ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images
The retired Navy admiral making the case for Israel in the White House briefing room
As calls for a cease-fire have grown more pronounced among the hard left, John Kirby has become one of the loudest voices espousing the president’s commitment to Israel’s security
Last month, after a reporter pressed the White House to apologize for President Joe Biden’s remarks that the deaths of innocent civilians in Gaza are the price of war, the sharp response from National Security Council’s strategic communications coordinator, John Kirby, quickly went viral among pro-Israel advocates and within the Jewish community.
“Don’t you think it’s insensitive, there being very harsh criticism about it?” asked Raquel Krähenbühl of Globo News, a Brazilian news channel. “Would the president apologize, and does he regret saying something like that?”
“No,” said Kirby, speaking less than three weeks after Hamas terrorists killed more than 1,400 people in massacres across southern Israel.
“What’s harsh is the way Hamas is using people as human shields. What’s harsh is taking a couple of hundred hostages and leaving families anxious, waiting and worrying, to figure out where their loved ones are. What’s harsh is dropping in on a music festival and slaughtering a bunch of young people just trying to enjoy an afternoon. I could go on and on. That’s what’s harsh,” said Kirby, who went on to blast Hamas for not allowing Gazans to leave the besieged Palestinian enclave while Hamas militants sheltered in tunnels beneath their homes.
As calls for a cease-fire have grown more pronounced among the hard left, Kirby has become one of the loudest voices espousing the president’s commitment to Israel’s security. Even as he and other Biden administration officials publicly caution their counterparts in Israel to work to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza, Kirby also offers clear statements about the danger Israel faces from Hamas.
“His genuine outrage and sadness for what the Jewish people are going through really came through to me as very real and very evident,” said Morgan Ortagus, who served as the State Department spokesperson under former President Donald Trump. “I think that’s why he has connected with so many Jewish Americans across the political spectrum.”
Kirby, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, served as the top spokesperson for the Defense Department and then the State Department — the first person to perform both jobs — in the Obama administration. (While Trump was president, Kirby became a CNN analyst; Ortagus said he used to call or text her or even send handwritten notes to apologize whenever he criticized Trump on TV.)
After Biden was elected, Kirby returned to the Pentagon to serve as press secretary, this time as a civilian. Last year he was tapped by Biden to come to the White House for an unusual position: explaining the country’s military and foreign policy positions to the American public. Historically, the White House press secretary has handled both domestic and foreign policy.
“The president had seen John [Kirby] brief at the Pentagon and had known John from the Obama-Biden administration, and specifically by name said, ‘I want him working at the White House,’” said Jeremy Bash, who worked closely with Kirby when he served as chief of staff at the Pentagon in the Obama administration. The White House declined to comment.
Kirby joined the National Security Council staff in May 2022, three months into the Ukraine war and not long after Biden’s first press secretary, Jen Psaki, left for a gig at MSNBC. Like Kirby, Psaki had held the spokesperson role at State; her replacement, Karine Jean-Pierre, lacked similar experience communicating on matters of foreign policy.
“I think with the advent of the Ukraine war, there was a feeling that, given how involved the U.S. military and our diplomats would be in supporting Ukraine, that having — and given the fact that most Americans weren’t closely following events in Ukraine before the war — it was going to be very important to have somebody who could spend almost their full time focused on explaining the national security issues to the press and to the American people,” said Bash of Kirby’s new role.
In previous roles, Kirby’s audience was the cadre of wonky journalists who covered the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom, reporters who were responsible for following complicated explanations about the movement of military personnel and making sense of diplomatic jargon. Now, he has to explain the same concepts in more straightforward language.
“I don’t know that I would describe it as diplomatic. When I was at State, when we used that sort of language, I called it gobbledy-gook,” said Ortagus. “That’s where I think Kirby shines amongst all of the administration officials, because he’s been much more clear, whereas others are clearly very nervous about what’s going to happen with the far left and their political base, and so they put in all of these qualifying words.”
His clear language supporting Israel has earned Kirby some vocal detractors. A number of videos from far-left activists, including the anti-war organization Code Pink, have compared Kirby’s language when speaking about Palestinians to his language about the death of Ukrainians. “When some people are ‘human beings’ and others are ‘collateral damage,’ it is the language of genocide,” Code Pink said in a video. (Kirby did not describe the deaths of Palestinians as “collateral damage.” Last week, he said, “We’re not accepting of any single civilian death in Gaza. They’re all tragedies.”)
Kirby has addressed this criticism head-on: “Unlike Russia and Ukraine and unlike what Hamas did on the 7th of October, the killing of civilians is not a war aim of Israel. I’m not denying that it’s happening,” Kirby said last week. “Of course it is, and it’s tragic. But it’s not the goal of Israeli forces to go out and deliberately take innocent civilian life. And they have tried to make efforts to minimize that.”
While Kirby might be adept at speaking earnestly and off-the-cuff about the war in the Middle East, he does not speak for himself. He speaks on behalf of the president, a self-proclaimed Zionist whose post-Oct. 7 speeches about the Hamas attack earned him widespread adoration among Israelis.
“We do believe that Hamas can’t be the future of governance in Gaza. They can’t be. They just can’t. We can’t go back to October 6th,” Kirby said last week in response to a question about the future of Gaza. But this wasn’t him making such a proclamation, Kirby made clear: “You heard the president say that.”