The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New press secretary Josh Earnest’s first briefing at White House turns testy

The honeymoon ended quickly for new White House press secretary Josh Earnest.

Earnest made his official debut Monday as the Obama administration's top spokesman. The hour-long daily briefing went fairly smoothly until the final question, when a Bloomberg reporter asked him to confirm a report from Moscow that President Obama had spoken with Russia's Vladimir Putin about Ukraine.

Earnest confirmed it. That's when things got testy.

Several reporters grumbled that Earnest had not mentioned the call during a previous question about whether Obama had spoken with any world leaders on Iraq. Alexis Simendinger of Real Clear Politics yelled out to Earnest, who was turning to leave the briefing room.

"Alexis, you don't have to get all exercised about this," Earnest responded, drawing guffaws from the reporters. He noted the previous question was about Iraq, not Ukraine.

"Oh, so should we go around a map every day with you?" Simendinger shot back. Another reporter said: "She's not getting exercised. It's a legitimate question."

Earnest left the room with his aides.

So it was for his official debut at the podium. When naming Earnest to replace Jay Carney, Obama had joked that Carney had passed the "flak jacket" to him.

Earnest is no neophyte, however. He had filled in many times for Carney over the past 3 1/2 years in the briefing room and during the Air Force One gaggle when Obama is out of town.

Earnest is generally well regarded among the press corps, and he has tried to get off to a good start. He has changed up the order of questions in the daily briefing, regularly calling on correspondents from smaller publications and waiting longer to take questions from the television news networks seated in the front row.

On Monday, he opened by reading prepared statements on the White House's working family summit, the security situation in Iraq and the conviction of journalists in Egypt.

"Congratulations on your first day, Chris," Earnest said to NBC's Chris Jansing, a former MSNBC daytime news host who was making her debut as a White House correspondent. "Nice to see you here."

But the charm offensive gave way to the realities of a daily give-and-take in which reporters are looking for news from a White House trying to make none.

"I can't promise to give you a readout of every call he makes to a world leader," Earnest told reporters, "but I can try my best to keep you up to date."

If Monday's briefing is any indication, White House reporters will expect him to try a bit harder.