Joe Biden’s head of personnel is eyeing the exitsJuly 26, 2021
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Welcome to POLITICO’s West Wing Playbook, your guide to the people and power centers in the Biden administration. With help from Allie Bice.
There’s always a bit of gallows humor at the presidential personnel office (PPO).
The president appoints and PPO disappoints, the saying goes. They are responsible for who the administration hires and telling all the other applicants that they did not get the job.
But now, the PPO itself may be experiencing a state of disappointment. CATHY RUSSELL, the head of the office—and someone who goes back with Biden to the 1988 presidential campaign and was JILL BIDEN’s chief of staff— could soon be on her way out.
Russell is under consideration to replace the head of UNICEF after the current director unexpectedly offered her resignation this month to deal with a “family health issue,” as The Washington Post first reported last week.
A senior transition official now in the White House said that the potential shake-up had nothing to do with Russell’s job performance and that she would not be leaving imminently if she did indeed go.
“Before Kathy agreed to take the PPO job she had told the president that she was interested in the UNICEF job,” the official said. “She had assumed that that would not even be an option until sometime in 2022 when the current person's term expired and what has happened is that the person who currently has the job is stepping down early.”
The official noted that BARACK OBAMA’s first PPO director, DON GIPS, was nominated to be ambassador to South Africa in June of 2009, just months into the administration. “[The UNICEF position is] something that is far more consistent with what she has done in her career,” they said. Russell is the former Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues at the State Department.
Russell brings an intimate knowledge of Biden’s network to the job. In addition to her own roles, she is married to fellow longtime Biden hand TOM DONILON whose brother, MIKE DONILON, is a senior adviser in the White House.
Even so, frustration with Russell’s office has been building for months. The murmurs first came in the spring but mostly from those who didn’t get jobs or didn’t get the jobs they wanted. There has been increasing angst among outside Biden allies and some in the White House as well about the office’s hiring pace and, what they say is, its poor communication.
While the Biden transition under SUZY GEORGE vetted and hired 1,100 political appointees to start on Day 1, the PPO’s pace of hiring after the inauguration has been slower.
There has already been some turnover with MATT DANNENBERG, a senior associate director at PPO, leaving to become a deputy chief of staff at the energy department’s office of energy efficiency and renewable energy.
Political appointee hiring—the administration says they have hired 1,865 political appointees so far — slowed in part because PPO pivoted its attention to Senate-confirmed positions. Even so, many high profile Senate-confirmed roles like solicitor general and ambassadorships still do not have nominees.
White House officials defended the pace of nominations and noted that PPO’s job has become more complicated in the social media age. “The social media accounts have made the vetting jobs much more time consuming,” said one senior transition official who is now in the White House.
PPO’s vetting team of about three dozen people is tasked with going over someone’s entire history of Tweets, TikToks, Instagram posts, and Venmo transactions in addition to the normal vetting of things like tax returns, a PPO official said. There are tools for sorting through it all but the official noted that the screening involves a good deal of, well, scrolling.
The White House also noted that the transition team had about 250 people dedicated to personnel with the help of 200 volunteers assisting in the interview process while the current team is just around 80 people.
“If I can have the 250 people we had in transition, I would,” said a PPO official. “I don't think that's actually doable and feasible. And I think every office of the White House has a legitimate claim to wanting more people.”
And what is their message to people upset with the office? “Please be patient with us,” the official said.
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The Vice President opened the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Who was he?
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE WANTS YOU TO READ: Chief of staff RON KLAIN liked DAVID LEONHARDT’s morning Covid roundup in the New York Times so much he tweeted it twice (he retweeted his own tweet). “Thoughtful thoughts about COVID,” Klain tweeted. Leonhardt’s newsletter was all about breakthrough cases, which noted infections are happening at the White House.
While a health official does admit to a bit of uncertainty about the spread of the virus, Leonhardt writes, “vaccinated people are nearly guaranteed not to be hospitalized or killed by Covid” and “a vaccinated person without Covid symptoms seems especially unlikely to infect somebody else.”
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ: A disclosure report shows Jeff Ricchetti, the brother of White House counselor Steve Ricchetti, lobbied members of the National Security Council for General Motors, CNBC’s Brian Schwartz is reporting. The report shows the company paid Ricchetti $60,000 last quarter for his lobbying services on “issues related to China.”
Jeff Ricchetti told CNBC he no longer lobbies the White House, but didn’t answer other questions about his lobbying efforts. But Schwartz notes, “There are several ways Ricchetti can access the White House without going through the White House Office, including the National Security Council.”
FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY: Our friends over at NatSec Daily (subscribe here!) scooped that Vice President KAMALA HARRIS is planning to visit Vietnam and Singapore later this summer, a U.S. official familiar with the issue told NAHAL TOOSI. The vice president’s office would not comment.
SECRETARY OF THIRST TRAP POSTING: We know Transportation Secretary PETE BUTTIGIEG loves bike rides, but he’s also a pretty good runner, according to his husband CHASTEN BUTTIGIEG, who posted an Instagram story of a sweaty and shirtless Pete after “60 miles on the bike + a transition run.”
We asked the Department of Transportation for more details on this impressive run, but they declined to comment. The post comes as Chasten gets a lot of attention for a Washington Post Style section profile that in part says people in Washington talk about work too much (Guilty!) and that the Buttigiegs’ live in an 800-square foot one-bedroom apartment in Eastern Market. They pay closer to $3,000 a month and were able to get two months free by agreeing to a longer lease.
NEW ON THE TWITTERS: GARY GENSLER, chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, joined the Twitter mayhem today. He tweeted: “I’m new here on Twitter! A little about me: I’m a dad of 3, avid runner & hiker, and the 33rd Chair @SECGov. If you have any interest in investor protection or in fair, orderly, and efficient markets, then shoot me a follow.”
He forgot about his dancing (click here), though is probably just saving that for a good #TBT post.
HOPE FOR THE LONG HAUL — The Biden administration on Monday announced that long Covid could be considered a disability under civil rights laws, MAEVE SHEEHEY and REBECCA RAINEY report. The White House announced the new guidance for those suffering from long-term symptoms of Covid long after clearing the actual virus. The announcement came on the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“We’re bringing agencies together to make sure Americans with long Covid who have a disability have access to the rights and resources that are due under the disability law,” Biden said.
MANDATE TIME: The Department of Veterans Affairs is the first federal agency to require its health care workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus by the fall — after four employees died in recent weeks. This will affect about 115,000 employees, according to the New York Times, which first reported the decision. Physicians, dentists, nurses, physician assistants and other frontline medical staff at VA facilities will have eight weeks to become fully vaccinated, NICK NIEDZWIADEK writes.
“YOU ARE SUCH A PAIN IN THE NECK”: Biden flashed some frustration at NBC’s KELLY O’DONNELL today. When reporters asked the president and the Iraqi prime minister questions today, Biden said “Whoa, hang on a second, if you want to talk about Iraq, ask me a question." Al Arabiya TV’s NADIA BILBASSY-CHARTERS obliged and asked about troops in Iraq by the end of the year. O’Donnell then asked about the VA news.
"You are such a pain in the neck but I'm going to answer your question because we've known each other for so long," Biden quipped. “Yes, Veterans Affairs is going to, in fact, require that all doctors working in facilities are going to have to be vaccinated."
Fauci wants to make vaccines for the next pandemic before it hits (NYTimes’ Gina Kolata)
Meet Matt Graves, the Biden administration’s pick to oversee hundreds of U.S. Capitol cases (Insider’s C. Ryan Barber)
Surge of Covid Delta variant poses new political threat to Biden and his agenda (Washington Post’s Annie Linskey, Tyler Pager and Dan Diamond)
Jill Biden, Changing the Fashion Game (NYT’s Vanessa Friedman)
Biden and Vice President Harris delivered remarks in the Rose Garden to celebrate the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The president also participated in a bilateral meeting with MUSTAFA AL-KADHIMI, Prime Minister of the Republic of Iraq.
Harris spoke at the disabilities act anniversary. Second gentleman DOUG EMHOFF was also in attendance.
Attorney General MERRICK GARLAND once had different interests. Besides beginning university as pre-med, he was also a theater critic on the side, according to the archives of the Harvard Crimson.
Garland had a particular interest in the British playwright HAROLD PINTER. In 1972, he approvingly reviewed Pinter’s “Homecoming,” calling it the writer’s “declaration of war on our tendency to assume that we know what is real and what is unreal, and on our smug assurance that we can analyze why people act as they do.”
In 1973, he returned to Pinter in a review of three plays: “Night School,” “Landscape,” and “Silence.” Of “Night School,” he writes that, “More important, the play is a bit too Pinteresque to be good Pinter. It is as if he had merely rearranged bits of other plays to create a "well made" Pinter play.”
You can read some of the old reviews here and here.
Some are interesting and some read like a classically ambitious undergrad trying to sound smart — like when he notes that “the dissolution of naturalistic play structures is complete.”
Uh, we know exactly what he means.
CHARLES CURTIS, Herbert Hoover’s vice president, opened up the 1932 games. For the nerds like us, you can watch an old clip of it on Getty if you click here.
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