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Michael Kikukawa: From Molokai to the White House Team

By Catherine Cluett Pactol

Molokai’s Michael Kikukawa graduated from Molokai High in 2013 and became the first Molokai student to attend Harvard. He didn’t stop there. He worked on the communications team for the Democratic National Committee and now has what he calls his dream job — White House press assistant. In the first 45 days of President Biden’s term, Kikukawa has already flown on Air Force One and stepped foot in the Oval Office.

“The best thing about Michael is his genuine heart, good intentions and his character,” said his dad, Phillip Kikukawa. “He’s polite and respectful. I’m proud of him, but I’m more than proud — I’m really happy for him. He’s doing what he always wanted to do.”

The Dispatch caught up with Kikukawa in between his hectic work schedule, and he answered some questions about his job and life.

The Molokai Dispatch: It sounds like you’re crazy busy and working long hours… what are your days like?

Michael Kikukawa: It’s been a busy 45 days since the Inauguration! I’m normally in the office from 8 a.m. until at least 8 p.m., and go in on most weekends. Our mornings are pretty busy as we help Press Secretary Jen Psaki prepare for the daily press briefing, where questions range from COVID-19 to missions to the moon and everything in between. Throughout the rest of the day, we work on press releases, staff the President’s events, and do what we can to help members of the press working on stories.

Dispatch: What does the job entail for you? What are some of the biggest challenges and rewards you’ve experienced so far?

Kikukawa: The job has been great and a lot of fun! As press assistant, I help with the briefing book Jen refers to during the press briefings, “wrangle” press (help when they attend events or travel on trips with the President), and send press releases, including the President’s schedule. The biggest reward by far is having a front seat to history. Working in the White House in support of President Biden’s initiatives like the American Rescue Plan — which will get direct checks to working families, fund vaccinations, and help reopen schools — is an incredible honor.

Some of the coolest things have been being in the Oval Office and flying on Air Force One. These are such unique experiences and I feel so humbled to be in those spaces.

Dispatch: What previous experiences do you feel like helped you get your current job?

Kikukawa: I’ve drawn a lot on my experience at the Democratic National Committee (DNC), where I worked in the Chair’s Office and on the Communications Team. In the Chair’s Office, I managed Chair Tom Perez’s briefing book, which included background on meetings and events he participated in throughout the day. Working on Chair Perez’s book really helped me prepare to organize and manage the Press Briefing Book at the White House.

On the Communications Team, I was part of the DNC’s War Room, which provided a reality check on Trump and his administration. I also helped write our daily message guidance, helping others fact check Trump and Republicans, and explaining Democrats’ and Biden’s plans. Communications in the White House is similar but in many ways more complicated, since we’re responsible for explaining the workings of the entire federal government.

Dispatch: What are your career goals or do you feel like you already have your dream job?

Kikukawa: This is definitely a dream job. As a colleague of mine put it, it’s a weird feeling to peak at 25 while working in the White House. I don’t think any job will ever top this one. It’s an honor and a privilege to walk into the West Wing every day and try to do some good!

Dispatch: Everyone is so proud of you! How does it feel to come from Molokai and be where you are today?

Kikukawa: I’m so proud to be from Molokai, and try to share my background with people on the mainland whenever I can. It’s funny, they can never guess where I’m from, but I’m always happy to talk about home. It certainly gives me a unique point of view to the work of the federal government and how it can affect different communities, especially Native communities that have suffered long injustices and broken promises.

There are a couple of other people from Hawaii who I see on a regular basis in the White House — Remi Yamamoto is from Oahu and is now the senior communications adviser to White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, and Nancy Cordes is from Kauai and Oahu and is now CBS News’ chief White House correspondent. It’s always great to see them and talk story. Because of the pandemic, none of us have been back recently and we’re homesick!

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