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From Russian trolls to right-wing pundits, Jen Psaki just can’t catch a break

President-elect Joe Biden’s new press secretary is being targeted by all sides

On November 29, President-elect Joe Biden named Jen Psaki as his press secretary. While the announcement attracted some attention in the U.S., it was met with delight in Russia. After all, Psaki was once so widely vilified within the country that a pro-Kremlin TV channel dedicated a nightly comedy news spot to her.

The following day, Vladimir Solovyov, a prominent host on the state-owned TV channel Russia-1, welcomed her back, saying: “Psaki is a professional woman with a sense of humor, who, however, did not always understand that she was joking.”

As a career Democrat communications officer who has spent a considerable amount of time in Russia, Psaki has been a punching bag for Russia’s media for years, which painted her as a mouthpiece of American propaganda and a symbol of the Obama administration’s hardline approach to Moscow. After a few public gaffes — including mistakenly saying that Russia imports natural gas from Western Europe to Russia — a new phrase was coined: “The Great Psakiing,” meaning the egregious confusion of facts.

Despite Psaki’s awkward relationship with Russia, right-wing media outlets in the U.S. are now painting her as a communist-sympathizing, Kremlin-colluding pawn. 

The recent string of attacks started with a photograph of Psaki in a pink fur hat, taken in 2014. At the time, she was the State Department spokesperson. In the picture, she is flanked by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and then Secretary of State John Kerry. The hat, a gift from Lavrov, was adorned with the red star emblem of the Soviet Union.

It’s the kind of souvenir sold at virtually any tourist kiosk in Moscow, alongside nesting dolls and Putin T-shirts. But that didn’t stop Matt Wolking, deputy communications director of President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, posting the image on Twitter:

Fox News, Breitbart and right-wing news site The Daily Caller joined the fray — the latter offering a helpful history lesson, pointing out that the Soviet Union “caused the deaths of tens of millions of people in the 20th century.”

“Nice commie hat,” tweeted conservative radio host Andrew Wilkow.

According to Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the goal is to portray Psaki and, by extension, Biden and the Democratic Party as being in thrall to Russia, thus shifting the narrative of collusion that has plagued the Trump administration.

“It doesn’t require evidence to be used against someone,” said Jamieson in a telephone interview. “The claim is going to be made as long as the charge sits there in Republican circles that Putin elected Donald Trump.” 

Psaki is a veteran Democrat staffer, but it was as White House communications director during the final years of the Obama administration that she really grabbed Russia’s attention.

The comedy TV segment “Psaki at Night” was the epitome of that obsession.  

“There’re a lot of things in the world that trigger the same reaction as appearances by Jen Psaki, the U.S. State Department’s representative: confusion, laughter and of course, a lot of questions,” said the show’s host Mikhail Gendelev, during a broadcast on Russia’s NTV channel in February 2015.

There were viral blooper reels from her briefings, memes and even the ironic hashtag #SavePsaki, after rumors that she had been fired. However, much of the coverage went beyond humor. Psaki became an easy target for Russian media, with much of its attention fixed on her gender.

“The fact that Psaki is a woman is an important element of why Russian state-aligned media has spent so much time trying to discredit her,” explained Vasily Gatov, the former head of development at the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.

On one TV broadcast in 2015, head of Russia Today Dmitry Kiselyov joked that Psaki had announced that she was pregnant and fielded a question about the paternity of her child. “She lowered her head, said, ‘Hmm, I can’t say for sure. Let me get back to my office and look around,’” he said.

“They took her as a placeholder for their disgust with Hillary and generally the Obama administration, and just made a lot of nasty jokes about her and her performance,” said Gatov, during a telephone interview. “It was anti-Americanism, but it was personalized in the direction of Jen Psaki.”

Now that Psaki is poised to take on a new high-level role in the Biden administration, these old narratives are being recycled. Conservative media in the U.S. is following a similarly misogynistic line. While some praised the Biden administration’s all-female press team, pundits like Ben Shapiro have criticized the decision, saying that it is “not the most diverse team in history because there are no men.”

For now, Psaki is better-known in Russia than she is at home, but if such commentators have their way she will soon be a household name — for all the wrong reasons.

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. But we can’t do it without your help. Support journalism that stays on the story.

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Caitlin Thompson

Caitlin Thompson is the audience development fellow and the host of Coda's weekly podcast, Coda Currents. She has produced and reported stories for her local NPR station in California, and she previously worked at Foreign Policy and interned at WBUR's Here & Now.

Katia Patin

Katia Patin is a multimedia editor at Coda Story.

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