Welcome to POLITICO’s West Wing Playbook, your guide to the people and power centers in the Biden administration. With help from Allie Bice.
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In the first months of his presidency, JOE BIDEN vented his frustration about Vice President KAMALA HARRIS, telling a friend that she was “a work in progress.”
According to an upcoming book about the Biden presidency obtained by West Wing Playbook, “The Fight of His Life,” word got back to him that second gentleman DOUGLAS EMHOFF had been complaining about Harris’ policy portfolio — which her allies felt was hurting her politically. “Biden was annoyed,” wrote author CHRIS WHIPPLE, who obtained extensive access to Biden administration officials while writing the book. “He hadn’t asked Harris to do anything he hadn’t done as vice president — and she’d begged him for the voting rights assignment.”
Biden wasn’t alone. A senior White House adviser vented that “[Harris’] inner circle didn’t serve her well in the presidential campaign — and they are ill-serving her now.”
The new details of the tensions between the vice president and the president are among the many revelations in the book due out on Jan. 17 that traces the highs and lows of Biden’s first two years.
“I think Biden’s presidency is the most consequential of my lifetime,” Whipple said in an interview. “His legislative record is comparable to LBJ’s and he’s been underestimated every step of the way. But it’s also been a tale of two presidencies –- the first year and the second year.
“What makes this such a great story is that Joe Biden and his team really turned it all around, I think,” he said, citing the administration’s response to Russia’s war against Ukraine and the resuscitation of the Build Back Better package.
Whipple previously wrote a well–reviewed history of White House chiefs of staff, “The Gatekeepers.” His new book features extensive interviews with Biden’s current chief of staff, RON KLAIN, whom he credits with “patient, nose-to-the-grindstone stewardship.” The book also includes quotes from others in the president’s inner-circle, although Whipple acknowledges the White House approached the book with its usual wariness toward reporters.
“It was tough, because, as you well know, this is the most battened-down, disciplined, leak-proof White House in modern times,” he told West Wing Playbook. His interviews with top senior staff were done on deep background, with quote approval, he said. And Biden and Harris only agreed to answer questions submitted in writing. (Whipple wrote that Harris declined to answer a question he sent about “turmoil and morale problems among your staff going back to your time as California attorney general,” and a question asking about her worst day as vice president.)
Despite such pre-conditions, Whipple’s book is plenty revealing. White House spokesperson ROBYN PATTERSON said in a statement: “We respect that there will be no shortage of books written about the administration containing a wide variety of claims. We don’t plan to engage in confirmations or denials when it comes to the specifics of those claims. The author did not give us a chance to verify the materials that are attributed here.”
Here are some of the revelations that caught our attention:
Ricchetti’s disappointment about not being chief of staff
After Biden chose Klain as chief of staff, STEVE RICCHETTI, counselor to the president, confided to a friend: “I love Ron like a brother. But I think I’d have been the better choice.”
Trump’s letter to Biden
DONALD TRUMP followed a tradition carried out by several of his predecessors and wrote Biden a letter before leaving the Oval Office. Biden’s reaction? “That was very gracious and generous…Shockingly gracious.”
Panetta vs. Klain
The book captures Klain’s anger at the public and private critiques of Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan by LEON PANETTA, the former chief of staff to BILL CLINTON who also served as CIA director and defense secretary under BARACK OBAMA.
Panetta compared the exit to JOHN KENNEDY’s handling of the Bay of Pigs, and he told Whipple he wondered “whether people were telling the president what he wanted to hear.”
Klain shot back after being shown those comments. “Joe Biden didn’t pay a trillion dollars to these people to be trained to be the army. He wasn’t out there saying for years, as Leon was, that we had built a viable fighting force. Leon favored the war. Leon oversaw the training of the Afghan army,” he told Whipple. “He was CIA director and defense secretary when many of the Afghan troops were trained. If this was Biden’s Bay of Pigs, it was Leon’s army that lost the fight.”
