Klain Drain and Trump’s Big Announcement

Ron Klain
White House chief of staff Ron Klain. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
June 2, 2022

The dam, it seems, has broken for Joe Biden’s highly disciplined, always-on-message, mega-professional, pro-staffed White House. Recent stories about the West Wing being “adrift” have appeared in NBC and The Washington Post, both essentially reporting what I’ve been saying in this space for weeks: the knives are out for Chief of Staff Ron Klain, a brilliant tactician who is nevertheless facing blowback on account of Biden’s low approval numbers and his own, albeit often necessary, neurotic pageant-mom management of the gaffe-happy president. 

Is it surprising that Klain, who runs the ship, would become the focus of such criticism? Of course not; that’s life at the top, especially in this town. But the intensity and flow of vitriol is surprising. It seems to suggest that donors, House members, and even Klain’s own aides don’t want to hold their fire until he presumably decides to leave his post after the midterms. Are they trying to force his hand, in a desperate bid to save the Democratic party’s Congressional fortunes before they are crushed in November? From what I’m hearing, some party insiders are just so desperate for any change and they’d be willing to take a few news cycles about the dysfunction to facilitate it sooner rather than later. (The White House did not offer a comment on the situation.)

In the meantime, the Biden White House is nothing if not well-organized, and Klain’s potential successor is already in the building. Anita Dunn is back in the White House for a third tour from her powerhouse influence shop, SKDK. A trusted advisor to Biden, Dunn understands his politics and style, but potentially elevating another longtime Biden loyalist to run the White House suggests that those at the top will adhere to the Klainian strategy of heavily managed insularity. Is that the best path forward? A certain uncompetitiveness has played a role in stories about an exodus of black staffers, many of whom felt that they couldn’t ascend the ranks because Biden’s old hands dominated the top rung of the org chart. And perhaps it has also blinded some in the West Wing from other unattractive notable decisions. Early in the Biden-Klain tenure, the Post noted that the adult children, spouses, and close relatives of at least five top aides, including Klain and Steve Ricchetti, had secured White House jobs. It wasn’t quite Javanka-type stuff, obviously, but it prevented those coveted jobs from going to more diverse candidates. 

Some question whether Dunn, a traditional Washington establishment fixture and effective enforcer, will be able to sufficiently disrupt the White House status quo. Nevertheless, her impact is already being felt. Dunn is helping to redefine the Biden narrative through a series of optics plays that attempt to demonstrate that the White House is serious about inflation and the baby formula shortage, and that Biden isn’t some West Wing hermit but rather a highly-engaged and ubiquitous problem-solver, meeting with the relevant people to confront these issues personally. Dunn’s influence was felt this week via Biden’s twin op-eds (antiinflation in the Journal, pro-Ukraine in the Times), which were intended to signal to the political universe that Biden is not out of touch with the rising price of gasoline and other household goods, and that he’s in fact working—even if those demonstrations were delivered via papers read by elite audiences that only reflect a sliver of the Democratic base. 

Another instance of curious optics was Biden’s meeting with Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell this week. One White House advisor described the meeting to me as another physical manifestation that Biden is again “doing something” about inflation, even if it’s meeting with a guy he has no control over, as he noted in the Journal, and who will ultimately be blamed for raising the interest rates that could trigger a recession. In fact, Biden is correct to want to look like he’s tackling the issue, while strategically deflecting the blame on Powell with his statement that he respects the Fed’s “independence.” A new Morning Consult poll shows that more than half of G.O.P. voters believe that the president does have control over inflation. 

Another recent Dunn trick: conferring some pop star influencer cool on an otherwise stodgy old-school administration, and trying to capture public attention in the process. This week’s briefing room visit from BTS, the Korean pop supergroup, was a huge hit, driving more than 300,000 viewers to a White House livestream. Some in leadership wonder if Dunn has more of these tricks up her sleeve that could elevate Biden’s approval ratings, obviating the criticisms of a press that complains about a lack of access, and makes him seem engaged in the problems of ordinary Americans. 

But others wonder if she understands that this influencer game requires as much maintenance as the mainstream press. In March, to wit, the White House briefed TikTok stars on the situation in Ukraine. The White House also tried during the height of the pandemic to utilize influencers, although it didn’t seem to stick. At the time, I was told that the White House was unresponsive to stars, like Jason Alexander, who were willing to help build vaccine awareness. They were also uninterested in working with Meghan McCain, who offered to get vaccinated while at The View before an audience of skeptical Republican viewers. They ultimately engaged with celebrities like Jennifer Garner, Kim Kardashian, George Lopez and Tyra Banks on the issue, but it was more a flash flood of content than a persistent campaign.   

