Friday’s White House press briefing was quite a doozy as numerous reporters offered either challenging, interesting, or yes, lefty questions to Press Secretary Jen Psaki on boycotting next year’s Beijing Winter Olympics, Egypt’s role in the Hamas-Israeli ceasefire, and government spying on reporters.
As usual, Fox News’s Peter Doocy played a leading role with two rounds of Q&A. Round one started on what Doocy had tried to make into a light-hearted moment as he noticed Psaki use the phrase “the art of seeking common ground” to describe infrastructure negotiations, so he quipped: “At some point, does that become the art of the deal?”
Initially, Psaki didn’t seem to completely catch his drift: “I don't know. I think you're the professional here, Peter.”
Doocy noted he was making “a joke,” so Psaki channeled Fox-obsessed CNN host Brianna Keilar: “You're the TV star, you know? What's the Fox chyron gonna be?”
Thankfully, Doocy played along, noting that “[a]rt of seeking common ground does take up a lot of characters,” so he’ll “have to check with the control room” and only then did Psaki joke about how “art of the deal” sounded great as long as it was one “for the working people.”
Moving to policy, Doocy ran counter to the spin offered Thursday night by ABC’s Mary Bruce that painted Biden as the lynchpin in the Middle East ceasefire: “On Israel, how much credit is President Biden think he deserves for this cease fire that was negotiated by the president of Egypt?”
Psaki replied that Biden’s “focus” was always on “bringing an end to the conflict as quickly as possible” with “intensive, quiet diplomacy” and Egypt happened to have played “a key part of that discussion....given their important relationships with Hamas.”
Doocy tried again to figure out what was “Biden’s role” in the ceasefire given the swift role of the Egyptians, but Psaki maintained Biden’s role was bringing countries together and thus brought about change.
NBC’s Kristen Welker tried again with Doocy’s train of thought about Egypt President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and whether Israeli “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to ignore” Biden’s initial “request for a deescalation” (click “expand”):
WELKER: Back to the Middle East, Prime Minister Netanyahu seemed to ignore President Biden's request for a deescalation of the violence over several days. And then a truce was struck once Egypt stepped in, so I guess the question is, why should people have confidence that President Biden will be able to work with him for a deescalation Should there be another flare-up?
PSAKI: Through with Prime Minister Netanyahu?
WELKER: Through with Prime Minister Netanyahu?
PSAKI: I would just have to say, Kristen, that I don't think that's how any of the parties involved — the prime minister of the Egyptian president or this president — would characterize what happened over the last 11 days, and obviously, some of this is going to remain, um — continue to be remain behind the behind the scenes through what — what — what was quiet diplomacy over the course of 11 days, But there's no question that the President's engagement, both with the Israeli prime minister, both with the — with the president of Egypt, with leaders in the region, our commitment to staying disciplined and remaining focused on our overarching objective of bringing an end to the conflict as quickly as possible — was contributed to —to the cease fire we saw last night.
WELKER: Well, I guess what I'm asking about is based on your own readouts from the White House, President Biden pressed Prime Minister Netanyahu to deescalate the violence and then in later phone calls, urged a cease fire and that didn't happen until —
PSAKI: And there was a cease fire last night, and he urged for a cease fire about two days in advance of that, and again, I would say that the President's objective from the beginning was to have these conversations quietly, to work in close coordination with the prime minister about how we could bring an end to the conflict, recognizing fully that at the same time, there were thousands of rockets coming into cities in Israel from Hamas, and that was something the prime minister was going to work to defend.
The Washington Post’s Anne Gearan came two reporters later and made a third attempt at this idea that Biden was ineffective in trying to broker a deal on his own. After Psaki refused to change her tune, Gearan wondered whether Biden “throw[ing] a flag like that” and “setting a deadline for specific action” without success made him appear “weak or ineffective.” Again, Psaki refused to offer anything new.
Gearan closed with a question about news that the Trump administration had seized the communications of CNN’s Barbara Starr and whether Team Biden would “continue those” kinds of “investigations” against journalists in light of a recent disclosure that it also happened to Post reporters.
In part, Psaki said Biden “is committed strongly to the rights to the freedom of press as you've seen for decades and still standing up for the rights of journalists,” but then set up and stepped on a landmine by saying they’d “use the Holder model as their model, not the model of the last several years.”
But as Gearan and Doocy would both point out (with the latter closing out the in-house Q&A prior to the Skype seat), the “Holder model” would mean the government would continue spying on journalists as was done under Eric Holder with the AP and then-Fox correspondent James Rosen (click “expand”):
GEARAN: Well, the Holder model included pretty significantly aggressive leak investigations. That specific question, though, is the appropriateness of seizing — seeking and seizing personal phone records from journalists. Do you —does this administration believe that's inappropriate tact?
PSAKI; Well again. It was done by the prior Department of Justice. I would send you to Department of Justice for any comment on what their intentions are moving forward.
