“My Job in This Role Is to Not Guess”: Jen Psaki’s TV Career Is Getting Off the Ground

Jen Psaki was in family territory last week, fielding questions from a room full of people on topics like whether President Joe Biden should run again and the recent attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi‘s husband. She could’ve been behind the podium in the White House briefing room, but instead she was at the NBC News’ Washington bureau, being grilled not by the press corps but an eager group of desk assistants and interns—one of whom remembered Psaki how they ‘d gotten their badges together a few weeks earlier. At one point, the former White House press secretary was asked if working in the White House was similar to The West Wing. “On the best days, it can be very close,” she said, pointing to Ketanji Brown Jackson‘s speech on the South Lawn. But more often it was like Veep, Psaki said. “There are a lot of Jonahs out there,” and “a lot of Dans,” she said. “Far too many.”

Minutes earlier, Psaki, 43, had appeared on Steve Kornacki‘s election special, breaking down the midterm races. Later she’d chat in the hallway about early voting in Pennsylvania with veteran journalist Andrea Mitchell, whose office is just down the hall from her own, where an assortment of framed photographs—of her with former president Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign; with John Kerry, whom she worked for during his 2004 presidential campaign and later as State Department spokesperson; of her kids from her; on her wedding day her. An unopened box of nails and a hammer rested on a cabinet. “Obviously I have a lot of moving in to do,” said Psaki. “But I’ll get there—post-election, I’ll get there.” She’s still getting her bearings in the headquarters, located in the same building as C-SPAN and Fox News. “You meet all sorts of people in the elevator,” she said.

This is Psaki’s new life as a budding TV news star. She made her on-air debut as an MSNBC and NBC political analyst in September and has dipped her toe into writing while getting ready to host a show launching next year on the Peacock streaming service. It’ll be new terrain for Psaki, who, while adept at answering questions—whether from reporters, anchors, or interns—has yet to host her own show. And it remains to be seen how she’ll structure the show and build her own audience on a streaming platform still finding its footing when it comes to news.

In the meantime, she’ll be spending election night at MSNBC’s New York bureau, where her past life in politics is sure to play as the results roll in. “Sometimes people have asked me on set—and I assume if it makes sense on election night, they would too—what’s happening in the White House now. I think my job in this role is to not guess,” she said. “What do I bring to the table? I bring contacts from 20 years in Washington, including people in the current administration,” she said, many of whom, she noted, she can “call, text, see at dinner.” A few minutes later, her phone buzzed. Dana Remus, the White House counsel, was calling. Did she want to get that? “No, it’s fine,” she said. Remus is just “a good friend of mine,” said Psaki, clarifying the nature of the call. “Like, we don’t have any business.”

MSNBC is quite literally playing up her insider status on election night, when, in addition to contributing to the anchor desk as results come in, she’ll be part of a panel of experts called The Insiders, along with some familiar faces, including fellow ex-Biden official Symone Sanders, who served as Vice President Kamala Harris‘s chief spokesperson and a senior adviser and now hosts a weekend show on MSNBC, and political strategist David Plouffe, the architect behind Obama’s winning 2008 presidential campaign.

By Shannon Finney/MSNBC.

Most people know Psaki because, as White House press secretary, she was one of the most visible members of the Biden administration. But she cut her teeth at the White House during the Obama years, and has worked in private consulting and communications roles, along with serving as a CNN commentator. She didn’t work on Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, but after he’d won in November, the transition team asked her to come on as press secretary for the first year or so. “I knew I was only going to stay for a period of time,” Psaki said, noting that “hiring and building a team of people…who you could kind of hand the baton to” was part of the transition team’s pitch to her. “I had always wanted to do that job” —she’d lost out on the role twice under Obama—but she “had already done so much government and so much public service” that she was ready for a new chapter. “I knew that before I started,” Psaki said. “So this last experience was like icing.”

After nearly 16 months in the Brady briefing room, where she sparred with reporters—notably, Fox News’ Peter Doocy—and dropped innumerable “Psaki bombs,” as her fans on social media would say, Psaki exited the White House in May and enjoyed a summer off. “It took me a while to not feel completely exhausted,” she said. She traveled with her family and read books and did Transcendental Meditation training at the recommendation of former Biden COVID czar Jeffrey Zients‘s wife. “I ran into her at his going-away party of her and she was like, You have to think about doing this when you leave,” she said. Does Psaki see herself going back at any point? She shut down the question before I could even finish asking it. “If somebody wants to wheel me out to be the ambassador to a warm place when I’m 100, I’m not gonna turn them down,” she said. “But I feel like I’ve had my government experience and career many times over, and I’m very grateful for that, but I am not looking back.”

That’s good news for MSNBC, which, like its competitors, has been navigating a post-Trump ratings drop and talent shake-ups. Psaki is one of the “clearest, yet most passionate, yet most knowledgeable communicators that I’ve seen in a long time,” said MSNBC president Rashida Jones. “We’ve seen her both on Meet the Press and on MSNBC talk about some areas where she thinks the current administration and the Democratic Party should be thinking differently, should be operating differently,” said Jones. “I think that’s what makes her so valuable to us. Because she’s an insider, she knows how those universes work”—what is“ actually doable, ”and“what should be thought about differently.”

By Shannon Finney/MSNBC.

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