New press secretary hails barrier breakers who paved way

May 16, 2022, 3:18 PM | Updated: 9:04 pm
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks during her first press briefing as press secr...

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks during her first press briefing as press secretary at the White House in Washington, Monday, May 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Karine Jean-Pierre held her first briefing as the new White House press secretary on Monday, crediting “barrier-breaking people” who came before her for making it possible for a Black, gay, immigrant woman like herself to rise to one of the most high-profile jobs in American government.

“I stand on their shoulders. If it were not for generations of barrier-breaking people before me, I would not be here,” Jean-Pierre said. “But I benefit from their sacrifices. I have learned from their excellence and I am forever grateful to them.”

President Joe Biden entrusted Jean-Pierre, 47, and the daughter of Haitian immigrants, with the responsibility of being his chief spokesperson earlier this month. Jen Psaki, who had held the job since the start of the administration, stepped down last Friday.

Jean-Pierre is the first Black woman and openly LGBTQ person to serve as White House press secretary. She had been the principal deputy press secretary and led the briefing on several occasions, making history in May 2021 when she first subbed for Psaki.

She also held regular off-camera “gaggles” with the much smaller group of reporters who travel aboard Air Force One with the president.

Jean-Pierre takes over as the White House faces an uphill battle to help Democrats hold onto the House and Senate in November’s midterm elections, and as the administration struggles to address the public’s concerns about rising consumer prices and the state of the economy.

She also steps up as Biden faces a daunting array of foreign policy challenges, including Russia’s war against Ukraine and North Korea’s escalating nuclear testing program. Biden is set to visit South Korea and Japan later this week, followed by stops in Europe in June.

Jean-Pierre opened Monday’s briefing by sharing brief biographies of the 10 Black people who were killed Saturday during a racially motivated shooting at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket. She will accompany Biden when he visits the city on Tuesday.

“Representation does matter,” Jean-Pierre said as she credited Biden with building a diverse administration, starting with Kamala Harris as the first woman and person of Black and Indian descent to be elected vice president.

She sought to shift attention away from herself, saying the White House and the press briefing room belong to the American people and that she works “for them.”

“It’s not about me. It’s about them,” she said, before pledging to continue to work to make sure the White House press team she now leads meets Biden’s expectations of providing the public with “truth, honesty and transparency.”

Jean-Pierre also spoke Monday of her “tremendous respect” for the work of the journalists seated in the briefing room and waiting to pepper her with questions.

“The press plays a vital role in our democracy and we need a strong and independent press now more than ever,” she said. “We might not see eye to eye here in this room all the time, which is OK. That give and take is so incredibly healthy and it’s a part of our democracy and I look forward to engaging with all of you on that.”

Psaki weighed in on Twitter.

“Proud to know you @PressSec,” she tweeted, using Jean-Pierre’s new Twitter handle. “Representation matters. Great job on day one. Rooting for you from home.”

Jean-Pierre worked on Biden’s presidential campaign before following him to the White House. Before the campaign, she was the chief public affairs officer of the progressive group MoveOn and a political analyst for NBC and MSNBC. She also worked on political affairs in President Barack Obama’s White House and on his reelection campaign, as well as numerous other Democratic political campaigns.

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New press secretary hails barrier breakers who paved way