When White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre first stood before the media in the White House briefing room last month, the moment made history: She was the first African-American woman to do so in 30 years and the first LGBTQ woman to do so, period.
While the briefing itself played out as many of the others during Joe Biden’s administration, it was enough of a moment to draw reporters’ notice and the presence of a special guest: Judy Smith, who made that history three decades earlier as the first Black woman to lead a briefing and, more recently, was the inspiration for the ABC series Scandal.
“Standing in support. Sisterhood. Always,” Smith wrote on Twitter about the moment.
Jean-Pierre, 46, already was a familiar face to viewers and news junkies, as an MSNBC political analyst and as chief public affairs officer for MoveOn. That is not such an unusual path to the West Wing, but her life experience is: Born in Martinique, she is the daughter of Haitian immigrant parents who moved with her to the U.S. when she was 5, her father working as a cab driver and her mother as a caregiver. Raised in New York, her parents worked to make ends meet, and she often took on the responsibility of looking after her young siblings. They were determined that she went to college, on a path that initially was pre-med at the New York Institute of Technology, but she switched to public administration by the time she got to Columbia.
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She has been public and candid about coming out, moments of disappointment and dark despair in childhood and college, including the pressure to fulfill expectations that she would become a doctor (in her 2019 memoir, she describes a suicide attempt in college, as she spotlighted the issue and included the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline), and her own search for identity that eventually led to a career in politics after a variety of experiences. Among them: a stint as a volunteer firefighter on Long Island.
She and her partner of about eight years, CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux, have a 7-year-old daughter, Soleil, and live in the Maryland suburbs, meaning a bit of a balancing act as they manage careers and motherhood, along with a not-too-short commute.
Jean-Pierre’s first briefing also triggered immediate speculation that she will be a candidate to succeed Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who has said that she plans to remain in the post for roughly a year. The New York Times said that her appearance was “seen both internally and externally as an audition” for the press secretary job. But Jean-Pierre says, “I have to tell you, my focus is on the here and now.”
This is Jean-Pierre’s second stint in an administration, having worked in the Obama White House, as well as on multiple presidential campaigns, the latest as Kamala Harris’ chief of staff.
Deadline spoke with Jean-Pierre last week about making history, her relationship with the press and why her role as a pundit — which included more than a few debates on Fox News — might have prepared her. The conversation was edited for brevity.
DEADLINE: What kind of response did you get after your first briefing?
KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: I’m still processing it, I have to tell you. But it was an honor, for sure. And it was just a proud moment to have been able to do that and also the history that I made. But it wasn’t just me alone. I guess what I’m trying to say is, if the president hadn’t offered me the job or allowed me to be part of his team, that opportunity would not have happened. And I think it speaks to this administration, it speaks to his leadership.
DEADLINE: Did you know Judy Smith would be there?
JEAN-PIERRE: I had no idea she was here until after the briefing I get a call from my colleague and she says, “Hey I have a surprise for you. We’ll be right there.” I was not thinking anything, because after the briefing there was so much going on. And then I was sitting at my desk and I look up and I’m like, ‘Oh, I think that’s Judy Smith.’ And she was just incredibly kind. She said that she wanted to be here to support me in this important day, this important moment. [The night before, Ashley Etienne, Harris’s communications director, who friends with Smith and arranged for her to be there].
DEADLINE: You were also the first LGBTQ woman to do a briefing in that room. You have talked about the difficulties that you had coming out to your family, especially to your mother. What kind of reaction did your family have?
JEAN-PIERRE: That was not going through my mind. To me, I was doing my job and being able to do it in the way that I’m providing information to the press, on behalf of the president, on behalf of this administration, and making sure that the messaging was getting out there, that we’re communicating with the American people. That is the thinking all of us go through here in the press shop. … And so I didn’t think about that. It is funny because it is Pride Month, and at least for Pride Month you back and you think about how did you get here and your coming-out story. … I came out to my mom when I was 16. My parents are old school. They are immigrant parents, and when I came out, it didn’t land well to say the least. And I quickly went back into the proverbial closet, if I may, and it was really hard. It took me a long time to come back out to her or to really be who I am, but all through my life, all through my adult years, all through my 20s really, I have always tried to be as true and as honest as I could be, in who I am, in everything I represent. I’m a queer woman. I’m a Black woman. I’m an immigrant woman. I am all of these different things, and it’s always been very important for me to give voice to that and to be true to myself. And so fast-forward to 20 years-plus later, and I have a partner. I have a little one that did turn 7 two weeks ago today. And my mom couldn’t be more in love with her granddaughter, and my mom couldn’t be more in love with my partner. She evolved. And she understood that in order to stay in my life in a real and honest way, to really be part of who I am, I think she had to evolve in her thinking and in her belief. And it never made her love me less. But I think that most parents have, especially in that time back then, they have this vision of what they want for their child as an adult. And then I changed that on her. And to think about it, I didn’t really. I have a partner and I have a kid. Everything she fought so hard, she and my dad fought so hard for me to have, I have been able to accomplish. And so I think she came around. She evolved, and now she couldn’t be more supportive. She’s amazing. She got to watch me do the briefing; she was so proud. And what’s so interesting is she doesn’t have cable or anything like that, so she’s never actually seen me on TV live. She’s always seen a tape of it or a clip of something that I did. And it was the first time that she got to see me on TV live. She was crying. She was very proud.
