‘It’s a real honor’: Karine Jean-Pierre makes history at White House briefing

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<span>Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

“Hi, everybody! Welcome!”

So, with a rustle of papers, began a new chapter in the White House briefing room on Wednesday when Karine Jean-Pierre became the first openly gay person to address reporters on behalf of the US president.

She was also the first Black woman to do so since Judy Smith, a deputy press secretary for President George H W Bush – and inspiration for Olivia Pope in the TV drama Scandal – stood at the podium some 30 years ago.

Related: Joe Biden orders US intelligence to intensify efforts to study Covid’s origins

The briefing was widely seen as an audition by Jean-Pierre, who is currently principal deputy press secretary, for the top job of presidential spokesperson. The incumbent, Jen Psaki, who has been briefing almost daily, said recently she intends to leave the post after a year.

Did Jean-Pierre pass the audition? Joe Biden will be the ultimate judge of that but it would fair to say that she observed the first rule for press secretaries: do no harm. Her replies were noncommittal, uncontroversial and not likely to generate unwanted headlines.

Wearing canary yellow as she faced a half-full room of journalists due to coronavirus restrictions, Jean-Pierre was given an early test of her ability to respond to breaking news: a mass shooting in San Jose, California. She took a little longer than is customary to flick through a hefty briefing book and find the relevant statement.

Her own significance – born in Martinique to Haitian immigrants, she could hardly strike more of a contrast from Donald Trump’s four white press secretaries – inevitably came up during questions.

Jean-Pierre replied: “It’s a real honor to be standing here today. I appreciate the historic nature, I really do, but I believe that being behind this podium, being in this room, being in this building is not about one person. It’s about what we do on behalf of the American people.”

She added: “Clearly the president believes that representation matters, and I appreciate him giving me this opportunity, and it’s another reason why I think we are all so proud that this is the most diverse administration in history.”

Jean-Pierre is already a veteran of politics, activism and media. In graduate school, her website notes, she explored her Haitian roots through a documentary film and later worked at the Center for Community and Corporate Ethics, pushing big companies such as Walmart to change their business practices.

Her employers in Democratic politics present a mixed picture. She served as press secretary to Congressman Anthony Weiner of New York, later jailed for sending sexually explicit text messages to a minor, and worked on the presidential election campaign of John Edwards, who also fell from grace in a sex scandal.

On a happier note, Jean-Pierre was deputy battleground states director for Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and served in the Obama White House as regional political director for the Office of Political Affairs.

Jean-Pierre took on the role of chief public affairs officer for the liberal grassroots organization MoveOn.org where she said in one video: “I am everything that Donald Trump hates. I’m a Black woman, I’m gay, I am a mom. Both my parents were born in Haiti.”

When, at a MoveOn.org event in June 2019, an animal rights protester leaped on stage and tried to seize then senator Kamala Harris’s microphone. Jean-Pierre was quick out of her chair to intervene and shoo him away, objecting: “Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey!” She went on to serve as Harris’s chief of staff during the presidential election campaign.

She has also taught a course at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and frequently appeared as a political analyst on the NBC and MSNBC networks – such TV experience is always valuable training for the press secretary job.

Since joining the Biden White House, Jean-Pierre has been a fixture in the room for Psaki’s briefings and has sometimes delivered her own, away from the cameras, aboard Air Force One. Psaki told the New York Times that, before the door to the briefing room slides open, both women often do a dance to shake off their nerves.