Succession Drama Sweeps D.C.

Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Bernie Sanders
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
May 12, 2022

Spring is in the air, at last, and that rebirth is manifesting itself in this town via a number of high-profile succession storylines. First, Judy Woodruff, Washington’s grand dame of political news, is set to step down from the anchor desk of PBS’s NewsHour after the midterm elections, after carefully picking her successors, Amna Nawaz and Geoff Bennett. Woodruff, 75, has been a member of the Washington press corp since 1976 and a member of its ruling class more or less ever since. She was an O.G. PBS anchor, who co-hosted CNN’s Inside Politics with Bernard Shaw before boomeranging back to PBS full-time. She sits on the board of the Gridiron Club, where she was bouncing around during the super-spreader event this spring. Along with her husband, fellow beltway creature Al Hunt, she has become an icon of the exalted political journalist class.

Woodruff seems just as spry as her famous predecessor, Jim Lehrer, who stepped down from the same anchor chair at 78. She is planning to stay at the network in a role that hasn’t yet been determined, I’m told, and enjoys the full support of PBS’s all-female troika: chairwoman Sharon Rockefeller, C.E.O. Paula Kerger, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting C.E.O. Pat Harrison. Even though the plan is pretty much baked, there are still some fears in quiet corners of the network that the empowered Woodruff could reverse course and stay on. But a new studio is being built for Bennett and Nawaz, who will both host the hourly show in the tradition once carried out by Lehrer, Gwen Ifill, and Woodruff. 

A PBS spokesperson responded, neither confirming nor denying the move, but instead stated, “We have a fantastic team at PBS NewsHour that continues to do outstanding work every day. We have a great deal of meaningful journalism planned for the future and that certainly includes Judy Woodruff, Amna Nawaz, Geoff Bennett and many others.” 

NewsHour executive producer Sarah Just’s fingerprints are all over the grooming of Woodruff’s successors, who are both in their 40s. A former ABC producer, Just plucked Nawaz from the Disney network and recruited Bennett from NBC. Her power is only rising in the network, especially if she can pull off the seamless transition. 

Is There Life After Pelosi?

Woodruff’s decision to step back provides a somewhat rare example of willful succession in today’s Washington, a veritable gerontocracy in which the president is 79, the Senate minority leader is 80, and the speaker of the House is 82. (By the way, check out Julia Ioffe’s fantastic piece from a few months ago on the town’s senioritis.) I’m also hearing that a very cranky Bernie Sanders (80) has been missing caucus meetings, and his recent isolation is causing many to wonder what he’s up to, and if he’s in hiding because he’s cooking up a primary against Joe Biden

But Woodruff may be joined by another heavyweight soon enough. Indeed, given that the Republicans are expected to take over the House this fall, Pelosi is widely expected to step aside, which is creating an Alexander Payne-style competition to take over her caucus. So far, New York’s Hakeem Jeffries, assistant speaker of the House Katherine Clarke, and media gadfly Adam Schiff are embroiled in a pre-competition to pre-position themselves to a role that hasn’t technically opened up yet, but everyone knows will soon enough. 

Naturally, the early battle is playing out in mostly superficial ways, which belies the fire-breathing ambition underneath it all. Jeffries, for instance, is trying to flex his fundraising prowess. He sent his top donors an invite in late April to join his “Chairman Council” by donating $25,000 or more to the Jeffries Victory Fund, which includes his re-election campaign, leadership PAC and the D.C.C.C. He has also started sending out Juniors’ cheesecakes to colleagues. 

Hakeem isn’t the only candidate for either Minority Leader or Speaker who can raise money and send cakes. Clark has been known to send members Boston coffee cake around the holidays. She’s also a prolific fundraiser, out-raising him in Q1 of 2022. (He is, however, right behind her.) She has the advantage of being preferred by Pelosi, who is keeping her plans for succession close to her vest, but many assume she will have a heavy hand in selecting her successor. Pelosi likes Clark because she’s a woman and a mother, who is not from the same district as Chuck Schumer, unlike Jeffries. Then there’s Schiff, who is less beloved by the caucus because of his dry personality, but he’s also touting to members his prolific fundraising. This dance will likely play out for months as members try to interpret Pelosi’s every move. One source close to her said, “She’s going to play the board as it is and move the pieces to her advantage.” So don’t expect any overt signs that she’s moving on. It would crush her fundraising prowess, after all. 

Does Gillibrand Want a New Act?

Over on the Senate side, Kirsten Gillibrand may be keeping her options open. Gillibrand, who is up for reelection in 2024 and will almost certainly face a primary challenger, such as Ritchie Torres or A.O.C., among others. There are some lower-key names looking at that seat, like Queens County D.A. Melinda Katz, who is meeting with members of Congress to push policy around gun and human trafficking, while also taking meetings with big D.C. machers about what the landscape looks like for higher office. 

Some have speculated that Gillibrand may be interested in an administration appointment, with an eye toward the comforts of life beyond public service. She sold her $2 million Capitol Hill condo last year, and is currently renting a two-bedroom apartment. She has one son who is headed off to college, and another son who is also looking at top schools. (Her husband, Jonathan, has a political appointment in the administration.) Who knows what kind of lucrative offers this former law partner and soon-to-be empty nester could fetch in the private sector.

Indeed, Gillibrand may have maxed out her political capital. Some Democrats privately begrudge her role in helping to force Al Franken to resign over his unwanted touching scandal. She’s also still radioactive to Clintonworld after comments she made about the former president a few years back during the height of the #MeToo moment. 