DEADLINE: You and Suzanne Malveaux have very demanding jobs. You also have a commute.
JEAN-PIERRE: We live in the DMV area, in the suburbs. So yeah, definitely have a commute. It’s not as bad as it would have been pre-Covid because many people are still working from home and the traffic is certainly not as bad as it would be. But I do commute every day to work from home. I think what we have done is we both respect each other in our work, in our careers, and we love each other. I mean, No. 1 is we love each other. And I think that comes first, and we lift each other up in any way that we can. And when she has to be out there and is gone for a couple of days for work, I step up or I step in a bigger way to make sure that Soleil, our daughter, has everything that she needs, and that I’m there for her, and Suzanne gets to lean in to her career and whatever that it is that she’s doing, and vice versa. We’ve been very, very purposeful about it. We’ve been very caring and understanding about it. But it’s not easy. It takes work, just like any relationship, marriage, it takes a lot of work, and you just have to be present for each other, and that’s what that’s what we focus on. Be present for our daughter and be present for each other.
DEADLINE: How do you resolve any potential conflict of interest?
JEAN-PIERRE: There’s an understanding, and I think one of the things that I appreciate about Suzanne is … she truly believes being down the middle, reporting the facts and the news. She comes from that period of time [pre-social media]. She does not cover the White House. She does not cover anything that we do from here. And we are very respectful of that. I’m very respectful of her as well because we understand the importance of that for both of our careers, for both of our jobs. And so that’s been very that’s been very deliberate as well.
DEADLINE: Are there topics that are just off limits?
JEAN-PIERRE: We just don’t discuss. It’s not even there are topics off limits. We just don’t discuss it.
DEADLINE: How do you think your experience as a pundit prepared you for this moment?
JEAN-PIERRE: I have spent the last few years, like four or five years, being a commentator on TV. Clearly you become comfortable with being in front of a camera, being brief, being in front of people in answering questions. So that is certainly something that is helpful. You have you have your finger on the pulse of what’s in the news, because I spent about four or five years having to have my finger on the pulse of what’s in the news and what would what reporters are talking about, what’s the focus of the news for the different cable networks. Because I was doing this for those years, you have this built-in understanding of how the media works. You’re just a little bit more in tune, I think, and there’s also a little bit of comfort because a lot of the reporters that I talk to now, even in the briefing room, I’ve known them for many years because of doing commentator work.
DEADLINE: You even appeared on Fox News, where you debated figures from the right. What did you learn about how Fox News works, because now you’re facing their reporters?
JEAN-PIERRE: I have to tell you, being on Fox was actually one of the best places to learn how to do this work, to learn how to be a commentator. I was always prepared, always ready, always had my facts together and facts ready to go because I knew that it would be a colorful discussion. It was actually a very good place to learn how to push back and to really lean in what the facts were, what the truth was, and then to stick up for yourself and be like, “No, this is what the facts are. This is what the truth is, and this is what’s important for the American people to know.”
DEADLINE: What is an average day like for you?
JEAN-PIERRE: It’s a 12- to 15-hour day, easily. … I get here about between 6:30 and 7:15 every morning, and then, we have our morning calls. We check in as a team. We’re preparing Jen for her briefing. That’s usually either 12:30 or 1 o’clock, depending on the day, depending on the president’s schedule. So from those hours before her press briefing we’re all hands on deck, as a team, trying to make sure we have everything that we need as a team and the most important thing that she needs. And if he travels that’s schedule is totally different. … And then I’m usually here until about 7:30 or 8 o’clock at night.
DEADLINE: Jen Psaki said in an interview on CNN that she didn’t want to allow the briefing room to become a forum for propaganda or pushing falsehoods. Do you think that’s more of a problem now than it was maybe four years ago?