Afghanistan blame game
Whipple wrote that Biden “felt let down by his briefers” when it came to Afghanistan. The book includes several on-the-record interviews with top officials pointing fingers at one another over the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
- Secretary of State TONY BLINKEN said that the fundamental problem was that “the worst-case prediction for the failure of the Afghan government and the security forces, throughout the spring and into the early summer, was eighteen months–plus … Throughout this whole process there was an intelligence assessment that proved to be wrong: that the Afghan government and security forces would remain in place and hold on to the major cities well into the following year.”
- When CIA Director BILL BURNS was asked if he thought the results stemmed from an intelligence failure, he told Whipple: “I don’t believe it was. I think we and the intelligence community did an honest, straightforward job of pointing out the frailties — of the Afghan political leadership, especially, but also the Afghan military and the increasing momentum of the Taliban.” All of this, Burns said, was communicated to Biden, Whipple wrote.
- That prompted a senior White House aide to hit back. “Bill can point to things that said, ‘it’s possible that X will happen,’ right? In a twenty-page document, ‘it’s possible that X will happen’ in one line,” the senior aide told Whipple. “But the overwhelming weight of the material provided to the president was that the Taliban would take these rural areas quickly, and it would be a long time before they would launch an assault on major cities, let alone Kabul itself.”
- And then MARK MILLEY, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the 18-month worst-case scenario wasn’t what he recalled. “The intelligence I saw predicted months,” he said. “So we leave the country in August — and in a reasonable, worst-case scenario it’s a Thanksgiving, Christmas, January time frame when things fall apart. I think the intelligence was very, very good. The one exception was that no one predicted 11 days.”
Klain reads West Wing Playbook!
On Election Day this year, ELI and ALEX reported a story for West Wing Playbook that included administration officials critiquing Klain’s performance. Whipple reports that at 1:16 a.m. on election night, as it became clear Biden would defy the pundits (again), Klain sent him an email: “Maybe we don’t suck as much as people thought… Like maybe the nattering negatives who dumped to POLITICO were wrong!”
Maybe they were! Call me, maybe? We’d love to talk. Regardless, thank you for reading, Mr. Klain. [email protected] if you want to chat!
MESSAGE US — Are you HARIS TALWAR, the White House regional communications director? We want to hear from you. Email us at [email protected]
This one is from Allie. Who was president when the first Christmas tree was placed in the Blue Room on the State Floor, where modern presidencies keep the official White House Christmas tree?
(Answer at the bottom.)
ZELENSKYY INCOMING: Ukraine’s president, VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, is planning to address a joint session of Congress on Wednesday and appear with President Biden at the White House, our JONATHAN LEMIRE and OLIVIA OLANDER confirm. The trip, which could still be canceled over security concerns, would be Zelenskyy’s first outside his country’s borders since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion. The administration plans to announce the delivery of a Patriot missile battle system to help Ukraine with its air defenses, according to two people familiar with the plans. The visit was first reported by Punchbowl News.
BLAME GAME: Biden plans to hold incoming Israeli Prime Minister BENJAMIN NETANYAHU personally responsible for the actions of his far-right Cabinet appointees, especially if they advance policies that could endanger a future Palestinian state, our NAHAL TOOSI reports. “Bibi says he can control his government, so let’s see him do just that,” one U.S. official said. The strategy underscores the growing fragility of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
ANOTHER NYT WALKOUT LOOMING?: In his latest all staff email, deputy managing editor CLIFFORD LEVY urged the New York Times guild to reconsider management’s proposal to bring in an outside mediator to resolve the impasse over wages and other matters. The guild, in an email to members announcing a town hall set for Wednesday, dismissed that proposal, saying it “isn’t appropriate at this stage of negotiations.” Levy, in his note sent at 4:31 p.m. Tuesday, said he’s “confused” by the guild’s refusal to consider a mediator. So it’s going well. Newsroom sources told West Wing Playbook that the guild is beginning to gauge member support for a second walkout after the holidays.
