Kamala Harris’ chief of staff limits access to vice president
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris waits to speak during an event on high-speed internet access in the South Court Auditorium at the White House complex on June 3, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images
Kamala Harris’ chief of staff has effectively shut out several longtime of the vice president’s political and business world allies as the Biden administration contends with several challenges, including battles over voting rights and the border, according to people familiar with the matter.
Harris has not been returning phone calls to people who have considered themselves members of her inner circle, including donors and people who supported her Senate and White House runs, according to some of the people with knowledge of the situation.
Under chief of staff Tina Flournoy’s watch, Harris speaks regularly to President Joe Biden, her family members, a tight group of friends, and her strategists, these people said. The people declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Yet as Flournoy, who built a tough reputation while working for former President Bill Clinton, exerts her power as a gatekeeper to the vice president, several of Harris’ allies outside the federal government are struggling to get their calls returned after years of regularly being in touch with her, some of these people said.
A person familiar with Flournoy’s handling of incoming communication with these associates says she sometimes starts a conversation asking, “What is it that you want from the vice president?” If the person wants to just say hello and have a brief conversation, Flournoy says that time will come at future private events.
If a person wants to speak to Harris about where she stands on policy, Flournoy will, at times, say they can’t speak to the vice president about policy and will make an introduction to one of her policy advisors.
Some of these same advisors and donors are trying other routes, including by attempting to speak with Douglas Emhoff, the vice president’s husband. Many of those calls have yet to be returned, these people said.
Chiefs of staff, especially those in the highest echelons of government, are expected to run a tight ship for their bosses, including by limiting who gets in the door for meetings or who reaches them on the phone. In the vice president’s world, some allies can get in – but they guard their status so they don’t run afoul of Flournoy.
For instance, an influential Democratic donor who raised money for Harris’ failed bid for president recently tried to reach out to the vice president, and had yet to receive a call back. Then this person decided to contact Flournoy.
That didn’t work. The donor reached out to a fellow Democratic financier for Flournoy’s contact information. But the fellow financier declined to share Flournoy’s email address for fear of losing access themselves.
Another Harris supporter said she hasn’t heard from the vice president since a call with supporters during the transition period.
While Flournoy has made it tougher to get in touch with Harris, some of the vice president’s supporters accept it as a consequence of Harris building out her portfolio. Harris recently made her first visit as vice president to the U.S.-Mexico border, she touted President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, and is expected to have a role working on criminal justice reform, among other items.
One person close to Harris said they appreciated what Flournoy is doing and has accepted that it’s simply going to be harder to get in touch with Harris now that she is vice president and begins working on big-ticket initiatives.
“There’s no question she [Flournoy] is a strong chief of staff and there’s no question that she is very focused on making sure that the VP is able to be focusing on the coronavirus pandemic and getting people vaccinated, the border, voting rights,” said another Harris ally who has spoken to Flournoy.
“So by making sure that she is able to focus on what she’s being charged with, there could be people who are not necessarily getting access because the chief of staff is prioritizing those tasks for the VP over political outreach,” this person explained.
A spokeswoman for Harris did not return a request for comment.
In this May 31, 2008 file photo, Tina Flournoy, then Democratic National Committee Rules and Bylaws committee member, during a hearing in Washington.
Susan Walsh | AP
Flournoy has deep roots in Washington, D.C., and is a veteran of the mainstream Democratic establishment.
In the latter half of the 1980s, she worked as a law clerk for Julia Cooper Mack, a judge on the D.C. Court of Appeals, before jumping into politics, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
CRP also says she later had stints as a counsel for the Democratic National Convention, as a leader on Clinton’s transition team after he was elected in 1992, and then as counsel for the former president’s office of presidential personnel.
Flournoy is listed as general counsel for cigarette maker Phillip Morris in a 1995 White House press advisory naming Kennedy Center advisory committee members. Later, she served as traveling chief of staff for Sen. Joe Lieberman during the 2000 presidential campaign, when he was Al Gore’s running mate.
After working on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign for president, she became assistant to the president for public policy at the American Federation of Teachers, an influential union. Flournoy was originally connected to Harris by Minyon Moore, who was an assistant to Clinton when he was president. Moore, who didn’t return a request for comment, was once named as one of the 100 most powerful women in Washington.
Before she became Harris’ chief of staff, Flournoy led the staff working for former President Bill Clinton starting in 2013. At that post, Flournoy oversaw a staff of approximately 10 people who worked directly with Clinton, and had regular engagement with the Clinton Foundation, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.
While Flournoy was chief of staff, Clinton held an infamous tarmac meeting with then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch while his wife ran for president in the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server was being investigated at the time by the FBI, which is part of the Justice Department.
Flournoy’s style working for Harris is familiar to people who knew her while she worked for Clinton. She took over managing access to Clinton after the departure of his longtime right-hand man, Doug Band. Band, who co-founded corporate consulting firm Teneo, is known for helping create Clinton’s post-presidential life, including assisting in launching the foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative.
According to a report by Vanity Fair, Clinton and Band interacted with some controversial celebrities and executives, including the late Jeffrey Epstein, who later died by suicide in prison after being arrested for child sex trafficking.
“If you look at Doug’s tenure, it ranges from Epstein to others,” a person with direct knowledge of Flournoy’s work told CNBC.
“If you look from 2013 through about a year a half ago when Tina was here, you can’t point to any single one of them being here [Clinton’s orbit]. I call some of those people who were once around ‘the unsavory humans,'” this person added.
Clinton praised the hiring of Flournoy in a tweet after Harris made the official announcement. A spokesman for Clinton did not return a request for comment.
Band did not comment.