Freedom of the Press Secretary
As a weekly strategy meeting in the White House drew to a close on a recent Monday, staffers hesitated before pushing their chairs back from the table.
It would be the last meeting of its kind. And no one was quite ready to leave.
“We’re at the end,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, in recalling the moment. “And people are nostalgic.”
In a few days, President-elect Donald Trump’s team will occupy the same table in the same meeting room, eager to get to work dismantling President Barack Obama’s legacy.
For now, though, Earnest and the other people who toiled to build that legacy are savoring their final moments in the cramped corridors of the 115-year-old West Wing.
The last meetings. The last meals in the Navy Mess. The last chances to linger on punishingly long days, just to banter with colleagues.
The adjustment will be a big one for Earnest, a native of Kansas City, Missouri, who spent the past decade on the campaign trail or in the West Wing, working for Obama.
From Kansas City to the West Wing
Earnest, 41, grew up in the Red Bridge neighborhood of South Kansas City and attended the private Barstow School on scholarship.
He earned a degree in political science from Rice University in Houston, Texas, in 1997, and went on to work on a series of political campaigns and the Democratic National Committee before joining Obama’s bid for the White House in 2007.
Earnest had moved to Iowa to work for then-Gov. Tom Vilsack, who planned to run for president. When Vilsack dropped out, Earnest interviewed with the campaigns of then-Sens. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Obama.
After talking to Earnest and spending time with him on the road, Obama turned to an aide, Dan Pfeiffer, on a flight out of Iowa, and said, “That Josh, he’s really solid.”
It was the ultimate Obama compliment, Pfeiffer said. “Solid for President Obama means calm, confident, and a good human being.”
The campaign offered Earnest the job of running Obama’s communications operations in Iowa.
“I’d watched the first few events that he had done as a candidate in Iowa, and I was impressed,” Earnest said. “He was optimistic. He was committed to a vision that brought people together, that was inclusive, that made people feel like they had a place. And it was a posture he had, a body language of very forcefully defending the values that he believed in. And all that resonated with me.”
Earnest fondly remembers driving across the barren Iowa landscape in the winter to attend town hall meetings and rallies.
“We did one in a livestock auction house in western Iowa one Saturday where the president literally stood on a stage sort of in the center of the room, like a prize-winning cow,” Earnest said.
It was a grueling pace, Earnest said, but there was a sense of possibility, palpable to Earnest in that livestock auction house, that fueled him and other Obama staffers through the long days.
Nearly ten years later, that livestock auction house, Earnest admits, “feels a long, long way away from the West Wing.”
Earnest is one of the few White House staffers who has stayed with Obama through all eight years of his administration.
It’s a rare feat. Even the most dedicated senior staffers burn out from the nonstop demands that come with working for the most powerful person on earth. They can’t tune out on weekends and holidays. They miss weddings and anniversaries and birthdays. They travel frequently.
Earnest rarely sees his 2-year-old son, Walker, on weekdays. He leaves for work before Walker wakes up, and gets home after the toddler has gone to sleep.
On his second-to-last Monday as press secretary, Earnest arrived at 7:20 a.m. He grabbed breakfast in the Navy Mess cafeteria on the ground floor of the West Wing. Then he settled into a series of meetings with communications staff and White House senior staff before prepping for the daily press briefing.
Most days, the packed schedule means Earnest ends up eating lunch at his desk — and sometimes dinner, too.
“I know it’s a bad day in the White House when I’ve had three meals at the White House, so if I can keep it to two, then it’s manageable,” Earnest said.
That Monday, the briefing prep ran about half an hour past its scheduled start time as Earnest and his staff finalized talking points for questions they anticipated he’d get from reporters. A few minutes before 1 p.m., Earnest straightened his tie, poured coffee from a thermos into a blue Royals mug, and headed down the hall to the briefing room.
A couple of staffers in the hallway wished him luck.
“You look good,” one joked.
“Thanks,” says Earnest. “I’ll try not to screw it up.”
The daily briefing
Earnest typically spends between an hour and an hour and a half taking questions on camera from journalists in the White House briefing room.
The grilling covers a mind-boggling range of subjects. That Monday, reporters asked Earnest about everything from Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech, to Russian hacking, to reports of White House staffers partying into the wee hours at a star-studded goodbye bash the Friday before.
“What time did you leave?” one reporter asked.
“That’s classified,” Earnest quipped, to laughter from the press corps.
Earnest is known for his affable, even-keeled demeanor at the podium, which he chalks up to temperament.
When Obama promoted him to chief White House spokesman in 2014, the president said, “You can’t find a nicer individual, even outside Washington.”
Among his colleagues, he’s also known as a master of the dad joke, and a formidable karaoke singer on foreign trips, said Jen Psaki, the White House communications director.
It’s all part of Earnest’s fundamental groundedness — a quality that helps him survive the pressures and scrutiny of his job, she said.