JEAN-PIERRE: I haven’t seen any data, and I can’t speak to that and say yes or no. As we know, misinformation has really had a strong hold kind of in this space in the last couple of years. And I think the president understands this, we as an administration understand this, that we have to continue to kind of cut through that misinformation. … I think what Jen is saying is making sure that doesn’t take over. … The president wants us to do is communicate in an honest way, in a transparent way. And that’s what we’re trying to do every day, whether it’s in the briefing room on the phone, or a press person here in our press office.
DEADLINE: Jen Psaki also has talked about envisioning that she would step away at some point, maybe in a year. Does that put more pressure on you, because your role itself kind of says that you would be next in line?
JEAN-PIERRE: You know, I have to tell you my focus is on the here and now. But let me first say that Jen Psaki has been an amazing press secretary, but not just that she’s an amazing human. She’s an amazing person, and kind and smart and hardworking, and it’s been an honor to work side by side with her, in partnership with her. We call ourselves, we say that we’re “partners in truth.” But also her leadership. She’s also the leader of our team, and I’ve learned so much from her. And I appreciate the fact that she stepped out of her career, but also being there for her kids, to come into the White House, and to do this job, which is not easy. It is a very 24/7 job. And she has done it without breaking a sweat. It’s been amazing watching her, and I think my focus is certainly, I want to do this job that I currently have, as best as I can. And I want to continue to grow in this job and continue to learn. That’s just been my focus the last, I don’t know, 140-some-odd days, just being zeroed in on this, because we have a lot of work to do. The president talks about this, the vice president talks about this, that we have multiple crises that we have to address, and it’s on all of us to do that work.
I think that most parents have, especially in that time back then, they have this vision of what they want for their child as an adult. And then I changed that on her. And to think about it, I didn’t really. I have a partner and I have a kid. Everything she fought so hard, she and my dad fought so hard for me to have, I have been able to accomplish.
DEADLINE: President Biden has done only one formal press conference, and this seems to be an ongoing question. But what’s your view of those big formal press conferences — are they helpful or are they too much of a risk for the White House?
JEAN-PIERRE: I think they’re important to do, but here’s the thing: This is a president that talks to the press all the time. He answers questions from the press pool pretty consistently, almost every time that he has a public event. There’s a press pool that’s with him — it’s the protective press pool, they always travel with him wherever he is. They rotate reporters to ask questions, and like I said, he answers them. We did a formal press conference. There will be another, and it’s been, you know it’s been a very busy time. When you think of the first 100 days, fighting this pandemic, trying to get back to normal, having the successes that this president has had in the Covid-19, comprehensive vaccination program that he’s had. And so many things, so many other things that we’ve had to deal with he’s clearly in Europe now doing his first foreign trip as president [where he is having a press conference with the pool there]. We’ve had the economy. It’s finally bouncing back, and trying to get people back to work and doing all the things that we’re doing. And so we’ve never been in a moment like this. It has been incredibly unprecedented. And so he’s been incredibly busy. But he answers questions all the time. We’ll have many more press conferences, more formal, press conferences, for sure.
DEADLINE: What do you think is the most potent form of communication for the president?
JEAN-PIERRE: I think for the moment that we’re in, and I think for what makes this president so authentic, and I think one of the reasons that he won the election in November 2020 is that he has the ability to connect directly with the American people. He’s able to be sympathetic and empathetic, especially during a time when we’re dealing with a 100-year pandemic where we’ve lost more than 600,000 lives in this country alone. And he is just an incredible communicator and is just our most important communicator, clearly because he is the president. He just is so good at that, and he touches people in their hearts at their core, and you see it. You see it when you know when he’s on TV talking, and you see that when you’re in person watching him. And so I think, anytime he’s behind a podium or mic and he’s talking directly to the American people, it speaks volumes. It’s more piercing than any type of social media.
DEADLINE: How different do you think things would be for you if Donald Trump was still on Twitter or Facebook?
JEAN-PIERRE: It’s so interesting because you know we get asked that question from time to time, and honestly, our focus, even when, you know, Donald Trump speaks or puts out the statements, we just don’t pay attention to that. We truly focus on the work ahead. And as I said earlier, we have these crises. His first day on the job, January 20, after he was sworn in at noon, that first day more than 4,000 people died of Covid-19. That’s how we started our administration, and that was our focus, and it didn’t matter what Trump had to say or not to say. We had to focus on that. And so I think that’s kind of how we see this.