DOOCY: Just a quick point —
DOOCY: — of clarification. What did you mean when you said that when it comes to spying on journalists, this DOJ is gonna follow the Holder model because Eric Holder was the attorney general when the DOJ was spying on the Associated Press and was obtaining phone records for bureaus and individual journalists?
PSAKI: Well, the question that was asked, which is a good question, was about the — the records that were taken or seized or whatever, however, you want to characterize it during the last administration, and we're not gonna follow the Barr model and I would say our I would point you to our Department of Justice to how they will approach that issue.
DOOCY: But you said the Holder model and Eric Holder did monitor the phone records of journalists.
PSAKI: I think I would point to the Department of justice here. This — all these decisions would be made by our attorney general, the Department of Justice and again they're going to be meeting with journalists to hear their concerns and certainly we will continue to advocate for freedom of press, freedom of expression in the United States — of course — but also around the world.
Elsewhere in the briefing, EWTN’s Owen Jensen pressed Psak on whether the Biden administration would back a “diplomatic boycott” of Beijing’s Winter Games as even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has joined that effort.
Psaki said that their “position hasn’t changed,” which left Jensen to counter how that squared with a presidency that has said it “forcefully defends human rights.”
The White House spokeswoman made clear the Biden administration would allow for full U.S. support of the games in a country where a genocide is taking place, saying they’ve been “outspoken on human rights, the values of the United States in our conversations with the Chinese government and leaders.”
To see left-of-center questions about Israel and congressional Democrats from an AP reporter and Jensen asking Psaki about religious liberty, click “expand.”
White House Press Briefing
May 21, 2021
2:04 p.m. Eastern
DARELENE SUPERVILLE: I wanted to start with Israel. Does the President or the White House had been any concerns that the extent to which the Israeli Prime Minister continued the war will affect the president's own ability to continue to defend Israel's right to defend itself? I know that's a little circular, but —
JEN PSAKI: You mean domestically here or —
SUPERVILLE: Yes. Yes.
PSAKI: Well, first, I would say that, the President's set it clear objective from the beginning, which was to end the war, play any role we can ending the war and bring it to a conclusion as quickly as possible. And at the beginning, that seemed highly unlikely given there are thousands of rockets falling on Tel Aviv and the Israelis were on a war footing and preparing for, by many reports, a ground invasion. So I would say what's important to look at and reflect on here is historic precedent and the fact that the conflict in 2014 many more lives were lost. Also, it went on for 51 days. So the President's view is that — and his view from the beginning was that through discipline, intensive, and quite — a disciplined, intensive and quiet campaign of diplomacy. And one where we lead coordination in the region. We could bring an end to the conflict more quickly than it was intended to be and it's also important to remember that Hamas is a terrorist organization. That Israel, of course, continues to have the right to defend itself. But what's the most important from now forward, in his view, is to contemplate where we go from here, Darlene, and certainly he talked yesterday about replenishing support for the Iron Dome and our view is that saved hundreds of lives. Maybe more than that, given the effectiveness, also to support through the United Nations, continued additional assistance in rebuilding Gaza. We've already, of course, restarted our assistance that was ended in 2018 through UNWRA — through the United States, but we'll work through the through the U.N. and we also will remain engaged deeply. It was diplomatic conversations with leaders in the region, so, you know, obviously, anyone here domestically will have to make their own decisions, but I would say that you know it's important to convey what our intention was, what we feel — that we feel this was concluded as a result of the president's engagement and, frankly discipline from the beginning much faster than these conflicts have been in the past. Go ahead. Oh, Darlene, go ahead.
SUPERVILLE: We also heard a lot of Democrats shifting their tone on Israel, so is it time for the President or the White House in the United States to also perhaps start thinking about shifting the approach — its approach to Israel?
PSAKI: Shifting — what are — shifting in what way?
SUPERVILLE: You had a lot of Democrats who were frustrated. That, uh, the President didn't call for a cease fire immediately. That was one thing they a lot of people were upset about, so — and these sort of I don't want to say kneejerk, but the U.S. position is that Israel has a right to defend itself. And there are a lot of Democrats who, I think, from what we heard them say this week, they don't necessarily buy into that and so, the thinking, is there some shift in the approach to Israel?
2:48 p.m. Eastern
OWEN JENSEN: In light of the Israeli Palestinian fighting, genocide against the Uighurs, the plight of the Rohingya, persecution of Christians across the globe — this is the big question here — going forward, how is —
PSAKI: There’s a lot wrapped up —
JENSEN: — the Biden administration going to foster international religious freedom?
PSAKI: — well, there was a lot wrapped up in there. What I will tell you is that broadly speaking the president and the administration, the secretary of state will continue to advocate for freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of media around the world when they have engagements diplomatically, when we have bilateral meetings through public and private conversations.