When Vice President Kamala Harris finally made the decision to visit the Mexico border last week, people inside her own office were blindsided by the news.
For days, aides and outside allies had been calling and texting with each other about the political fallout that a potential trip would entail. But when it became known that she was going to El Paso, it left many scrambling, including officials who were responsible for making travel arrangements and others outside the VP’s office charged with crafting the messaging across the administration.
The handling of the border visit was the latest chaotic moment for a staff that’s quickly become mired in them. Harris’ team is experiencing low morale, porous lines of communication and diminished trust among aides and senior officials. Much of the frustration internally is directed at Tina Flournoy, Harris’ chief of staff, a veteran of Democratic politics who began working for her earlier this year.
In interviews, 22 current and former vice presidential aides, administration officials and associates of Harris and Biden described a tense and at times dour office atmosphere. Aides and allies said Flournoy, in an apparent effort to protect Harris, has instead created an insular environment where ideas are ignored or met with harsh dismissals and decisions are dragged out. Often, they said, she refuses to take responsibility for delicate issues and blames staffers for the negative results that ensue.
While much of the ire is aimed at Harris’ chief, two administration officials said the VP herself also bears responsibility for the way her office is run. “It all starts at the top,” said one of the administration officials, who like others requested anonymity to be able to speak candidly about a sensitive matter.
“People are thrown under the bus from the very top, there are short fuses and it’s an abusive environment,” said another person with direct knowledge of how Harris’ office is run. “It’s not a healthy environment and people often feel mistreated. It’s not a place where people feel supported but a place where people feel treated like s—.”
The dysfunction in the VP’s ranks threatens to complicate the White House’s carefully crafted image as a place staffed by a close-knit group of professionals working in concert to advance the president’s agenda. It’s pronounced enough that members of the president’s own team have taken notice and are concerned about the way Harris’ staffers are treated.
Symone Sanders, senior advisor and chief spokesperson for Harris, pushed back against the complaints and defended Flournoy saying she has an “open door policy” and that “Black women like me would not have the opportunity to work in politics without Tina.” Of the chief of staff’s anonymous critics, she added: “People are cowards to do this this way.”
“We are not making rainbows and bunnies all day. What I hear is that people have hard jobs and I’m like ‘welcome to the club,’” Sanders added. “We have created a culture where people, if there is anything anyone would like to raise, there are avenues for them to do so. Whoever has something they would like to raise, they should raise it directly.”
Harris and Flournoy’s defenders also note that women in power—Black women in particular—are subjected to standards that men often don’t have to clear. A tough and demanding office environment may be seen as a virtue for one and a sign of disorder and lack of leadership acumen for another.
But for some of the people who know Harris best, it’s become an all-too-familiar pattern for a politician who has churned through several iterations of staff on her rise and took office with a team almost entirely new to her.
Just six months in, some of those aides in the Office of the Vice President said they are eyeing other employment opportunities. Others have left already. In recent days, two top advance staffers, Karly Satkowiak and Gabrielle DeFranceschi, parted ways with Harris in what they and Harris officials said were long-planned departures, a point disputed by two other people familiar with the matter.
For DeFranceschi, the deputy director of advance, the departure came down to a “difference in opinion on how things should run,” according to another person familiar with the matter, who said that Harris’ office is run “very different” from the Obama operation, where DeFranceschi previously worked. “If you have an opinion about how things should run and it’s not listened to, that can be frustrating.”
DeFranceschi did not respond to a request for comment.
A third Harris aide who worked on her digital team, Rajan Kaur, left the staff after opting not to relocate to Washington from Brooklyn.
Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to the president, defended Flournoy as well as the decision to keep news of the border trip contained among a small group of people, saying Harris’ office didn’t want it to leak or “turn it into a spectacle.”
“It was closely held and there may be people whose feelings were a little hurt on her staff that they weren’t brought into the discussion,” Dunn said. “But any suggestion that it was mishandled or kept a secret from people who needed to know about the arrangements or needed to know about it is absolutely not true.”
Asked if she was aware of the complaints about the VP’s office, Dunn replied that it was “not anywhere near what you are describing.”
Flournoy is a longtime Democratic operative who worked in President Bill Clinton’s White House as well as on Clinton’s reelection campaign and Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. She’s part of an informal group of Black women who’ve worked together for decades in Democratic politics, which includes Donna Brazile, Minyon Moore, Leah Daughtry and Yolanda Caraway.
“Look, [Tina’s] strong, she’s intelligent, she’s driven, and she expects strong, intelligent, driven people around her,” said Daughtry. “But some people may find strong, driven, smart people intimidating, but I think that’s more projection than reality because that’s just not Tina’s intent or style. And nothing in her experience would lead you to think that she’s an intimidating person.”
Flournoy is respected among operatives beyond that group. Indeed, some of the biggest names in Democratic politics who had gotten word of it called in advance of this story to speak well of her. Others took to Twitter on Tuesday to push back on a CNBC report that said Flournoy’s role as a gatekeeper for Harris was roiling outside allies and big donors who have seen their access to her severely curtailed.
The thrust of their critique was it’s the chief of staff’s role to shield their boss from outside influences and ensure only important matters land on their desk.
