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Questioned on Biden documents, his press secretary has only one answer

Karine Jean-Pierre, eight months into her tenure as White House press secretary, has frustrated reporters with her inability to shed light on the classified documents probe, raising doubts about her own access. Others say her wariness is wise.

For weeks, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has dodged questions about the investigation into President Biden’s handling of classified documents. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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Almost from the day news broke that classified documents had turned up in the home and former office of President Biden, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has responded to questions about the matter by essentially not responding.

“I would refer you to the White House Counsel’s Office,” she has said repeatedly.

At Friday’s press briefing, Jean-Pierre invoked the phrase or some variation of it eight times — including in response to a question about whether the White House has done an effective job communicating about the lingering controversy.

As monotonous as it was, it wasn’t even a record. A few days earlier, she fell back on the same response 25 times.

On Wednesday, after FBI agents conducted a search of Biden’s beach home, reporters repeatedly asked if the White House had been “transparent” about the investigation.

“What should the public take away from the fact that you’re keeping information like this from the public?” asked Associated Press reporter Seung Min Kim, referring to an FBI search in November that the White House has still not acknowledged.

Jean-Pierre referred Kim to both the White House Counsel’s Office and the Justice Department.

Jean-Pierre’s wariness on the subject has brought the sharpest scrutiny of her eight-month tenure as press secretary — and has, in some ways, made her the unintentional face of the White House’s uneasy saga.

Whereas Donald Trump’s concurrent documents investigation opened with the bang of a surprise FBI search of Mar-a-Lago in August and revelations that he had resisted efforts to recover hundreds of documents, the Biden probe had initially been drained of high-stakes drama. The president’s own lawyers, after all, discovered the first batches of documents and immediately turned them over to authorities.

Since then, however, Jean-Pierre’s attempts to skirt even tangential elements of the story during her near-daily televised briefings has exacerbated an “optics” issue for the White House, with her opaque statements raising suspicions of stonewalling for some critics.

Even otherwise friendly sources have suggested the strategy is counterproductive. “Biden and the White House seemingly have violated every precept — speed, transparency, contrition — of crisis communications,” wrote former Obama White House adviser David Axelrod last week.

It has also raised questions, at least among reporters, about how clued in Jean-Pierre is.

She ascended to press secretary from a deputy position last year, replacing Jen Psaki, who was valued by reporters for her extensive knowledge of Biden’s thinking. The 45-year-old Jean-Pierre is unique in the line of chief White House spokespeople; as she noted at her first briefing in May, “I am a Black, gay, immigrant woman, the first of all three of those to hold this position. I would not be here today if it were not for generations of barriers — barrier-breaking people before me. I stand on their shoulders.”

But even before the classified documents became news, some members of the usually obstreperous and rarely satisfied press corps privately grumbled that, unlike Psaki, Jean-Pierre doesn’t always know what’s going on in Biden’s White House.

“She doesn’t appear to be in the room where it happens,” said one senior correspondent, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating Jean-Pierre and other White House officials. “In this administration, unlike recent ones we’ve seen, the press secretary has been sent out to present arguments and defend decisions made by a small group of aides of which she doesn’t appear to be a part. That puts Karine in an awful position, and it shows.”

This correspondent added that “press secretaries who are truly viewed by their bosses as senior advisers are better positioned to speak for their bosses,” citing Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs and Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders as examples.

Jean-Pierre didn’t reply to a request for comment, but her office did. Deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said that Biden elevated her “because of her extraordinary ability to communicate about the administration’s work on behalf of the American people, including standing up for the rule of law. She does that with skill, grace and honesty every day. And she does it all on the record, which takes a kind of courage these critics evidently lack.”

As White House officials and Axelrod have noted, there are valid reasons Jean-Pierre can’t say much about the documents. Biden’s handling of documents, like Trump’s, is being investigated by a special counsel overseen by the Justice Department, who could pursue any false statement from the White House as evidence of tampering. Biden has also been careful to avoid any hint that he is attempting to influence the Justice Department, though he has dismissed the issue by saying “there’s no there there.”

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Other insiders and allies defend Jean-Pierre, saying her options are limited.

“There is always going to be a tension between reporters’ push for information and what the White House is able to release,” said Eric Schultz, who handled President Barack Obama’s communications during congressional investigations into the Internal Revenue Service, the Benghazi terrorist attacks and other matters. Reporters’ demands for disclosure “are going to take a back seat to anything that could risk complicating the underlying investigation. That’s never going to sit well with the press, since they like being at the top of the pecking order.”

Bill Clinton’s former press secretary, Joe Lockhart, said Jean-Pierre is in “a tough spot.” But he, too, endorsed her approach.

“The public has the right to a full accounting of why these classified materials left the White House,” Lockhart said. “But the only way to get a complete picture is to wait on the results of the investigation, not the daily stream of anecdotal information.”

Despite Jean-Pierre’s circumspection, the White House hasn’t been entirely silent on the matter. The counsel’s office has held briefings with reporters since the story broke. But these sessions aren’t televised and aren’t streamed live, unlike the daily press briefing Jean-Pierre conducts. Under ground rules set by the White House, audio recordings of the counsel’s briefings are embargoed until after they’re over.

The counsel’s spokesman, Ian Sams, said Jean-Pierre’s deferral to the counsel’s office has been “prudent and appropriate” given the ongoing investigation. “We are providing the media with venues to ask questions, get information and shed light on this situation,” he said in a statement.

Some journalists acknowledge that Jean-Pierre has few good options as the story grinds on.

“She’s in a brutally difficult position, facing a blizzard of questions at every briefing on a subject she simply cannot say much about,” said Jonathan Karl, ABC News’ chief Washington correspondent.

Karl recalled that during Kenneth Starr’s late 1990s investigation of Clinton, press secretary Mike McCurry “deliberately remained out of the loop” and referred questions to White House lawyers. “The bottom line for a press secretary [is] you cannot speak about what you don’t know,” Karl said.

Jean-Pierre may have learned that lesson the hard way. A few days after news first broke that classified documents had been found at Biden’s personal offices, she told reporters that a thorough search had turned up no more. As it happened, a new batch of documents had already been found.

Reporters assailed her about the misinformation for days afterward.

“So, did you not know that those documents had been found when you were at the podium?” asked ABC’s Cecelia Vega pointedly a few days later. “Or are you being directed by someone to not be forthcoming on this issue?”

Jean-Pierre said she had been “forthcoming” but acknowledged later that she was unaware of the new batch of documents when she spoke.

“Are you upset that you came out to this podium on Friday with incomplete and inaccurate information?” NPR correspondent Tamara Keith asked her the following week. “And are you concerned that it affects your credibility up here?”

Jean-Pierre calmly responded that her primary concern was not interfering with the investigation. But that answer, like many she has provided, wasn’t very edifying.

“With your performance last week, are you still fit for the job of press secretary?” another reporter shouted as Jean-Pierre ended her Jan. 20 briefing.

“Happy Friday, guys,” she responded as she left the room.

More on classified documents

Ongoing probes: The Justice Department currently has two separate criminal probes into classified documents found at President Biden’s and former president Donald Trump’s personal properties. Here’s an explanation of what classified documents are and the penalties for mishandling them.

When, how classified documents were found: A comprehensive look at when, where and how the two batches of classified documents were found in unauthorized locations in Biden’s former private office and his Wilmington, Del., home. Additionally,

How Trump, Biden cases compare: There are key differences between the discovery of classified documents at Biden’s home and former office and Donald Trump’s retention of hundreds of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida. Here’s our fact checker. Nonetheless, the furor over the classified documents could make it harder for Democrats to blast Trump.