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE WANTS YOU TO READ: The U.S. Postal Service announced Tuesday that three of every four new mail trucks being purchased — in large part with funding from the Inflation Reduction Act – will be electric. And by 2026, 100 percent of new trucks will be electric vehicles, the Washington Post’s JACOB BOGAGE scooped. That’s a big acceleration in the organization’s timeline for replacing its fleet of 30-year-old trucks with EVs and a major boost to Biden’s climate goals.
JOHN PODESTA, who Biden has tasked with implementing his climate initiatives, suggested the shift will be a boon for domestic EV manufacturers and could spur USPS’ competitors, like UPS and FedEx, to hasten their own efforts toward carbon-neutral fleets. The Office of Management and Budget shared the article from its official Twitter account.
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ: This Fox News report by JOSEPH A. WULFSOHN that details the seven interviews Biden did this year: “His first was the pre-Super Bowl sit-down with NBC’s LESTER HOLT in early February. He waited until June, over four months, to do an off-camera interview with the Associated Press. The following month, Biden sat down with Israeli anchor YONIT LEVI of Channel 12. He then waited until September before doing an interview with CBS News’ SCOTT PELLEY that aired on ‘60 Minutes.’
“In October, in the final stretch ahead of the 2022 midterms, Biden did interviews with CNN’s JAKE TAPPER, MSNBC host and Washington Post columnist JONATHAN CAPEHART, and Nexstar’s RESHAD HUDSON.”
NEW YEAR PLANS: The president is set to travel to Mexico City to attend the North American Leaders’ Summit Jan. 9-10, the White House announced Tuesday. Biden is also considering a trip to Nagasaki, Japan with Prime Minister FUMIO KISHIDA during a G-7 summit in May, a potentially historic move as no sitting president has visited the city. Nagasaki and Hiroshima were both cities the U.S. bombed in 1945. The summit will be hosted in Hiroshima. Reuters has more.
CLEAR THE CALENDAR: Speaking of travel, Vice President Kamala Harris told NPR’s ASMA KHALID that having to be in D.C. in case she was needed to break a tie in the Senate “had a real impact on the ability to then plan any kind of travel, be it domestic or international.” That’s all going to change in the new Congress. “That might seem like a mundane fact, but it actually will be a big difference in terms of how I’m able to do my work as vice president,” she said.
THE RESULTS ARE IN: A Punchbowl News poll found that “52 percent of senior Dem staffers on Capitol Hill expect [Transportation Secretary PETE] BUTTIGIEG to be the Democratic Party nominee in 2024 if Biden doesn’t run … Next is KAMALA HARRIS (39 percent), followed by GRETCHEN WHITMER (38 percent), then GAVIN NEWSOM (29 percent),” Washington Examiner’s KATHERINE DOYLE summarizes. Respondents were able to choose their top two picks.
PERSONNEL MOVES: SUBHAN CHEEMA is the new communications director for the Office of Science and Technology Policy, a White House spokesperson confirmed to West Wing Playbook. Cheema previously worked on the White House Covid-19 response team, where he was deputy director for strategic communications and external engagement.
PUTTING IT BLUNTLY: While meeting rally goers on Nov. 4, Biden told one attendee the Iran nuclear deal “is dead” but that the administration was not “going to announce it,” according to a video posted to Twitter on Tuesday. “Long story,” the president added. It’s the most clear indication of the status of negotiations, as the administration had hoped to revive the 2015 deal but talks stalled. Axios’ BARAK RAVID and HANS NICHOLS have the story.
Suspense builds at border over future of US asylum rules (AP’s Morgan Lee, Giovanna Dell’orto and Rebecca Santana)
How Diane Foley Made It Her Mission to Prioritize U.S. Hostages Overseas (NYT’s Peter Baker)
The first Christmas tree was placed in the Blue Room in 1912, when WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT was president. But he didn’t put up the tree.
According to the White House Historical Association, “the Taft children — ROBERT, HELEN, and CHARLIE — placed the first tree. [President] Taft and First Lady HELEN TAFT were away on a trip to Panama.”
A CALL OUT — Do you think you have a harder trivia question? Send us your best one about the presidents with a citation and we may feature it.
Edited by Eun Kyung Kim and Sam Stein.