But Flournoy has developed a reputation for taking that sentry position to an extreme, often refusing to delegate and second-guessing other staffers, according to two people with direct knowledge of Flournoy’s time as President Bill Clinton’s post-presidential chief of staff, the job she held before Harris hired her.
“People who Clinton knew for decades all of a sudden couldn’t get through to him because Tina choked off contact,” one of the people said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Because Clinton didn’t use email”—he only used his BlackBerry to communicate with family, close friends and a handful of aides—”she was able to keep many FOBs [friends of Bill] out.”
While it’s part of a chief of staff’s job to limit access to her boss, the person added, “you can’t just flat out ignore people and not get back to them.”
In interviews with POLITICO, some aides and allies are concerned Harris is being ill-served by stepping too far back and letting her political apparatus atrophy. Flournoy has summarily rejected the idea of Harris spending more time tending to her past relationships or capitalizing on her new post to create new ones, a move that people in the VP’s orbit view as short-sighted.
Recently, a Harris friend personally reached out to Flournoy on behalf of one of the party’s top donors to try to arrange a brief meeting. They were ignored. The friend said it wasn’t clear whether Flournoy knew who they were. The donor also contacted Harris’ office personally to connect, and didn’t hear back for weeks. They eventually were told the VP was too busy to schedule some time.
“This is someone who has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars—millions, even—for your boss and you’re just blowing them off?” the Harris friend asked. “Next time Kamala wants [them] for something, it’s like, ‘Hey, I couldn’t even get a call-back from your chief of staff!’”
Every vice president has had to balance the demands of being a supportive second-in-command while also keeping an eye on future political opportunities. But Harris’ task is more complicated. It’s not clear whether Biden will run again in 2024—at which point she’d be the logical standard-bearer for the party. She also has felt an acute need to demonstrate her loyalty to Biden after working hard to earn it prior to being nominated as his veep.
For that reason, some outside allies acknowledged that Harris has gone out of her way not to engage in politicking—either subtle or overt—given the sensitivities among Biden’s own team. But far more of the allies maintain that it’s unreasonable, foolish even, not to support efforts to burnish her own profile while seemingly every other Democrat with national ambitions is allowed to hobnob with political acquaintances and cozy up to donors.
“She’s been in public life for 30 years. F—. You don’t just all of a sudden go radio silent,” added another Harris confidant and long-serving former aide. The person rejected the idea that Harris is unaware of the problems in her office.
“She is the most perceptive person on the planet,” the person said. “She might not have first-hand knowledge, but it’s hard to imagine she doesn’t have a sense of what’s going on.”
Harris’ staff struggles are nothing new. People who have worked for her in the past describe days as “managed chaos.” “The boss’ expectations won’t always be predictable,” said one former Harris Senate aide.
Her presidential campaign operation imploded in a painful maze of finger-pointing and leaks. Harris jettisoned nearly everyone from that campaign and returned to the Senate in 2020 with her government staff and a small outside political operation in tow. When she was put on the presidential ticket, she was given a staff of mostly handpicked, trusted aides from Bidenworld. It did the job. The team avoided the spiral of internal backbiting.
The pressure-packed VP’s office has been a different story, and it hasn’t helped that few of her aides had any familiarity with their boss or her chief of staff when they started their jobs.
The morale level for current Harris staffers is “rough” and in many ways similar to the failed presidential campaign and her Senate office, according to the former Senate aide, who is in touch with current Harris staffers.
Part of what has created that climate is the portfolios that Harris has accepted to work on, which include some of the most intractable issues facing the Biden administration. Harris was, early on, tasked with tackling the root causes of the flow of migrants to the southern border. It immediately made her the focus of conservative criticism, including the demand that she personally go to the southern border to assess the situation.
For weeks, Harris’ aides argued that she didn’t have to go there right away to show leadership on the issue. Instead, she flew to the countries where the migrants were originating and traveling through.
The trip to Guatemala and Mexico had its share of bumps. In an interview with NBC News, Harris scoffed at the idea she’d go to the border, by arguing that she hadn’t been to Europe, either. The answer spawned a flurry of stories quoting former staffers about her shortcomings in impromptu moments, which frustrated Harris personally, as well as members of her team.
Weeks later, Harris finally decided to take the trip to El Paso. Her team insisted that it was not in response to her critics. But other aides and confidants said it was evident she was trying to just move past the coverage and, in doing so, may have helped affirm the right-wing misinformation campaign against her.
It didn’t help matters that the border visit seemed hastily put together, symbolized by a news conference Harris held in which she struggled to speak over the engine of a roaring plane.
Harris’ defenders argue that these moments are overblown; that few people beyond the politically obsessive will remember the din of a press conference or whether she went to the border on her own volition or under duress.
“Vice President Harris is focused on the work, not the chatter at the water cooler,” Sanders said.
What’s more concerning for people inside and out of Harris’ orbit is staunching the bleeding among frustrated staff and meaningfully improving the low morale in the office, which could cause damage to her relationship with Biden and his team. Harris, these people said, excels when those around her project calm and order, creating a sense of confidence and certainty.
“When people feed her anxieties, all of that goes away,” said another Harris friend, “exacerbating the bad tendencies.”
Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report.