A succession of White House officials spewing falsehoods from the podium — as well as going months and, at one point, almost a year without giving reporters a briefing at all — became symptoms of the larger corruption of the truth that was the hallmark of Trump’s four years in office. Trump’s fourth and final press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, set a new standard of shamelessness.
All of it led to the biggest, most corrosive fiction of all, which was that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, though the president and his allies have produced no credible evidence of widespread fraud.
In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, 7 in 10 Republicans said they do not believe Joe Biden was legitimately elected. That lie was also what sent a violent mob into U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
I’m hoping there is a sign of a return to normalcy — and, we can hope, truth — in the fact that Biden’s spokeswoman, Jennifer Psaki, plans to hold her first briefing for White House reporters on Wednesday afternoon, just hours after her boss takes the presidential oath of office.
She has promised that this will be a daily exercise in the new administration.
Psaki recognizes that she assumes the role of White House press secretary at a moment when public trust in government and its institutions is at a low point, and “we don’t expect that to change overnight,” she said.
Her goal, Psaki said, is to employ daily briefings as a tool for conveying “policy, information and data and pull the curtains back on what’s happening in the White House.”
As I have noted before, the press briefings — which became routine after President Richard M. Nixon converted the old White House swimming pool to an area to be used specifically for that purpose — have their flaws. And journalists are far from blameless. Especially since the cameras were allowed in during the 1990s, White House reporters and government officials alike have used the briefings as opportunities for grandstanding.
But the briefings are a ritualized means of holding power accountable. And the daily sessions have a less obvious benefit of sharpening the policymaking process; officials are not so likely to try to wing it if they know their decisions will be publicly probed for weak spots.
Psaki, who told me that she expects to hold the press secretary’s post for no more than a year or so, comes to it with experience both broad and deep.
During the Obama administration, she held senior positions in the White House, including communications director, and also served as chief spokeswoman at the State Department. That latter position, she said, broadened her appreciation of the value of free and regular give-and-take between the government and the media.
“The fact that we have that exchange isn’t something that was happening in China and Russia,” she said.
Psaki said she is also looking for ways to make the briefings better and more accessible.
She envisions holding regular sessions to answer the questions of reporters for news outlets based outside of Washington and for press that specializes in specific industries and policy areas. She wants to employ new platforms, such as YouTube and subscription services, to deliver up-to-the-minute information from the briefings to Americans who are not in the habit of watching midday cable news.
I’d like to see some other changes — for instance, changing the briefing room seating regularly, so that smaller outlets may get favored spots near the front, where they are more likely to be called upon to have their questions answered.
Psaki also plans to turn over the lectern frequently to a set of assistant press secretaries, who represent racial, cultural and political diversity. They include Kevin Munoz, who Psaki noted is fluent in Spanish; Vedant Patel, who was born in India, and Rosemary Boeglin, who worked for the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) before joining the Biden operation.
The return of the daily briefing, Psaki said, is one step toward “rebuild[ing] trust” in all of our roles. A small one, perhaps — but a welcome sign that old norms might be making a comeback.