She could find a new purpose as a Roe warrior, although that’s a title she may need to wrestle from Elizabeth Warren. Meanwhile, Gillibrand was devastated to see her military sexual assault reform bill watered down by the Senate (ahem, Jack Reed). Lately, she has taken up more lucrative pet issues, like her new partnership with Republican crypto queen Senator Cynthia Lummis to create a new regulatory framework for the alternative asset class. That experience could certainly help Gillibrand if she so chooses to fathom life outside politics.

Of course, Gillibrand is preserving her optionality, as she should. She’s not done with the donor circuit (she’s a regular at the Regency for brunch, for instance). Just last month, Gillibrand was fundraising in San Francisco with Cory Booker. Her spokesperson Evan Lukaske said, “As she has stated consistently and unequivocally, Senator Gillibrand loves being in public service and has every intention of winning reelection in 2024. She just held a day-long retreat with her reelection committee and has more than $3 million cash on hand for her campaign. Clearly, the people who are fabricating these stories have absolutely zero insight into Senator Gillibrand’s thinking.”

Biden’s Inner Sanctum

Meanwhile, the drumbeat of frustration over Biden and his staff grows louder every day. And supporters, donors and influence-peddlers suspect that Chief of Staff Ron Klain is overusing the old Covid excuse to wall off Biden from outsiders. Of course, it is the goal of all chiefs of staff to protect the principal from unvetted, uninformed, and opportunistic outsiders. But some fear that Biden has become so walled off that he’s lost his ability to feel the pulse of the political forces at play. 

In particular, there’s a perception that the White House is leading from behind on critical issues like Title 42 (an early pandemic-era immigration ban) and the apparent overturning of Roe v. Wade. Many were hoping for more than just two tweets from the president and a few statements on an issue that could energize the base. Klain, in fairness, is dealing with a two-pronged issue: his principal is gaffe-happy and 79 years old, making him susceptible to severe Covid. But I’ve heard from fed-up bundlers who say that they can’t even get a White House tour or an invite to a movie screening. The lack of donor maintenance has turned off some deep-pocketed supporters, and it makes others suspicious that Biden even plans to run again. And while he appears to be back on the fundraising circuit—a D.N.C. fundraiser last night in Chicago, and Monday night in Potomac—some donors feel like it’s a lot of taking and not a lot of giving. (In fairness, a White House too preoccupied with returning donor calls and emails would arguably be more susceptible to criticism. Biden also has plenty to focus on with the situation in Ukraine.)

But members of Congress who have had meetings at the White House are also feeling iced out, I’ve learned. One said he can’t even get a photo with the president. Donald Trump, for all his faults, loved using the power of the White House to whip and charm, almost a little too much. He relished giving White House tours, pointing out rooms that were particularly humiliating to Bill Clinton. This may seem like a small matter, but people notice the funniest things.

Another gripe surrounding this White House remains the revolving door between the administration and SKDK, the massively influential consulting and lobbying firm. Anita Dunn, the vaunted messaging guru and SKDK partner, is now back in the White House for her third tour. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if she even left. In fact, she mistakenly listed the White House as an employer on a campaign contribution she made to longtime friend Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi on January 11, 2022, when she was apparently back at the firm. The White House says that was just a clerical error. (She first donated to him in January 2020, when she was on the Biden campaign, not at the firm. She did not donate to him when he first ran for election in 2016.)

The contribution may have appeared trivial, but it spotlights the complexity of having an elite influencer rotating in and out of the White House. Less than a month after Dunn made the contribution to her old friend, the House Oversight subcommittee chair Krishnamoorthi invited six former Washington Commanders’ employees to testify before his committee on February 3, 2022 in a roundtable called “Examining the Washington Football Team’s Toxic Workplace Culture” about abuse they allegedly endured from Washington Commanders’ owner Dan Snyder. (Snyder called the allegations “lies” while admitting that past behavior within the organization is “unacceptable.”)

The White House says that Dunn and Krishnamoorthi have a long-standing friendship dating back to 1999, when he worked on Bill Bradley’s campaign, and points out that SKDK was not representing the plaintiffs at the time Dunn made the donation, in part, because another SKDK employee, who had been handling the Commanders victims’ account, had joined the Biden administration as a special governmental employee at the time. SKDK then resumed representing the victims in March 2022, after the aide returned to the firm. SKDK has had an on-again-off-again history representing the clients since June 2020. 

“There’s no connection here,” an SKDK spokesperson said. A spokesperson for Congressman Krishnamoorthi said, “This is a completely baseless allegation, not only has the Congressman never discussed this investigation with Anita Dunn, he has investigated the activities of numerous powerful companies including those represented by SKDK.” (Just this week, Krishnamoorthi canceled a fundraiser after Politico asked why lobbyists Mike Manatos and Tom Manatos were hosting a fundraiser for him with an explicit invite to donors to discuss the probe into the football team and Snyder.)

To be perfectly clear, I’m not accusing anyone of anything. This is just Washington. Dunn can represent whomever she wants and donate to whomever she wants, and, it turns out, work for the White House more or less whenever she wants. But there will always be optical entanglements when operatives spin through the revolving door between government and the private sector. Either way, Dunn is back in the White House again, and appears primed to take over for Klain when he presumably leaves after the midterms, prompting a collective eye-roll for members of the party who are desperate for a jolt of fresh blood.