We’ll soon see if these tactics work. But if Dunn does ascend, making history as the first female chief of staff, she’ll go from messaging to managing, and that may be where the rubber hits the road. 

Trump Gets Ready to Announce

Meanwhile, despite his lackluster midterm endorsement showing, I’m hearing that Donald Trump is getting very antsy about declaring his political future. Sources close to Trump say that if his candidates are largely victorious in this year’s general election cycle, potentially washing over his many failed endorsements during the primary season, he may announce his plans to run for president as soon as November. If not, the latest he will announce his plans is January or February 2023. 

The one and only Maggie Haberman has clearly gotten wind of these same impatient musings about Trump’s intentions. She reported that he’s even considering announcing his plans, or launching an exploratory committee, as soon as this summer, ahead the midterms. Despite his impulsive instincts, Trump is apparently aware that his announcement could fire up the Democratic base and overshadow the G.O.P. candidates in the midterms. But there’s always the chance he gets exuberant at a rally and just does it anyway. 

In a way, Trump preemptively declaring his candidacy could clear the field by making it harder for anyone else to challenge him, placing him front and center, where he wants to be. It would also make the midterms all about Trump. But, on the flipside, Republicans want to make November a referendum on Biden, particularly given that polling shows him struggling with independents and suburban voters. Any early announcement also impacts Trump’s fundraising vehicles. His Save America PAC has more restrictions if and when he declares himself a candidate. But these are just the data points. Trump will likely do whatever he wants.

McConnell Drama Redux

Since I wrote last week about the various intramural issues testing Mitch McConnell’s vulcan death grip on the G.O.P., I have been besieged by Senate institutionalists and McConnell staffers. Each and every one has downplayed the putative threat to McConnell’s leadership posed by the potential general election victories of Eric Greitens, J.D. Vance, Blake Masters, Kelly Tshibaka, and Mo Brooks, all of whom have made their disdain for McConnell known. These institutionalists and McConnell staffers pointed out that these five or so rebels, with their freshman status, will be unlikely to whip support voting against McConnell. They also suggested that McConnell’s power will go unchallenged because the leadership vote takes place within the G.O.P. Senate conference—not on the floor, as is the case in the vote for speaker of the House. In other words, McConnell only needs a simple majority of the 51 or so senators in his conference, a threshold he should easily clear. 

Now, as it was explained to me, Greitens et al. could mess with McConnell, either by abstaining from voting for the organizing resolution, or by caucusing outside of the G.O.P., or even by electing not to be sworn in right away in order to withhold votes from the G.O.P. Obviously this tactic would be insane, because it would ultimately hand the Senate to Chuck Schumer. But it’s a potential point of leverage when asking for favors, like committee assignments, from the guy you’ve been slagging off. 

Good news for McConnell: I checked with multiple sources close to Greitens, whose entire campaign has been an anti-Mitch crusade, and even he is not prepared to hand the Senate to Democrats to shiv McConnell. Now, has he thought about it? Sure. Will he make McConnell’s life hell? Probably. So long live McConnell, because as I said last week, no one wants the job anyway. 

Banks vs. Stefanik

The real shivving, after all, is already taking place in the lower chamber, as the race for House majority whip heats up. Six months away from a leadership race, the whisper battle has grown louder between Reps. Jim Banks and Elise Stefanik. (It seems increasingly obvious that a Republican will have this job since the Dems are set to be pummeled in November.) 

For Banks, currently the chairman of the powerful Republican Study Committee, being the presumed nominee for whip also positions him to be considered for the speakership if House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy ultimately slips up before the election, i.e. crosses Trump (again), and there’s a need for an alternative. In addition, it lines him up for House speaker in the future. That’s why he desperately needs Stefanik, who is currently the third ranking Republican in the House (thanks to Liz Cheney’s ouster as House Republican conference chair), to announce that she’s not interested in the role that she’s clearly interested in. If Stefanik stays on as conference chair, she will drop to become the fourth ranking Republican in Congress. A source close to Banks told me, “​Stefanik has to, at some point, make a statement that she’s not running for whip. It needs to be facilitated.”

