The Jill Biden Gatekeeper Sweepstakes

the bidens
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP
Tara Palmeri
August 18, 2022

One of the pre-eminent misunderstandings regarding the West Wing is that it’s a McKinseyified modern political operation professionally run by Ron Klain. Of course, as I’ve reported over the past few months, anyone who truly knows anything about Joe Biden is cognizant that, after a half century in public life, his circle of trust is small and familial. His sister, Val, is long-credited as being his Valerie Jarrett, but the truth is that so many of the big decisions require buy-in from Jill Biden, who will ultimately decide whether or not her husband runs for re-election. 

In the White House, the first lady’s power looms large. No one ever wants to say no to Jill Biden because her de facto chief of staff, the testy Anthony Bernal, has a disproportionate amount of power in the White House; he has been with the Bidens since 2008 and is seen as the gatekeeper to the family. And this certainly explains why the race to succeed Michael LaRosa, the press secretary to the first lady, has become so deeply coveted and bizarrely public, with multiple stories about jockeying for the position appearing in the media. 

Biden insiders know that the family abhors when staff decisions make it into the press, which explains why so many of their shakeups are micro, with the same old hands from the bubble rotating around. And insiders have told me that candidates who have been mentioned in stories will likely be put in the penalty box. “The politicking is so unseemly—the Bidens hate it,” said a source close to the process. “The public campaigning is probably part of the reason Symone Sanders never got the job of White House press secretary.” At the same time, it may be a sign that outsiders are starting to see what real D.C. insiders know, that the inner onion of Bidenworld is actually Jill. 

I emailed LaRosa about the succession process. “My advice to these candidates is to be as discreet in the process as possible,” he responded. “All of the names that I’ve seen reported in the media are talented communicators. But if candidates are using this opportunity to raise their own profile, help their chances, or minimize someone else’s chances by proactively floating names and pushing out nuggets to the press, that sort of public jockeying is a great way to turn off the East Wing and inspire them to pursue a whole new field of options. Bidenworld does not like showboats.” 

Meanwhile, the White House itself is showboating more than ever, following an outbreak of much-needed political accomplishments and wins: a historical climate and prescription drug bill, legislation to boost high-tech manufacturing, falling gas prices, and a precision drone strike against an elusive 9/11 mastermind, among them. The vibe shift is particularly apparent to Democratic donors who have been complaining since Biden’s inauguration about their calls not being returned, the notable lack of White House tours or vanity appointments or invites to ceremonial events. 

The White House has said Biden was being sheltered for fear of catching Covid, but even close allies suspected it was because they worried about his gaffes. Now, however, donors are telling me that the White House has made an about-face and is aggressively inviting high-dollar backers to the property for events, first via email, then with a follow-up phone call, and then another call from the D.N.C. for more fundraising. In fact, a flurry of invitations have gone out for the Inflation Reduction Act signing at the White House on September 6. A Democratic strategist explained: “Yeah more folks are being invited to bill signings and events, and it’s possible that, now that the legislative stuff is behind them, they could be focusing back to campaigning and politics. It would be nice to attend, but it’s a day late and a dollar short.” 

Trump vs. Hannity

Weeks ago, I noted that Trump has grown furious with his old pal Sean Hannity over Dr. Mehmet Oz’s poor showing in the Pennsylvania Senate race. It was Hannity, after all, who aggressively lobbied Trump for an Oz endorsement, when even some of Trump’s closest former aides (like Hope Hicks and Stephen Miller) were working for David McCormick, who is, of course, married to Dina Powell. Sure, Oz narrowly defeated McCormick in the Republican primary, but Trump’s inner circle can’t believe that the TV doctor is now trailing by double digits to John Fetterman, who spent months off the campaign trail while recovering from a stroke. Then there are all kinds of loony gaffes on the trail, like his botched supermarket visit or not knowing how many homes he has (ten)—all reminiscent of manor-born George H. W. Bush being unable to price a gallon of milk. 

But Trump isn’t just pissed that Hannity led him toward a fumbling candidate. He is telling people that Hannity, in their latest dust-up over Oz, told him, “The party has moved on from you.” There probably aren’t any stronger fighting words in Trump’s mind. Ironically, just months ago Hannity was pressuring Trump to endorse Oz as the way to clinch the nomination. (Hannity, through a Fox News spokesperson, said “not a word of this is true. It’s 100% all fake news.”)

Alex Jones Looks Into DeSantis’s Eyes…

Last week, I reported that Ron DeSantis’s team sees his handling of Covid restrictions and vaccine mandates as a powerful wedge issue to exploit when potentially challenging Trump in a presidential primary. Trump, who was hospitalized with Covid, is an increasingly rare pro-vax voice in MAGA America, even though he admits he’s terrified to tout it out of fear of retribution from his followers. DeSantis, on the other hand, has established far right street cred for never shutting down the Florida economy and never saying whether he had received a booster shot. His camp has been quietly courting prominent blue-checkmark anti-vaxxers in that space, including former Newsmax host Steve Cortes, who they’ve phoned as recently as two weeks ago to try to convince him to switch from Team Trump to Team DeSantis on this issue alone. That likely won’t happen. 

This isn’t DeSantis himself picking up the phone and courting these MAGA influencers. (He’s not really into courting, anyway.) Instead, the outreach is being handled by his team, which remains hellbent on nurturing and fostering alliances within a constituency that remains furious with Trump over vaccine mandates, shutdowns, and keeping Dr. Anthony Fauci employed. DeSantis just earned his first prominent endorsement—from disgraced Sandy Hook denier Alex Jones, of all people—over his handling of Covid. Jones acknowledged on his show that he supported Trump back in 2020, even though he disagreed with Operation Warp Speed, but then announced, “I am supporting Desantis… I can look into his eyes on HD video, and I see the real sincerity.” When I asked Team DeSantis if Jones was also courted for his endorsement based on the issue, a spokesperson declined to comment. 

Sinema’s Purple Path?

As Congressman Ruben Gallego makes it increasingly clear, privately and publicly, that he’s planning to primary Kyrsten Sinema in 2024 from the left, some of her well-heeled supporters are looking hard at Evan McMullin, the former Republican turned Trump antagonist, and how he fairs in Utah, where he’s running as an independent against Republican incumbent Sen. Mike Lee. As Samuel Benson wrote for Politico magazine, his candidacy “represents the perfect trial balloon for the kind of cross-partisan effort that, in theory, could come together to beat far-right Republicans in red states.” McMullin has also benefited from the non-endorsement of Lee by Utah Senator Mitt Romney

But could he also represent a pathway for Sinema in a purple, but fiercely independent, Arizona to beat candidates from the left and right? “We don’t comment on made-up D.C. political gossip,” her spokesperson Hannah Hurley said.