Hillary Clinton’s ‘ass-covering’ on bin Laden raid ‘rattled’ Biden

Vice President Joe Biden
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Adapted from “First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents and the Pursuit of Power

The so-called bromance that developed between Joe Biden and Barack Obama is a rare phenomenon. Most relationships between presidents and vice presidents dissolve because of the pressure of the office, as was the case with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, or they are pulled apart by a single betrayal, which is what happened to the genuine friendship between Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Obama and Biden’s relationship was, like all of them, “forged in fire,” but it was not consumed by the flames. And now it seems Biden intends to use his perch as a former vice president to try for his old boss’s job one last time.

At the beginning, Obama’s attitude toward Biden, according to Ron Klain, who was chief of staff to both Biden and Al Gore, was: “These are my things, I’m interested in your views, Joe, I like your input, I want you to be happy here, but you’re a guest in my house.” Mike Donilon, a longtime confidant of Biden’s, told me that “the vice presidency plays head games with you. You start to wonder if you matter that much.” It was a painful transition for a man who had spent thirty-six years in the Senate and served as chair of the Judiciary Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee. In an interview for my book “First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents and the Pursuit of Power,” Biden described falling on his sword time and time again to make the president look good. That is the job of the vice president, and Biden did it well. But it could end up costing him the presidency, the ultimate prize that he has already tried twice, in vain, to win.

Biden’s orbit is still very small and made up of his most loyal supporters: his former chief of staff Steve Ricchetti, Donilon, and his best friend Ted Kaufman, who was his chief of staff in the Senate for 19 years. Obama took the unusual step of not endorsing his VP’s run during the 2016 presidential election, mostly because by that point Hillary Clinton had the big donors locked up. Former White House deputy chief of staff Alyssa Mastromonaco said Obama never lost sight of one important fact: “He knew he was surrounded by people whose dream he was living, with Hillary Clinton on one side of him and Joe Biden on the other.”

I interviewed Biden last fall in his downtown Washington, D.C., office. He and his small staff took up half a floor of a barren corporate office building. With the exception of some framed photos of his wife and kids there was little evidence a former vice president worked there. We talked at the height of the “Me Too” movement and Biden, who is famously affectionate, asked if he could take my hand and lead me to one of the only photos hanging on the wall. It showed Obama beaming as Biden’s mother, Jean, then 91 years old, reached for his hand as they walked triumphantly on stage in Chicago’s Grant Park after they won the 2008 election. Biden pointed to his mother, who passed away in 2010. “She wasn’t supposed to walk out,” he said. “And she says, ‘Come on, honey, it’s going to be OK,’ to Barack.” Think of it, Biden said, his mother was trying to reassure the newly elected president. Knowing the back story the photo is especially sweet – Obama was not the kind of person who needed reassurance, but here she was acting as a sort of pseudo-grandmother. Once, Biden said, Michelle Obama asked him to talk with President Obama about something personal.  

“I can’t,” Biden told her.

“Look,” Michelle told him, “you’re the only one he completely trusts.”

“Why?” Biden asked her.

“His experience, Joe, is that everyone who’s been around him his whole adult life has wanted something from him. And you’ve not wanted anything. You’ve demonstrated that you would jump in front of a train for him. People haven’t done that before.”

At the end of our conversation Biden escorted me to the elevator and we walked by an office next door where dozens of people were gathered at the door to meet him. Biden beamed and posed for photos, clearly feeding off the adoration.


“Head chopped off”

Vice President Pence has sought counsel from Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney, Joe Biden and Walter Mondale, all of whom I interviewed. When I asked one of them what advice he gave Pence, he said: “If I tell you and it’s written then I’d drastically undercut him,” sliding his hand across his neck. “He’d get his head chopped off.”

{mosads}Biden clearly wants to leave the door open for a 2020 run and wants to make it abundantly clear how different he is from Pence. “I think it’s the real him not taking on the president … when I saw Mike and his wife walk out of the NFL game, it may have been planned, but Mike probably thought they [the players] shouldn’t have been kneeling.” But Biden and Pence talk at least once a month, which stands in stark contrast to Trump and his predecessor, Obama, who have not spoken since the inauguration, nor have their wives, Melania Trump and Michelle Obama. Biden told me that Pence confided in him how much he admired his relationship with Obama. When Pence calls him it’s usually to ask questions about foreign policy. “Joe,” he says, “this is the decision that has to be made. What went before it?” Biden said he has made himself “available to him on mostly background things, to give him perspective.” Biden has long-standing friendships with foreign leaders from his years in the Senate and as vice president, and he frequently fields calls from worried heads of state. He says he is in touch with a dozen world leaders who ask for advice on how to work with the Trump administration and how to interpret new policies. “The king of Jordan comes to meet with him [President Trump] and gets in a helicopter to come meet with me in Delaware,” Biden said, sounding pleased.

During one trip to speak at a conference in Athens, Greece, months after leaving office, Biden met with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. “I thought it was going to be a 10-minute conversation, and it was 2 1/2 hours,” he recalled. “What I do is, whenever that occurs, I pick up the phone and I call Mike. What I tell these leaders, who are somewhat diffident about the president, I suggest they go see Mike. I explain it this way: I say that a lot of this doesn’t fall within the president’s bandwidth, because he has no experience in this area.”

