White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has been widely criticized for her inability to field even basic inquiries about the scandals plaguing President Biden. Despite the President’s January 2021 pledge to “bring transparency and truth back to the government,” Jean-Pierre has failed to answer practically every such question she’s faced.
MRC analysts examined official White House transcripts of every briefing Jean-Pierre conducted between January 1 and June 30, 2023, recording every time she was asked about one of the scandals facing President Biden — specifically, the corruption allegations being investigated by House committees, and his mishandling of classified documents from his time as Vice President. Analysts found that while reporters asked Jean-Pierre 252 questions about either of these topics, only six received a definitive answer.
Of those 252 total questions, 217 (86%) were about the President’s misplaced classified documents, only five of which (just 2%) were concretely answered. The remaining 35 questions (14%) dealt with the various allegations of corruption against the President, with only one receiving a substantive response.
In late January, White House spokesman Ian Sams conducted a handful of press gaggles and on-the-record calls to field questions related to the classified documents. However, these auxiliary events stopped after barely one week. The last of its kind took place on February 1, during which Sams did not provide a straight answer a single one of the 15 questions reporters asked. All of his responses that day were some form of either, “I’d refer you to the Justice Department,” “I’m not going to characterize too much of the underlying contents [of the documents],” or “I don’t know anything about that.”
Even during the brief period in which these containment briefings occurred, reporters continued to pepper Jean-Pierre with questions about the same topic. She responded to practically every one of these inquiries by referring reporters to the White House Counsel’s office, resulting in frequent complaints of “stonewalling.”
During the January 25 briefing, she could not even assure reporters President Biden or Vice President Harris would not bring any classified documents with them when they eventually left office: “I’m not going to predict or — or — or lay out anything that might happen in the future.”
Below are the five questions relating to the documents scandal that the Press Secretary did answer:
PHIL MATTINGLY (CNN): So should we assume that [the search for additional documents] has been completed?
KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: It — you should assume that it’s been completed, yes.
STEVEN PORTNOY (CBS): Were you or any member of your staff involved in the crafting of the strategy as to when this disclosure should be made in advance of CBS News breaking the story on Monday evening?
KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: No.
WEIJIA JIANG (CBS): On Friday, did you or did you not know about the additional five pages?
KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: No, I did not know.
WEIJIA JIANG (CBS): When did you learn about the documents found at the Penn Center in November and in Wilmington in December?
KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: When your team was — was doing a story on it.
MOLLY NAGLE (ABC): Have you spoken with the President about [the additional documents found]?
KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: No.
Note that four of these five responses were to questions about Jean-Pierre’s own knowledge of events, rather than President Biden’s. The only other meaningful answer — that the search for additional documents was completed — would prove untrue, as more documents were found later that week.
The allegations of financial corruption were far less frequent a topic at briefings. However, as whistleblowers from various executive branch agencies began to come forward, this topic eventually supplanted the subject of classified information entirely. By April it had become the sole focus of all scandal-related inquiries.
When asked about these whistleblowers’ allegations, Jean-Pierre was even more reticent, often outright stating that she refused to comment. The sole exception took place on June 13:
JACKIE HEINRICH (FNC): Senator Chuck Grassley made some statements yesterday on the Senate floor, saying that this foreign national on the FBI 1023 form apparently has 15 recorded conversations with Hunter Biden and claims to have two with the President. Is there — is the White House aware of any recordings in which the President might be on tape speaking to a Burisma executive?
KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: So the President spoke to this. I think he was shouted a question about this at the Thursday press conference. I’m just going to quote him and say, “It’s malarkey.”
While reporters have continued to inquire at press briefings about the President’s financial dealings — sometimes even sparring with Jean-Pierre in the Briefing Room — no footage of these exchanges has made it into a broadcast news segment. In fact, as of June 30, none of the big three broadcast news networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) have spent a solitary second on any of the murky questions that surround Biden’s finances.
During the last administration, clips of White House correspondents grilling press secretaries about the latest Trump scandal were commonplace on evening newscasts. Now that they’ve disappeared following the decline in coverage of the document scandal, it’s a wonder why reporters even bother to raise such issues during the briefings.
Analysts counted every question (labeled “Q “ in official transcripts) that pertained either to President Biden’s handling of classified information, or to anything involving the appearance of corruption in the Biden family’s financial dealings. Follow-up inquiries that only reiterated the initial question were not counted a second time. For longer exchanges involving a line of questioning, only the first instance of each new inquiry was counted.
A response was only considered an actual answer if the Press Secretary: (1) directly addressed the question that was being asked, (2) either clarified an ambiguity or provided new information, and (3) in the case of a yes-or-no question, at least implied one of those two options.
Responses in which the Press Secretary merely redirected the question to White House Counsel or some Executive Branch agency were not considered answers. However, a response that later turned out to be false could still be considered an answer as long as there was no indication that the Press Secretary knew at the time that the information she was providing was incorrect. Below are two examples of responses that were not counted as answers:
Q: As far as you know, is it ever okay for classified documents to be mixed with personal effects?
A: We take this very seriously. The President takes a classified information, classified documents very seriously.
In this case, the Press Secretary did not directly address the topic of the question. If the question had been whether toe President took classified information seriously, this would have counted, because despite not including a definitive “yes,” it strongly implied an affirmative answer.
Q: So why didn’t you fully describe the documents when you were first asked this week?
A: And — and I’ll refer you back to my comments that I made just yesterday.
In this case the Press Secretary’s previous comments had not met the criteria for an answer, and thus referencing those comments also could not constitute an answer.