Aides, friends come to Harris chief's defense amid turmoil

Longtime associates, friends and White House aides defended Tina FlournoyHartina (Tina) FlournoyThe Hill's Morning Report - Cheney 'honored' to serve on select committee Aides, friends come to Harris chief's defense amid turmoil Time will tell: Kamala Harris's presidential prospects MORE Thursday, after the chief of staff to Vice President Harris came under criticism for creating an insular environment in the vice president’s office that has caused departures, finger-pointing and a chaotic work environment. 

Flournoy has a close working relationship with Harris and has helped her successfully navigate the early months of the vice presidency and manage a young staff that is mostly new to Harris, according to more than a dozen sources who talked to The Hill. 

“She has become a trusted and loyal adviser to the vice president and the administration,” said Minyon Moore, a longtime adviser to Bill and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Shontel Brown gaining ground against Nina Turner in Ohio: poll Biden hits trail for McAuliffe in test of his political brand MORE who worked on the Biden transition and is a friend to Flournoy. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“She is smart, strategic and very hardworking. She understands the significance of this moment in history and the tremendous weight of being the first," Moore added, referring to the pressure Harris faces as the first woman, African American and South Asian person to be vice president. 

Other sources close to the White House say Flournoy — who served in the Clinton White House and as the former president’s chief of staff during his post-presidency —  has taken the fall for a series of missteps by Harris in the early months of her tenure as vice president. 

A CNBC report this week detailed that some longtime Harris associates had been shut out by Flournoy, as the chief of staff aimed to keep “tight control” over access. Several longtime political and business allies say Flournoy has limited Harris’s conversations to a select few in her vice presidential inner circle. 

The finger-pointing comes as Harris has faced some turmoil including the departures of two members on her advance team. Last month, on her first foreign trip as vice president, Harris also received a string of negative headlines after she struggled to answer why she hadn’t visited Mexico in light of the waves of migrants at the U.S. border. 

“The criticism directed at Tina seems misplaced,” said one longtime Biden aide who speaks to those in Harris's orbit. “I don't think people realize how tough it is to manage a demanding principal who doesn't want to make mistakes and a young staff with very little executive branch experience. It's still so early and she really needed someone with Tina's experience to come in and guide the ship.”

“Let’s be real for a second: Kamala needed someone who is a task-master,” another strategist close to Harris said. “One of the knocks on Harris and her universe is that they’ve always been undisciplined, so it’s not surprising that they brought in someone who is a task-master, someone who could create a standard and isn’t afraid to tell the boss what’s up.” 

ADVERTISEMENT

Another Democratic operative pointed to the vice president's history of burning through staff and running undisciplined operations beginning with her time as attorney general in California. 

“It would not be the first time that the sheer amount of focus principal management required of a chief of staff has detracted from the staff management side,” the operative said. “She almost needs two (chiefs of staff) because the skill set required to handle her is very different from that required of managing and empowering a big staff.”

Those familiar with Flournoy’s role say she spends much of her time making sure she’s prepared for meetings and events and has a deputy chief of staff, Michael Fuchs, to help manage staff.

Harris has a rocky history when it comes to her staff. 

One former senior aide who worked for Harris in California described accepting a position with her optimistically despite hearing murmurs in political circles of her tough approach. But morale sank quickly when Harris, in the source’s estimation, would often shuffle off blame to staffers for being unprepared and disorganized.

“No organization, she didn’t really seem interested in doing the job, and it was everyone else’s fault,” the former senior aide said about Harris. 

“There was a lot of picking on the staff,” the source continued. “I’ve never seen anything work like that.”

“My main concern was like, get me the f--- out of here.”

When she ran for president in the 2020 election, her advisers pointed fingers at one another, blamed each other for poor strategy and fundraising and even blamed her sister, Maya, for some of the failures. Questions continued to mount on who was to blame.

When she became President Biden’s running mate, things became so tense with her chief of staff Karine Jean-PierreKarine Jean-PierreLabor, environment groups push Congress for 'bold' manufacturing investments Russian hacking group believed to be behind Kaseya cyber attack goes offline Harris to meet with Texas Democrats MORE that other aides say they all but stopped communicating directly to one another.

Her time as senator and attorney general also saw a rotating cast of characters around her, with her top aides taking their complaints to reporters.

When it came to setting up her vice presidential office, Biden aides selected Flournoy to neutralize the turmoil that has haunted Harris in the past. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Flournoy seemed like the perfect pick for the job at the time: She is fiercely loyal, knows the intersection of politics and policy and almost more importantly understands personal politics, having dealt with large personalities in Clinton World.

Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff for former first lady Laura Bush, said Flournoy's current role is one that "would not be unfamiliar to her."

"She served as a chief of staff to a former president, so checking all those boxes and knowing how to keep all the trains running on time, keep everybody informed and manage a busy schedule, I just can't imagine it's something she doesn't know how to do," McBride said.

But some say Flournoy hasn’t been effective at managing the staff. 

“I think overall it’s worked OK because Kamala is the sort of person who would fix things if it’s not working to her liking,” said one source in her world. “But clearly something isn’t working well.” 

Hanna Trudo and Abigail Goldberg-Zelizer contributed.