Good luck. The executive director for Team Elise, Alex deGrasse, said in a statement: “[Stefanik] is encouraged by the positive outpouring of support and encouragement from her colleagues for future opportunities in the House. She never takes any election for granted, and she will not be making any announcements about future positions until after ensuring Republicans win big this November to save America.” And we probably can’t expect more than that, since the elections are still months away. In the meantime, expect both sides to needle each other in the press. You’ll read snipey stories about Stefanik staffers allegedly using the name of Buckley Carlson, son of Tucker and a Banks staffer, in vain. And you’ll be reminded of all of the times that Banks crossed Trump, like in 2011, when he retweeted the Club for Growth calling Trump a liberal. Or stories that suggest that Banks wants to be speaker, which tweaked McCarthy. Or even press releases from 2015 in which Trump’s aforementioned nemesis, Club for Growth, endorsed Banks. Yes, politics is dirty and these two want the same job, despite any off-ramp Banks thinks he can create for Stefanik. 

Where is Jaime Harrison?

I’ve heard from network bookers that they’ve been trying to get Jaime Harrison, the Democratic National Committee chairman, on Sunday shows and for cable news hits, but unlike everyone else in D.C.—who would leave their dying mother in the hospital for a daytime hit on CNN—he’s been turning them all down. Harrison’s aversion to the spotlight has only intensified the growing chatter that he is not long for the role of D.N.C. chair. Not helping matters, optically at least, is the fact that Harrison appears to prefer his home in South Carolina rather than glad-handing in D.C. (His team countered that over the past seven weeks, Harrison made 17 media appearances—a mix of satellite radio, local news, podcasts, and cable hits, although he skipped the Sunday shows.)

Unlike Tom Perez or Terry McAuliffe, his two recent predecessors, Harrison has mostly operated at a remove. Indeed, according to my sources, he has often been bigfooted by deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, who is close with D.N.C. executive director Sam Cornale and operates as a sort of shadow leader of the organization. And despite all of that, to his credit, Harrison has still raised a whopping $213 million. 

Cedric Richmond, a congressman-turned-Biden advisor who recently left the White House for the D.N.C.,, might be a natural successor for the role. He has an incredible pedigree, relationships, and an ability to raise gobs of cash as a former principal, himself. That said, close observers of Democratic leadership say a shakeup is unlikely before the midterm elections. Harrison told NBC in January that he had promised Biden he would stay in his posting for at least the first four years of his presidency; let’s see if he’s able to wiggle out of that. D.N.C. spokesperson Ammar Moussa doubled down, saying that Richmond would never take Harrison’s posting because of “how close” they are. To be fair, I’m not saying he would. He’s just well positioned if Harrison ever leaves earlier than expected.

Either way, there’s always McAuliffe part deux. He’s looking for a job in the administration or some sort of relevancy after his narrow loss to Glenn Youngkin in Virginia last fall. Or Biden’s old friend Chris Dodd, who is also looking for something to do. 

Everyone Gets a Trophy

In D.C. we love our trophies, and no one understands this more than Philippe Etienne, the French ambassador to the U.S., who has been handing out Legion of Honour medals like candy since ascending to his post. He’s clearly aware that he has unique shoes to fill from his gregarious predecessor, Gérard Araud, and has been set on making sure that the embassy retains its reputation as a social hotspot for the administration’s power players. So whatever Etienne may lack in flair, he’s made up in honors, lots of them, for everyone around town. And every time he bestows one of France’s highest honors to one of D.C.’s movers and shakers who have helped expand France’s influence, there’s a party to toast them. An embassy official said it may appear like there are more than usual because of the backlog of ceremonies due to Covid. 

Considered an order of chivalry—equivalent, at the highest level, to a knighthood—the award has been bestowed on John Kerry, Miles Davis, and (eek) Vladimir Putin. Since Etienne came to D.C., he’s pinned flashy medals on Distilled Spirits Council C.E.O. Chris Swonger; Semafor’s Steve Clemons; Meridian International Center C.E.O. Stuart Holliday; Brookings’ Bill Drozdiak; Jesse Jackson; and Tony Blinken’s mother, Judith Pisar, a strategic move, perhaps, when it would look improper to award an administration official, among others. 

Araud was more tight-fisted with his diplomatic gold pin, according to one of his former aides, only awarding about four per year with a focus on military and scientific achievements. The decision is ultimately made in Paris. But with Etienne, it’s only a guessing game of who will get it next. In fact, when I reached out to the embassy to talk about the honor, a diplomat asked me, facetiously, “You want one?” The answer is oui.