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Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby holds a press briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., May 16, 2022.

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby holds a press briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., May 16, 2022. (James Lee/ U.S. Navy)

WASHINGTON — Chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby is stepping down from his position to switch podiums for a senior communications job at the White House, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Friday.

Kirby, a retired rear admiral, will soon advise the National Security Council in strategic communications as President Joe Biden’s administration deals with security challenges emanating from Russia’s assault on Ukraine, North Korean missile threats and Chinese aggression, Austin said in a statement.

“I am delighted to see John Kirby’s selection for a key communications role at the White House,” Austin said. “He will be a terrific addition to a strong team over there, and his long experience in defense and foreign policy perfectly suits him for work with the National Security Council staff.”

The spokesman has become a regular fixture on cable news, handling the Defense Department’s communications during a year that saw the end of the United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan and the start of Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine.

“John has served ably as our spokesperson here at the Department since the very first day of this Administration, and I have relied deeply on his communications skill these last 18 months,” Austin said.

Kirby supported the Biden administration’s efforts to promote transparency, holding regular press conferences multiple times a week.

His leadership marked a shift in communications strategy from former President Donald Trump’s administration, which went a full year without Pentagon press conferences between 2018 and 2019.

“From crisis communications to policy guidance, and through his bold leadership of the public affairs community, John has set the example of integrity, character, transparency and candor,” Austin said.

Kirby recently received praise on social media for a poignant moment when the typically stoic spokesman became visibly emotional discussing Russian “depravity” in Ukraine.

“It’s difficult to look at the – sorry,” he said, before pausing to collect himself. “It’s difficult to look at some of the images and imagine that any well-thinking, serious, mature leader would do that.”

Russia last month sanctioned Kirby for his work at the Pentagon, adding him to a list of military and political leaders now banned from entering the country.

In his new role, he is expected to work closely with new White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who took over the role from Jen Psaki on Monday.

Kirby served as a public affairs officer in the Navy, including as the Navy’s chief of information and worked on the staffs of the chief of Naval Operations, chief of Naval Personnel and U.S. Naval Forces Europe.

This was his second time working as the chief Pentagon spokesman after taking the role for the first time in December 2013 during former President Barack Obama’s administration.

During that stint, the late Sen. John McCain made headlines in October 2014 when he called Kirby an “idiot” for disagreeing with the Arizona Republican’s remarks that the U.S. was losing its war on the Islamic State, according to reports from the time.

Kirby switched to the State Department in 2015, working as its spokesman until Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.

Austin gave a glowing review of Kirby in his Friday statement, noting he will “certainly miss” Kirby at the Pentagon but believes he will “serve well our country’s interests in this new capacity.”

“There is simply no other communicator like him anywhere,” Austin said.

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Caitlin Doornbos covers the Pentagon for Stars and Stripes after covering the Navy’s 7th Fleet as Stripes’ Indo-Pacific correspondent at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Previously, she worked as a crime reporter in Lawrence, Kan., and Orlando, Fla., where she was part of the Orlando Sentinel team that placed as finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. Caitlin has a Bachelor of Science in journalism from the University of Kansas and master’s degree in defense and strategic studies from the University of Texas at El Paso.
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