White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby was left stunned Friday when a reporter asked if his frequent briefing room appearances meant that he was the “second press secretary” and undermining Karine Jean-Pierre, the first woman of color to be chief White House spokesperson.
The head-turning inquiry came from Cameroonian journalist Simon Ateba — who was selected by Jean-Pierre to ask Kirby a question, despite previously sparring with Kirby on a similar topic.
“Sometimes you act like the second press secretary,” Ateba told Kirby — giving voice to an observation made privately by other members of the White House press corps.
Ateba asked Kirby to “tell us exactly what your job is” and said he wanted to know, “What type of questions should we ask you?”
“The reason I’m asking is because almost everywhere I go, I have black people telling me that the reason you’re at the White House is to undermine the first female [black] press secretary,” added Ateba, of Today News Africa.
Kirby, the former Pentagon press secretary, was widely seen as a contender to replace Jen Psaki as press secretary earlier this year — and after Jean-Pierre got the job in May, Kirby quickly joined the White House and began to appear alongside her in the briefing room.
“If anyone gets any kind of idea in their head that I’m taking away from Karine or her work that’s really regrettable,” Kirby responded to Ateba.
“And I’m very sorry that that’s any impression that anybody would have. I am simply working at the National Security Council on national security communications — and with her good graces, I’m able to come up here every now and then to talk to you about simply national security issues,” Kirby continued.
“That’s my portfolio. That’s where I’m limited. That’s where I’ll stay. And I do it at her invitation and with her approval to come up here.”
Jean-Pierre, 48, is the first non-white person, the first LGBT person and the first immigrant to hold the post. She was born in Martinique to Haitian parents and began her political career at the New York City Council.
The press secretary’s decision to call on Ateba to ask Kirby a question instantly triggered palace intrigue, as the reporter had jousted with Jean-Pierre’s potential rival in the past.
On Aug. 4, Kirby lectured Ateba that he needed to show more “respect” during press briefings when the African reporter attempted to shout a question at Kirby regarding his job.
Although it wasn’t audible on the White House video feed, Ateba asked Kirby during that briefing if he was “auditioning” to replace Jean-Pierre, according to several journalists in the room at the time.
Jean-Pierre’s selection to replace Psaki shocked many journalists who saw either Kirby or White House communications director Kate Bedingfield as stronger candidates.
Although Jean-Pierre has outperformed expectations in some ways, she also has had embarrassing stumbles — including recently referring to the Nord Stream 1 natural gas pipeline as the “Nordstrom” pipeline, using the name of the department store.