White House goes into damage control mode after reports of dysfunction in Kamala Harris’ office
Editor’s Note: This piece originally published on July 2, 2021.
The White House dove into damage control this week after reports of dysfunction and infighting in Vice President Kamala Harris’ office, with the administration trying to stop a drama-filled narrative from taking hold, according to five people who spoke to CNN about the dynamics within Harris’ office.
Two people close to Harris’ team said some individuals inside the vice president’s office are frustrated with what they see as a dysfunctional operation that has been at times waylaid by internal conflict. Some of that ire is directed squarely at Harris’ chief of staff, Tina Flournoy, those people said. Another source close to the staff said there were “challenges and struggles” and heard complaints about Flournoy from staff, but denied it amounted to dysfunction or that the tensions were directly Flournoy’s fault.
Sabrina Singh, deputy press secretary to the vice president, told CNN in a statement that Harris’ focus remains on her work.
“The Vice President and her office are focused on the Biden-Harris Administration’s agenda to build an economy from the middle out and the bottom up, not the top down, to making sure racial equity is at the core of everything the Administration does, to combatting the existential threat of climate change, and to continue protecting the American people from the Covid-19 pandemic,” Singh said.
And White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday said, “I will say that the vice president is an incredibly important partner to the President of the United States. She has a challenging job, a hard job, and she has a great supportive team of people around her. But other than that, I’m not going to have any more comments on those reports.”
Still, conversations are now underway in the West Wing about how to better support Harris’ team, one source close to the White House said.
That help from the West Wing is a sign that the spiraling narrative could start to affect Harris, who is considered the next in line to lead the Democratic Party — with a potential for a presidential run coming as soon as 2024 if President Joe Biden decides not to seek reelection. Biden has said he does intend to run.
Top White House officials and aides to the vice president went on the record to defend Harris and Flournoy, calling reports of infighting and dysfunction overblown or simply untrue. And Harris’ outside allies and advisers — like influential adviser Minyon Moore and Democratic strategist Bakari Sellers — quickly took to Twitter, looking to drown out the criticism.
On Friday, Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, a longtime friend of Flournoy, said in a statement to CNN: “Vice President Harris and her team are off to the fastest and strongest start of any Vice President I have seen. She’s Delivering for the American people on immigration, small business, voting rights, and economic growth. The President’s trust and confidence in her is obvious when you see them in the Oval Office together.”
“The results speak for themselves: a decline of border arrivals from the Northern Triangle, improved vaccine equity, and increased economic opportunities for women. Anyone who has the honor of working closely with the Vice President knows how her talents and determination have made a huge difference in this Administration already,” Klain’s statement added.
As the frustrations bubbled to the surface this week and damage control commenced, the full-court defense also served to amplify the clear concern inside and around the Biden administration about the drama unfolding in Harris’ office. The latest reports are seen as part of a pattern of stories about staff infighting and low morale, which have followed Harris from her Senate office to her presidential campaign and now to the vice presidency.
One administration official described the current efforts by the West Wing as an attempt to help with any issues any staff might be facing.
“Ron, Anita (Dunn), Cedric (Richmond), others, have certainly expressed their solidarity with our team, internally and externally,” the administration official said.
But some of those efforts actually helped solidify reports of staff discontent. Rather than denying the existence of complaints about morale inside Harris’ office, Dunn — a White House senior adviser — told Politico the complaints were “not anywhere near what you are describing” and acknowledged that there “may be people whose feelings were a little hurt on her staff” after many staffers weren’t told of her trip to the southern border ahead of it being announced publicly.
The departure of Harris’ top two advance officials has also served to compound a chaotic narrative, even though some officials insisted the pair had always planned for early exits from the administration.
It does not help that Harris has come under fire for multiple missteps in her first few months in office, starting after just a few weeks when she gave an interview to a West Virginia TV station that angered crucial moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who hails from the state. That tension reached its apex last month during her first international trip as vice president, a two-day visit to Guatemala and Mexico, during which she likened not going to the border to also not having visited Europe.
“I, and I haven’t been to Europe. And I mean, I don’t — I don’t understand the point that you’re making,” Harris said with a laugh to NBC’s Lester Holt when pressed about the fact that she hadn’t visited the US-Mexico border.
The trip to El Paso, Texas, last week was without incident and some people close to Harris called reports alleging dysfunction overblown. But others told CNN that the office is rife with frustration and occasional infighting.
“I think everybody is just feeling overwhelmed,” a source close to the White House said of the dynamics in the vice president’s office.
“It’s a tough place, obviously,” the administration official said, not just of the vice president’s office but of all administration jobs, which operate at a high level of stress and pressure. “But for the most part, people are focused on the mission.”
That official contended that Flournoy has been asset to Harris as her chief of staff, and a source close to Flournoy credited her with keeping Harris’ circle tight, saying her role “is to be the gatekeeper, it is to keep the principal on task and it is to be the person that is the last voice before the principal’s make the decision, so in that regard, she is doing the job that she’s supposed to be doing.” Some of the complaints voiced in media reports alleged that Flournoy has limited access to Harris too much.
“There’s not infighting between the teams,” the administration official said. “The office is united together as part of the larger goal of the OVP. People are working together to make sure that she is executing on like the tasks she’s been assigned.”
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