide for reopening schools . . .”

Doocy’s question attempts to tie the Biden administration to advocacy of “critical race theory,” the notion that white supremacy and racial privilege are baked into the nation’s laws. Fox has amplified fears about this once-obscure academic framework.

The “mistake” he cites is a hyperlink in a report by the Department of Education to a group called the Abolitionist Teaching Network. After criticism from Republicans, the department said it doesn’t endorse the group’s views and removed the link.

Notable here is Psaki’s sarcasm. “Just to be clear, for the context, because I know you love context, what you’re . . . referring to was a citation in a report of which there were a thousand citations,” she says, adding, “And so I’m quite impressed with your researchers for finding one in a thousand citations.”

July 27

“Why do vaccinated people need to put the masks back on?”

The usually unflappable Psaki becomes just slightly irritated as Doocy presses her about new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on mask-wearing.

Her initial response is to tout the effectiveness of vaccines — “If you are vaccinated, it can save your life.” This is slightly off-topic, but it’s the message the White House is trying to send to Fox News viewers.

But Doocy cuts her off, asking, “If vaccines work . . . then why do people who have the vaccine need to now wear masks the same as people who have not had it?”

Somewhat agitated, Psaki replies, more or less, that it’s because the experts say so: “Because the public health leaders in our administration have made the determination, based on data, that that is a way to make sure they’re protected, their loved ones are protected. That is an extra step, given the transmissibility of the virus, that they’re advising people to take.”