Joe Biden’s first White House press secretary Jen Psaki began her new MSNBC program on Sunday by telling the audience, “It’s a hell of a week of launch a new show.”
She was talking about the big news of the weekend: Donald Trump’s potential arrest and his call on his supporters to protest, and that she led with it was to be expected, given MSNBC’s long focus on the alarm of the former president.
Still, with Inside with Jen Psaki, her challenge will be to make a mark and standout moments in a very crowded group of Sunday Beltway programs.
Her left-of-center POV and experience as a communications strategist make her a natural fit for the network’s opinion show audiences, but with this show she is going beyond the role of NBC News pundit to that of cable host, a transition that requires the skills of an interviewer and the ease of an engaging personality. As all news networks struggle to retain audiences (particularly younger audiences), clearly MSNBC is hoping that Psaki will be poised to transition to larger roles at the network, akin to Nicolle Wallace, now a daytime mainstay.
Psaki’s show has been slotted at noon ET, after many of the broadcast network Sunday shows have aired, putting the onus on her show to find a unique take on the Trump story.
Keying up an interview with her first guest House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, Psaki ran a clip from Mike Pence’s appearance on ABC News’ This Week earlier in the morning, as the former vice president blasted Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg’s potential prosecution of Trump.
Jeffries said that Pence “knows better and he has embarrassed himself and that is unfortunate,” and he said that the New York prosecutors should just be allowed to “do their job.”
This was largely friendly territory for Jeffries: he was given ample time for Democratic talking points. Jeffries also was not asked about an issue of the past few weeks: friction within the Democratic caucus as Biden moves to the center on certain issues ahead of a potential 2024 presidential run.
Psaki’s questions were not prosecutorial, but her queries were not superficial, either. She did press Jeffries on whether Democrats would participate in House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s vow, in a tweet on Saturday, to have committees investigate if federal funds are being used to make “politically motivated prosecutions.” Jeffries didn’t directly answer, but said he would leave it to Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Stacy Plaskett (D-VI), the top Democrat on the special “weaponization of government” committee.
Jeffries also took a swipe at the “weaponization” committee, saying that it was “really more appropriately named the Committee to Protect Insurrectionists.” Moments later, though, when Psaki asked him about a Washington Post story that he had reached a “truce of sorts” with McCarthy, Jeffries said they have had a “positive, forward-looking relationship.” That’s some McCarthy-Jeffries relationship, and it perhaps begged for a followup.
Later, Psaki interviewed Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a potential future presidential prospect, and pointed out that a state gun reform bill did not include a ban on assault weapons, something that has been a disappointment to advocates as mass shootings continue to plague the country. Whitmer kept leaning into the buzzword that the “conversation” would continue, while Psaki made it clear that the issue of gun safety would be a common show topic.
Another taped interview was with New York Mayor Eric Adams, who offered up the show’s only criticism of the Biden administration, on the issue of immigration, as he called for “a real strategy with coordination.” He was careful not to criticize Vice President Kamala Harris, and said that attacks on her were “unfair.”
There was not more follow up, though, as Adams’ segment was part of a lighter feature called Weekend Routine, in which Psaki will meet with political figures in places of their everyday lives. For Adams it was on the New York subway and later in Gracie Mansion, where the mayor made a smoothie as Psaki queried him on the ingredients. “Are you a coffee drinker?” she asked. “Never,” Adams said. No follow up needed.
The stronger parts of Psaki’s show were the moments when she drew on her own communications experience, including a segment that took on the ever greater use of the term “woke” by GOP presidential candidates and right wing personalities, and when she gave her own insider insight into how the White House may respond to Trump’s arrest.
“My bet is you won’t hear a lot about Trump’s outburst from them,” she said. “They want to keep the temperature down. But behind the scenes, they are paying close attention, tracking any potential threats, as they always should.”
As she ended the hour, Psaki promised that the show would feature people “who are playing a role in making change happen. Some I may agree with, and some I may not, and that’s OK. That’s the way it should be, because disagreement is actually healthy part of democracy.”
An intriguing question is how far that disagreement goes — whether that means moments when she speak out against a White House action, or if the show is able to book Republican guests and fervent Biden administration critics. She has experience at it, too: Some of Psaki’s most memorable viral moments as press secretary came when she sparred with reporters from right-leaning outlets.