Awkward: White House Reporter Asks John Kirby Whether He Is ‘Second Press Secretary,’ There To ‘Undermine’ Jean-Pierre
John Kirby, national security council coordinator, speaks in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., US, on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he intends to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about a "substantial" deal to free imprisoned Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, and a person familiar with the offer said it would swap them for imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Photographer: Samuel Corum/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Samuel Corum/Bloomberg via Getty Images

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby had a tense exchange with a reporter who said some are accusing Kirby of trying to “undermine” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

During the White House’s daily press briefing Friday, Today News Africa White House reporter Simon Ateba asked Kirby to clarify “confusion” he encountered when talking to everyday people who claimed that Kirby acts like the “second press secretary” and is trying to undermine the first black press secretary. Kirby said it was “regrettable” that anyone would get such an idea and stressed that he is solely focused on national security issues.

“On your job at the White House — because I’ve been asked this question — there seems to be some confusion about what your role is, what type of questions [we should] ask you, sometimes you act like the second press secretary,” Ateba said, prompting Kirby to shake his head no.

“Can you explain exactly what your job is at the White House and if you’re the second press secretary? What type of questions should we ask you? Is it on … national security? And 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, so can you clarify that and explain why the … national security experts at the NSC who can always be here and take questions on National Security, so what type of questions should we ask you?”

Kirby was visibly taken aback by the question. “If anyone gets any kind of idea in their head that I’m taking away from Karine or her work, that’s really regrettable,” he replied. “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,” he 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. So that’s the focus. I’m happy to answer national security questions and that’s about it.”

A retired rear admiral in the Navy, Kirby served as the Pentagon press secretary from January 2021 until May 2022, when he joined the White House as the National Security Council’s Coordinator for Strategic Communications. He previously served as Pentagon spokesman during the Obama administration.

Kirby was rumored to be a favorite to replace former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki before Jean-Pierre was tapped to assume the position. Still, Kirby quickly began appearing alongside Jean-Pierre in press briefings to answer national security questions. Ateba’s question gave voice to an observation made in private by other members of the press corps, the New York Post reported.

Ateba also has a history of creating uncomfortable moments during White House briefings. He heckled Psaki to take a question from him during her final White House briefing. Last month, he similarly shouted over other reporters trying to have a question answered until Kirby reprimanded him. “This is the White House press briefing room, and you need to be more respectful,” Kirby scolded.

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