Biden considers Pence a lifeline to a White House in a constant state of upheaval. “I have fundamental disagreements with Mike, particularly on social policy and what I consider basic civil rights, civil liberties, but Mike’s a guy you can talk with, you can deal with, in a traditional sense. Like [Bill] Clinton could talk to [Newt] Gingrich.” Biden says he tries not to criticize the president during private meetings with foreign leaders, though it is not always easy biting his tongue, and in some cases it sounds like he is working as a conduit for the administration. Before he met with former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, Biden checked in with Pence to make sure he did not misrepresent administration policy and called him after the meeting and gave him a readout.


“Mr. Spock”

When Obama, who is almost two decades younger than Biden, came to the Senate in 2005, he was already a superstar, having given a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 while an Illinois state legislator. There was an arrogance there that bothered Biden. “We used to be on the tarmac for campaign events and Biden and [Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, who also ran in 2008] were sharing a plane from Iowa to go back in time to vote and they were looking at each other, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’” said one former Biden aide. “’We’re carrying our own bags.’” Obama, meanwhile, has an entourage already in place. Biden and Obama did not know each other well in the Senate, even though Obama was on the Foreign Relations Committee when Biden was its chairman. In 2007, on the same day that he announced he was running for president, Biden found himself defending remarks he made to the New York Observer in which he weighed in on his rivals for the Democratic nomination. “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” Biden did not immediately understand what all the fuss was about — an aide had to call and tell him why the remark was a problem.

When he accepted Obama’s offer to be his running mate, Biden thought it was like joining a team about to go into the Super Bowl as its running back. His job was to just carry the ball and not be engaged in strategy. “Can you imagine how hard that was? At his age?” Kaufman said to me, incredulous. One aide described Biden’s philosophy: “In politics and life you’re either on your way up or on your way down.” And he never wanted to be on his way down. So he took the offer. “All presidents pick vice presidents for political reasons, but these relationships are not sometimes what they appear to be,” said one Biden aide. “Early on it was not a very good relationship between the VP and the president.” Obama and his close cadre of advisers saw it as their game and they had worked hard to win the nomination. Biden was along for the ride.

Biden and Obama agreed to ground rules in a private written document: “JRB and BO have weekly unstaffed meeting; JRB can sit in on any BO meeting; JRB must have contemporaneous receipt of all paper — All printed words that go to BO go to JRB; JRB staff must be included in any meeting with their parallel BO staff; JRB will not have a portfolio, because he will be involved in everything.” Biden is in many ways the opposite of Obama — he thrives on interaction with people, while Obama is self-contained and happy to be on his own. Aides sometimes had to remind Obama to try to remember the names of people’s dogs and grandchildren, something that comes as second nature to Biden. Inside the White House Obama was nicknamed “Mr. Spock,” after the human-alien philosopher on “Star Trek.” “This guy is really smart. I’ve worked with eight presidents and he is by far the smartest,” Biden marveled, “just pure gray matter [the part of the brain that processes information].” Sometimes, though, Biden said, Obama needed to be reminded to connect more with his emotions.

Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama and his close friend, told me that she marveled at how emotionally vulnerable he was and how important that was after tragedies like Sandy Hook and the Pulse nightclub shooting. “It allows people to open up to him with a level of intimacy that I’ve rarely observed with strangers,” she said. Biden is very physical; he will grab you and hug you and pull you close to him. Jarrett said that physicality is “motivated by his desire to connect.” People, she said, “feel it, it’s palpable, it’s uncomfortable sometimes because most people aren’t that comfortable showing their emotions.” Biden, she said with admiration, is “fearless about emotion.”

Biden says he helped Obama be more demonstrative with his own emotions and trust his instincts. Biden said every decision in the White House went through a rigorous process before it ever got to Obama. Before a national security issue ever reached his desk it went to deputies at the National Security Council, then to top aides, and finally to Obama. “I used to say, ‘Mr. President, no matter how hard you work, no matter what you do, no president is ever going to have more than 60 to 70 percent of the facts upon which to make a critical decision. Never. Does not exist. So your instinct really matters.” Obama, Biden said, “was constantly looking for more information, more data.” Biden saw it as his job to get him to listen to his gut.


“Why the hell do I have to talk to the president about this?”

Biden walked into Obama’s campaign office in Chicago, where hundreds of people were working for Obama, with just about a dozen aides. “It’s kind of awkward,” said Mastromonaco. After the 2008 election, Biden spoke with Delaware’s Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner about who would fill his Senate seat during the last two years of his term, a post he’d held since Obama was just 11 years old. Biden was pushing for Kaufman, his former chief of staff and a Delaware resident, to take his seat. “Have you talked to the president about this?” an Obama staff member asked Biden. “Why the hell do I have to talk to the president about this? It’s my state, it’s my friend,” Biden replied, incensed. But he was in a new position now; he had a boss and everything a vice president does reflects on the president and all the power a vice president has is derived from the president. The president-elect probably wouldn’t care, but he needed to be notified. Kaufman was eventually appointed to fill Biden’s Senate seat.

