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Who is Kiran Ahuja? Jen Psaki 'butchers' Biden appointee's name while defending lack of AAPI members in cabinet

Ahuja has been nominated by President Joe Biden to be the director of the Office of Personnel Management but Psaki had a hard time pronouncing her name correctly
UPDATED MAR 25, 2021
Jen Psaki apologized to Kiran Ahuja for not pronouncing her name right (Getty/Twitter)
Jen Psaki apologized to Kiran Ahuja for not pronouncing her name right (Getty/Twitter)

White House press secretary Jen Psaki 'butchered' the name of an Asian American woman, Kiran Ahuja, who was nominated by President Joe Biden to be the director of the Office of Personnel Management while answering why the administration, which touts itself for being diverse, has failed to have Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders lead one of the fifteen executive departments in the cabinet. 

During the daily press briefing on Wednesday, March 24, Psaki was asked by a reporter, "The Biden administration is the first in twenty years to not have an Asian American lead one of the fifteen executive departments in the cabinet, so how does the White House square that fact with  the President’s pledges to make this the most representative, most diverse, uh, in history?" 


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In response, Psaki said, “Well, I will just say the President remains committed to making sure this is the most diverse administration in history. That has always been, remains our goal. We’ve made a lot of progress we have the most diverse cabinet in history. We will continue to make progress. We have AAPI staff at senior levels at all levels of the administration and we’ll continue to work to find ways to elevate AAPI voices uh, at the highest level of government."


She then went onto read from a list of several senior AAPI Biden appointees, acknowledging that they did not form the top fifteen spots. That was when she struggled to pronounce Ahuja's name. "But just to note obviously Katherine Tai who received overwhelming support in the Senate in her approval to be confirmed for USTR. Julie Su at the Department of Labor. 'Kirani Ahoodah,' I’m going to butcher that name and I apologize to Kiran, at OPM. Todd Kim, the assistant attorney general at DOJ. So, we will continue, and obviously, there are more positions and roles that uh, we need to fill."

Ahuja is an American attorney and activist who served as the chief of staff to the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management from 2015 to 2017. She previously served for six years as the director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. She is an India-born American, and has also been a lawyer with the United States Department of Justice and a founding director of a non-profit, the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum. In 2017, she became the CEO of Philanthropy Northwest. On February 23, 2021, President Joe Biden announced that he was going to nominate Ahuja to serve as director of the United States Office of Personnel Management, following which her nomination was sent to the Senate where it's currently pending confirmation.

Democratic senators speak up against Biden for not nominating enough AAPI voices 

Asian-American Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) briefly threatened to vote against any of Biden's nominees who aren't minorities, citing the fact that they were unhappy about the fact that the POTUS' cabinet lacks Asian Americans.

Duckworth told CNN she felt the White House's attempts to address her worries about Asian American and Pacific Islander representation in the administration were insulting. "To be told that you have Kamala Harris, we are very proud of her, you don't need anybody else, is insulting," Duckworth said. "That's not something you would say to the Black caucus -- that you have Kamala -- we're not going to be putting any African Americans in the Cabinet -- why would you say that to AAPIs?"

It was only after the White House agreed to add a senior Asian American and Pacific Islander liaison and pledged to elevate diverse voices to the highest levels of government did Duckworth and Hirono back down from their threats. 

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) talks to reporters during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on November 17, 2020 in Washington, DC. Duckworth and fellow Senate Democrats were critical of President Donald Trump's continued claims of election fraud and his refusal to concede the election to President-elect Joe Biden. (Getty Images)

"Sen. Duckworth appreciates the Biden Administration's assurances that it will do much more to elevate AAPI voices and perspectives at the highest levels of government, including appointing an AAPI senior White House official to represent the community, secure the confirmation of AAPI appointments and advance policy proposals that are relevant and important to the community," said Ben Garmisa, spokesman for Duckworth, on Tuesday night. "Accordingly, she will not stand in the way of President Biden's qualified nominees—which will include more AAPI leaders."

Hirono also tweeted late Tuesday night that she welcomed the announcement. "I welcome the appointment of a senior level White House liaison to the AAPI community to further strengthen our voice," Hirono tweeted. "I had a productive conversation with the White House today to make clear my perspective about the importance of diversity in the President's cabinet. Based on the private conversation we had, I will continue voting to confirm the historic and highly qualified nominees President Biden has appointed to serve in his administration."