Welcome to The Washington Mall

Psaki, Bedingfield, Klain
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
May 5, 2022

Welcome to the pre-inaugural edition of The Washington Mall, my new column at Puck. As some of you may know, I’ll be covering the inside conversation coursing through Washington every week—what people are really talking about in the White House, on the Hill, on K Street, and within the media. You can also sign up to receive this column in your inbox every Thursday evening. Soon enough, I’ll be starting a second edition on Monday nights, too. 

I’m thrilled to begin writing and reporting this column for a number of reasons. As we head toward the midterms, there are so many storylines that intrigue me personally, and also, curiously, appear undercovered. In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing about a number of these topics, many of which D.C. insiders are chewing over privately—which is usually how a kernel of news blossoms in a town that is professionally obsessed with messaging and communication.

I want to bring readers of The Washington Mall closer to the action than they’ve ever been, illuminated by my reporting and analysis of that very inside conversation. For instance, I’ve been fascinated by the current, very sotto voce succession race to replace White House press secretary Jen Psaki. This afternoon, the White House announced that Karine Jean-Pierre, Psaki’s heir apparent, would make history as the first Black L.G.B.T. female at the podium. It’s a fantastic, wonderful achievement, and the Biden administration unveiled the news in typically leak-proof, elegant fashion. But the announcement obscures the fact that there had been some real drama around succession planning.

John Kirby, whose stock had risen inside the administration on account of his confident briefings during the conflict in Ukraine, seemed like a legit outside contender. But I had been alerted by another White House official to another potential dark horse, who appeared to be quietly positioning herself, but in that white glove, never-a-print, D.C. sort of way: White House communications director Kate Bedingfield. She, of course, would deny this sort of quiet ambition, and has claimed that she disliked the command performance of the daily briefing. 

While Karine was best positioned for the role, some in the comms shop wanted to give her some more on the job experience, which is why Psaki stayed in her post for an extended period of time after landing her MSNBC gig. But despite whatever ambitions Bedingfield may have had, her tense relationship with Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, and the turnover among her junior staff, may also have also complicated things. This sort of positioning matters. Psaki is headed to a lucrative future at MSNBC. A bevy of seven-figure media and Fortune 500 corporate comms opportunities will now await Jean-Pierre, too, in a couple years.

I’m also fascinated by another, largely underappreciated White House leitmotif. The media has often fixated on stories about the turnover among Kamala Harris’s office, but I’m more amazed by the lack of turnover in the West Wing. Senior White House officials typically wait for the two-year mark to cash out for a K-Street gig, or an aforementioned P.R. or cable news job. But now that Biden’s approval rating has plunged toward the lows that Trump embarrassingly achieved during this point in his presidency, even White House aides that I talk to are surprised that there hasn’t yet been a shake-up. 

O’Malley Dillon is poised to leave the White House to run the 2024 campaign, not to cash out. So what will happen to her boss, Ron Klain, who entered office with enormous clout and authority? Klain deserves immense credit for passing the Covid relief bill, the infrastructure bill, and generally restoring order to the White House, but he has become irrelevant on Capitol Hill, largely because he’s still despised by the man who can decide what bills actually pass, Joe Manchin. And that’s surprising, to me at least, because Manchin is one of the easiest men to win over with some flattery. Democrats worried about the impending losses in the midterms are starting to blame Biden for his loyalty to both Klain and his broader team. Some have suggested to me that this fealty has become his largest political weakness. (Klain did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Timing, after all, is everything in politics. And that’s true, too, regarding strategizing a return to the private sector. But one reason that I’ve been surprised about the lack of departures is that administration aides who cling to that lanyard are depressing their future earnings; every day that passes, they forego the chance to essentially sell access to a president who, despite what he said last Saturday at the Hilton, does not appear to be acting like a candidate. And yes, of course, it is surely possible that these aides are motivated by patriotism and doing the right thing, and standing by the president who ushered them into office, and all the other rhetorical explanations that would make them quite different from virtually all of their predecessors, ever. One of the charms of this town is that it’s okay to have financial ambitions, it’s just not okay to talk about it.

Either way, it’s not just K Street that’s preparing for life post-Biden. Newsrooms are starting to envision a second coming of Trump. Michael Bender, who covered Trump for The Journal and authored a mega-bestseller about his campaign, was hired by The New York Times. Isaac Arnsdorf, who covered the Trump administration at ProPublica, was hired by The Washington Post. Meanwhile, former Trump whisperer and Bob Woodward protégé, Bob Costa, recently landed at CBS, and he’s been joined by Trump’s former chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney

The Times is still advertising a role to cover right-wing media, which is basically Trump. Once-shunned former Trump staffers are now in demand for all kinds of gigs, not just working on David McCormick’s senate race. And there are plenty of signs of white smoke coming from Mar-a-Lago. According to someone familiar with the situation, John Coale, the mega white-shoe litigator representing Trump in his suit against Twitter and Facebook, has been trying to make inroads with Elon Musk, the likely future owner of Twitter, with the goal of arranging a sit-down between Trump and Musk. Despite Trump’s claims that he’s fine with staying on Truth, there’s potential for re-platforming the former president. Musk’s team has indicated that they are focused on first closing the deal.

I’m also curious to see whether Jeff Roe, the au courant “it girl” political consultant who masterminded Glenn Youngkin’s coup in Virginia, will pass over his longtime client and pal, Ted Cruz, in an attempt to run Trump’s putative campaign. If Roe does elect to work with Trump, that would be yet another indicator of the former president’s ambition. Indeed, early speculation regarding Trump’s potential running mate has notably picked up in recent weeks. Trump himself has become more public about his interest in South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, leaving many in his inner circle to surmise that she’s crept to the top of his VP shortlist.  

Trump’s own reelection curiosity, in particular, appeared to be on display this weekend at Mar-a-Lago during the wedding of Zach Witkoff, son of real estate titan Steve Witkoff (whose family office just committed $100 million to fund Musk’s bid for Twitter). Trump, who loves to crash a wedding, was seen rubbing shoulders with deep pocketed real estate bigwigs like Steve Ross, Barry Sternlicht and Don Peeples—all men who could ostensibly fund his 2024 campaign. Notably, also in attendance was Ron DeSantis, who was hobnobbing with the same crowd, ostensibly for the same potential reason. 

One person described it as “two male dogs in a room and one bowl of food.” The question is, will DeSantis ever be officially banned from Mar-a-Lago where the donor dollars are streaming? One person close to Trump said they’re way past that, and there’s no stopping DeSantis from entering if he’s a guest of a guest. But that might not even matter. As this person conveyed to me, Trump was back to his old habit of baronial presidential outsourcing, asking random members in the Mar-a-Lago living room: What should we do about Ukraine and Putin? It’s a total mess. I’m so surprised. After asking for foreign policy advice, he always offered a picture.