Harris’s office undergoes difficult reset

Kamala Harris’s office is undergoing a reset after a difficult first year, which saw a rocky start for the vice president.

The reset, which includes the departure of Symone Sanders — the most recognizable official in the office — is the result of Harris’s public stumbles, a streak of bad press and staff squabbling, particularly in the communications office, according to sources familiar with the vice president’s office.

The turmoil has raised worries among Democrats about her prospects as a presidential candidate. 

“No one seems happy,” said one source close to the vice president’s office. 

News of Sanders’s departure was followed by reports that two more press aides would depart in the coming weeks: Peter Velz, the vice president’s director of press operations, and Vince Evans, the deputy director of the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs for Harris, are planning to leave those positions soon, a source confirmed.

Those planned exits became public a few weeks after Harris’s office confirmed her communications director, Ashley Etienne, would leave the position at the end of the year. Sources suggested the close of the year provided a natural time for some officials to transition out, but acknowledged a reset could be helpful.

“They had to turn over the office,” said one Democratic operative familiar with the dynamics in the vice president’s office. “Too much dissatisfaction.” 

Harris praised Sanders when asked about her looming departure during a trip to Charlotte to promote the recently signed bipartisan infrastructure bill, but she did not answer a follow-up question about whether the changes marked a reset for her office. One administration official noted Sanders, Velz and Evans had all worked on the Biden-Harris campaign, making it likely they were ready for a break or change of scenery.

One source with knowledge of the situation said staffers in the communications shop were “tripping over” each other. “There was no real flow chart. I think there was a constant fear of backstabbing.” 

Speaking directly of Sanders and Etienne, another source added that Sanders had “a title that’s a rival to the communications director … So who was managing Symone? Ashley wasn’t managing Symone. Symone was managing Symone.” 

Two sources also said a number of Democrats had become convinced that Sanders, 31, was the voice in numerous blind quotes in news reports about friction in the office. 

Sanders is a former campaign aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and a well-known political personality in her own right who worked as a high-profile pundit on CNN before joining the Biden campaign.

“I think she’s been wanting to leave for a long time but she’s young and she needed supervision,” said one source familiar with the office dynamics. 

One source said it’s clear that Harris “feels adrift without her people” including her sister Maya, who was a senior adviser on her presidential campaign. The source said decisionmaking in the office is also “really slow” with every decision passing through chief of staff Tina Flournoy.  

White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the departures in Harris’s office an opportunity to bring in “new voices and new perspectives.” Asked if the departures were a response to a wave of tough headlines, Psaki suggested the timing of the exits were a result of aides like Sanders having worked with Biden and Harris dating back to the 2020 campaign.

“In my experience, and if you look at past precedent, it’s natural for staffers who have thrown their heart and soul into a job to be ready to move onto a new challenge after a few years,” Psaki said. “And that is applicable to many of these individuals.”

Harris has a history of cycling through staff, dating back to her years as California attorney general. Staffing problems also plagued Harris’s presidential campaign, which folded before the Iowa caucuses after initial enthusiasm. But those familiar with her operation say it’s a larger problem than simply replacing some staff. 

“It’s obvious things aren’t in a great place, so I understand the urge to sub in a new team but that misdiagnoses the problem,” said one source familiar with Harris’s operations. “The problem is there has never been a coherent strategy. It has always been an operation that lurches from one chaotic moment to the next.” 

The source said it’s not necessarily a problem with Harris but rather “the way she runs things does not necessarily set her up for success. She relies on a small group of people for everything and because they only have so much bandwidth the ‘urgent’ frequently crowds out the ‘important.’ “

In recent months, Harris’s office has been beset by reports of infighting, dysfunction and frustration. The White House last month pushed back against reports of friction between the vice president’s office and the West Wing over Harris being saddled with largely intractable issues like voting rights and migration. Psaki said at the time she felt sexism has contributed to some of the criticism of Harris.

The tensions and departures have fueled chatter in Democratic circles about whether Harris would remain as Biden’s heir apparent to run for president in 2028, or in 2024 should the 79-year-old president opt not to seek reelection.

Harris traveled on Thursday to Charlotte for a previously planned trip to tout the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill alongside Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who Democratic insiders have said has positioned himself well for the next presidential primary by securing a Cabinet post and cementing himself as a key spokesperson for the administration.

En route to North Carolina, it was Buttigieg, not Harris, who spoke to reporters on Air Force Two. Asked about speculation of a budding rivalry between him and Harris for 2024, Buttigieg sought to downplay any focus on the future.

“It’s 2021,” Buttigieg said. “And the whole point of campaigns and elections is when they go well you get to govern. And we are squarely focused on the job at hand. I am excited to be part of a team led by the president and the vice president and I think the teamwork that got us to this point is really just beginning.”

“As Transportation secretary, I get to be the face of a lot of these investments that we’re doing, but we would not be here without the leadership of the vice president as well as the president; of course, and so many others,” Buttigieg added. “So I am glad we’re able to shine a light on that today.”

This story was updated on Dec. 30. 

Tags administration Ashley Etienne Bernie Sanders Jen Psaki Pete Buttigieg Symone Sanders Tina Flournoy vice president White House

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