It was the beginning of an education for Biden. And it was a reality for his entire eight years as vice president: when he wanted to bring in Kevin Sheekey, who was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s top political adviser, as his chief of staff after Ron Klain left, Obama advisers David Plouffe and David Axelrod said no — they did not think Sheekey would be a good fit. Even Obama said he did not think Sheekey would work out. He did not pass their all-important loyalty test and Biden had no choice in the matter. Biden felt underutilized at times and he never quite understood why Obama did not work harder to develop relationships with members of Congress. It became a running joke, when Biden would come back from the Hill and would be waxing on about a meeting with a senator, Obama would laugh, roll his eyes, and say, “Joe, you just love those guys, don’t you?”


“Eat some shit”

Every modern vice president, with the exception of Dick Cheney, has wanted to be president. But it is complicated.  “In order to be a really successful vice president, you have to subvert your own interests,” Biden’s former communications director Shailagh Murray said. “The most important thing was being the best vice president you could possibly be and sometimes that was going to require eating shit.” Biden became known as a dissenting voice against the successful May 2, 2011, Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader behind the 9/11 terror attacks, who was hiding in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. “He knew his presidency was on the line with bin Laden,” Biden told me. “Think about if that had failed. His presidency would have come to practically a screeching end.” At a Situation Room meeting with top officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Biden came down against going in — without being absolutely sure that bin Laden was in the compound, Biden argued, more time was needed to get a positive identification. Later, when Clinton made the false claim during the campaign that she was completely in support of it, Biden was furious. Axelrod, Obama’s top strategist, said, “My sense is that she was not sold on the idea either.” Biden clearly resents the way Clinton mischaracterized her position. One aide said: “The ass covering, opportunistic version really rattled him.” Biden advised against the raid, he said, “to give room, because then I walked out with him [Obama], which I always did, and walked to the office. I said, ‘Follow your instinct. I think you should go, follow your instinct.’ I could tell that was his instinct.” Biden said he fell on his sword so that Obama would look like he made the call on his own. “I wanted people to know what a chance this guy took. If I had said that I said to go [at the time] then it would make me look like I was ratting out everybody else.” Press reports made it seem like Biden was one of the lone voices against what ended up being a successful raid that won Obama widespread praise. “That’s the job of the vice president,” Biden said. “You’re supposed to throw yourself in front of the train. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to do it [become vice president] in the beginning.”

At times Biden bristled at the notion that he was being muzzled by the president’s West Wing staff, and his aides took great pains to make it look as though he was never being told what to do. But when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was invited by Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner (Ohio) to speak before a joint session of Congress in March 2015, it was clear that Biden would not get to do what he wanted. Biden had known Netanyahu for years and was adamant that, as president of the Senate, he should follow tradition and sit next to the House Speaker behind Netanyahu during the address. But when it became clear that Netanyahu would use the speech to criticize the deal the administration had reached with five other countries and Iran to place limits on Iran’s nuclear program, it was decided Biden should not attend the session. What would he do, West Wing staff asked, sit on his hands and not clap when Netanyahu attacked the controversial deal? The White House had not been consulted before then – Boehner invited Netanyahu to give the speech and it was considered a breach of protocol. Obama would not meet with Netanyahu when he came to address Congress, and no matter how much Biden wanted to, neither would he. It was decided then that when Netanyahu spoke, Biden would be more than 1,500 miles away meeting leaders in Central America.


Chaperoned Lunches

President Trump’s unusual freewheeling governing style (he prefers his briefings kept to one page) has made Pence’s chief of staff take the unusual step of accompanying Pence to their weekly lunches. Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly also sits in as a de facto chaperone. Lunches between presidents and their vice presidents are so important to modern vice presidents precisely because they offer precious time when they can be alone and talk candidly with the president. But Trump and Pence need the conversation to be steered by Kelly and Ayers so that it does not get off track, and sometimes Ayers will interpret remarks Trump makes for Pence later on.

For Biden and Obama, those lunches were sacred and personal. It was there that Obama and Biden talked about Biden’s son Beau’s illness and the toll it was taking on their entire family. Biden felt a responsibility to the president to make sure he understood what was going on. It helped to strengthen their relationship in an unprecedented way. “He’s the only person outside my family I ever told about Beau,” Biden said, his eyes filling with tears. “I’d sit there and talk about Beau at lunch, and I stopped talking about it as much because he would start to cry.”

Biden and Obama are an exception to the rule and Biden clearly wants to make his position as an elder statesman doling out advice to the Trump administration clear.  “You kind of fall in love with him [Biden],” an aide said, “and I think Obama did.”

Adapted from the book “First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents, and the Pursuit of Power” by Kate Andersen Brower. Copyright © 2018 by Kate Andersen Brower. Reprinted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Tags Al Gore Barack Obama Bill Clinton Boehner Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Joe Biden John Boehner John Kelly Melania Trump Michelle Obama

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