Gregg K. Kakesako
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said White House press assistant Michael “Kiku” Kikukawa, Moloka‘i resident and Harvard University graduate, has left the West Wing after 18 months to serve as a spokesman at the U.S. Treasury Department.
At a June 7 White House news briefing Jean-Pierre said: “Michael, better known here to all of you, to all of us, as ‘Kiku,’ has served not just as a press assistant, but as the strong engine and reliable engine at the press shop. His relentless work ethic and dedication to the mission of this team have been second to none.”
A week later, on June 14, on his last day in West Wing, Kikukawa tweeted: “Well, the day has finally come. It has been an incredible honor to work for POTUS (President of the United States) and Press Secretary (Jen Psaki) for the last 511 days.”
After a few days as the spokesman for Labor Department Kikukawa, 25, told The Hawai‘i Herald that his new job, besides responding to inquiries from reporters, is “rolling out announcements and working travel arrangements for the administration.
“My focus is international affairs, so (I am) working on stories about international organizations like the G7, G20 and multilateral development banks, administration priorities like the global minimum tax, and Secretary (Janet) Yellen’s foreign travel.”
Although White House staff turnover is not unusual at this point in any presidential administration, media reports have focused on the “unusually high” staff turnover as President Joe Biden neared 18 months in office. The Associated Press reported “long hours, low morale and relatively low pay are taking a toll on both the ranks of the senior staff and the numerous junior aides who keep the White House functioning.”
Two thirds of Biden’s press office have left, including Kikukawa’s boss, Jen Psaki. Many of the junior aides sought jobs in other federal agencies which meant larger salaries and substantially reduced workloads. Psaki left the White House and will become an anchor at MSNBC.
In an October 2021 interview with The Hawai‘i Herald, Kikukawa talked about his first 10 months in the White House. In an hour-long phone interview Kikukawa said: “I am definitely as excited as I was when I joined,” The phone interview was conducted during a week filled with news including the fall of Kabul, wildfires in the west, and the August surge of the COVID-19 Delta variant virus. “I’m a little more tired, but I have a better understanding of what the job requires … It’s a job that takes a lot of constant attention to details, but at the same time being quick and speed matters. But at the same time trying to make sure that every detail is accurate and all the t’s are crossed and i’s are dotted.”
At the time he was one of three press assistants. His day began with an 8 a.m. staff meeting, Kikukawa said, and then he helped Press Secretary Psaki prepare for her daily White House press briefings, including providing information for her briefing book.
“It’s fast,” said Kikukawa of his White House job. “It’s fascinating. It’s a really cool place to work.”
After graduating from Harvard University in 2017, Kikukawa worked on the communications team for the Democratic National Committee before joining the Psaki’s staff in January 2021. Kikukawa graduated from Moloka‘i High School in 2013 and was valedictorian, student body president, head of the school’s National Honor Society, and won honors at the Maui Schools Science and Engineering Fair.
Kikukawa’s grandfather, Arthur Manabu Kikukawa, served in World War II as a private in the 232nd Combat Engineer Company with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The elder Kikukawa was a close friend of fellow 442nd RCT veteran, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye.
Gregg K. Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, congressional reporter for the Gannett News Service and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.