“The Josh that you see when he’s at that podium is the Josh you see when you’re his friend or know him in his personal life,” said his friend Brent Colburn. “In a way, he’s kind of a throwback to a time in politics when people understood that you didn’t have to be disagreeable to disagree with people.”
But keeping calm also is strategic for Earnest.
He said he learned from watching his predecessors that if he walked into the briefing room determined to win a debate with the press, he would lose even before he’d started.
“The press corps decides who wins and who loses the debate,” Earnest said. “There will never be a day that any White House press secretary finishes the briefing and the White House press corps begins their stories by saying, ‘Today White House press secretary so-and-so really proved us wrong.’”
So instead of trying to convince reporters they’re wrong, he concentrates on laying out a case he hopes reporters will present in their stories.
“If they’re fair minded and if their readers are fair minded, then hopefully I’ll persuade them of the wisdom of the approach that the president has selected,” Earnest said.
That’s not to imply that Earnest’s briefings don’t spark controversy.
There was the time, after Earnest criticized Russia’s deployment of anti-aircraft missile batteries in Syria, that the Russian Embassy tweeted a picture that appeared to show one of them pointed at Earnest’s head.
He didn’t feel personally threatened but, he said, “It’d be fine with me if they didn’t ever do that again.”
Recently, Earnest provoked the wrath of the president-elect when he said Trump “obviously knew” during the campaign that Russian hacking helped him and hurt Clinton.
At a thank-you tour rally in December, Trump called out Earnest by name, provoking a cascade of boos from a stadium full of his supporters.
“This foolish guy Josh Earnest, I don’t know if he’s talking to President Obama,” Trump said. “You know, having the right press secretary is so important because he is so bad, the way he delivers a message. He can deliver a positive message and it sounds bad. He could say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen today we have defeated ISIS,’ and it wouldn’t sound good, OK?”
Earnest says he’s gotten used to such attacks over the years.
“So much of that podium and the person who stands behind it represents the institution of the White House,” Earnest said. “And when people have grievances against the institution of the government or the White House, then they choose to lodge those grievances in a way that sometimes involves me and my name or my image. And that goes with the job.”
An expression of resolve
On Nov. 9, the day after Trump’s victory, Obama called Earnest and his head speechwriter into the Oval Office. When Earnest told him he had just left a meeting of stunned White House communications staff, Obama said, “Well, why don’t you bring them in?”
“I don’t think he realized exactly how many people I meant,” Earnest said.
Speechwriters, researchers, assistants and spokespeople crowded into the room. For many, it was the first time they’d been in the Oval Office.
“It was an emotional moment for a lot of people on my staff,” Earnest said. “Yet it was an opportunity for the president to tell them that the election outcome didn’t take away from anything that we’ve accomplished over the last eight years. And I think he also tried to offer some reassurance based on his own perspective in politics, having lost races.”
Obama reminded them that their jobs were bigger than themselves and bigger than their emotions. They had a responsibility to to send a message to the world that the U.S. can have a peaceful transition of power.
Even two months later, Earnest said, that message resonates with outgoing staffers as an expression of resolve, rather than defeat.
A ‘very stale’ White House press operation?
Early this month, Earnest gave his successor, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer, a tour of the West Wing. He showed him the office Spicer will soon inherit, with its fireplace, tall windows and digital clock that shows multiple time zones – including one, simply labeled “POTUS,” that shows the time wherever the president happens to be any given moment.
Spicer has said he plans to shake up what he calls a “very stale” White House press operation. It isn’t clear that he’ll keep the traditional daily press briefing intact, or allow reporters to remain in their work spaces and briefing room in the West Wing.
Despite the sometimes antagonistic nature of the relationship between the press corps and the White House — the Obama administration in particular has come under fire from journalists for not living up to promises of transparency and for prosecuting whistleblowers — Earnest feels strongly about the need to keep a daily briefing.
Earnest advised Spicer to think carefully about what sort of changes he’d like to implement.
“There is something really important about the president of the United States sending some member of his staff to walk out to the briefing room every day and to be held accountable, on the record, on camera in front of the White House press corps,” Earnest said. “Protecting that principle of accountability and transparency, I think, is really important. How it happens, I think, is something that can change.”
But the basic exchange, represented by the briefing, has symbolic value that’s worth protecting, Earnest said.
“And I hope they will. ... I genuinely hope that,” he said. “I think the American people and our democracy benefits from, not a friendly relationship between the White House press corps and the president of the United States, but a functional one.”
Earnest’s last working day at the White House is Thursday, Jan. 19. By then, he will have stripped his office of Royals memorabilia, books and personal photographs – including one of little Walker Earnest playing Superman with the president — to bring them home as keepsakes.
None of Earnest’s papers or records belong to him, however. They will go straight to the National Archives.
Earnest has signed up with a speaker’s bureau to do a lecture circuit. After that? He’s not ready to say.
Among the things sure to be in his future are more bedtime stories with Walker. And no doubt a lot of diaper changes and night wakings to make up for those he’s missed.
Earnest and his wife, Natalie, are expecting a new baby girl in April.