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How John Kirby became the voice of President Biden's foreign policy

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

More than perhaps anyone else, Americans hear about President Biden's foreign policy through John Kirby.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

JOHN KIRBY: Our support for Israel's self-defense remains ironclad.

We're going to continue to try to get that humanitarian assistance in.

We're going to continue to support Israel. They have a right and responsibility to go after Hamas.

...Many times. The proper number of civilian casualties is zero.

SUMMERS: John Kirby has become the public face of the White House as it navigates the war in Gaza. It's one of the most divisive issues Biden is dealing with this election year. And that means Kirby is under pressure, too. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: A few months into Russia's war in Ukraine, President Biden announced that John Kirby would be joining the White House. The retired Navy rear admiral had been the Pentagon's chief spokesperson.

ELIZABETH KENNEDY TRUDEAU: This isn't new to him.

KHALID: Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau worked with Kirby on and off going back to the Obama administration.

KENNEDY TRUDEAU: He's been the public face of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, you know, Russia's war against Ukraine. And again and again and again, he's out there, and he's trying to explain.

KHALID: Kirby came to the White House around the same time Biden named Karine Jean Pierre press secretary. She had experience in domestic politics but not international crises. Kirby had been jockeying with the press from the podiums at the Pentagon and the State Department for years. He had also worked for the nation's highest-ranking military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

MIKE MULLEN: We spent a lot of time in the Middle East when he was working for me. So that has given him a background of - at least certainly understand many of the dynamics and then be able to respond.

KHALID: People who know Kirby describe him as a fiercely loyal military man. He wears a bracelet to honor a colleague killed in Afghanistan. Here's the deputy national security adviser Jon Finer.

JON FINER: John Kirby comes to this job as someone with a deep sense of duty and service to the country. That, as opposed to any sort of policy advocacy or bias, is what motivates him.

KHALID: Kirby keeps a list of 13 rules for himself. They range from treating people as if they were sitting at his grandmother's table to answering the phone before it rings three times - again, Admiral Mullen.

MULLEN: He also honestly enjoys being at the podium. He enjoys the interchange. And I also think he understands pretty clearly what the limits are of what you can and should say in a given set of circumstances.

KHALID: In the current circumstances, Kirby has become the face of the administration's Gaza policy. So he's on the frontlines for critics. He has repeatedly said the ideal number of civilian deaths would be zero. But critics say he's a little too matter-of-fact. They say at times he's shown more compassion for civilians killed elsewhere, whether in Israel or Ukraine. Here he was at the Pentagon in the spring of 2022 after graphic images emerged of executed civilians in Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIRBY: It's difficult to look at the - sorry. It's difficult to look at some of the images and imagine that any well-thinking, serious, mature leader would do that.

KHALID: That discrepancy has stood out. Yousef Munayyer works on Israeli-Palestinian issues at the Arab Center.

YOUSEF MUNAYYER: Kirby speaking about, you know, Israel victims - he has gotten visibly emotional, has teared up, has spoken with language that seems, you know, uniquely reserved for only one set of victims in this violence that we're seeing.

KHALID: For Matt Duss, it's not just about tone. The former aide to Senator Bernie Sanders says the administration has not been forthright with the American people about the nature of this war.

MATT DUSS: Everyone can see that the things they are saying do not reflect the reality on the ground. They see images on social media. They see, you know, 35,000 people dead.

KHALID: Duss says this hurts the administration's credibility.

DUSS: And I think this is part of what is driving a lot of the outrage we are seeing from the Democratic base and on college campuses in particular over these past few weeks - is that they know their government is not leveling with them.

KHALID: The challenge for Kirby is that his job is not to set the policy. His job is to explain it, defend it, help Americans understand it. And Americans are deeply divided over this war. Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.