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"Whisper campaign": White House mobilizes to defend Harris after flood of leaks

Top White House officials are mobilizing to defend Vice President Kamala Harris amid a gusher of leaks about dysfunction and infighting in her office.

Driving the news: White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain told Axios in a statement: "The President's trust and confidence in her is obvious when you see them in the Oval Office together." Biden senior adviser Cedric Richmond said in an interview late Thursday night: "It’s a whisper campaign designed to sabotage her."

Details: Their responses came after Axios approached the White House with new reporting about growing tensions between West Wing officials and the Harris team, including chief of staff Tina Flournoy.

  • Some White House officials have been frustrated by a series of missteps from Harris and increasingly public bickering in her orbit, which spilled out in a Politico story on Wednesday. Flournoy's old boss, former President Bill Clinton, came to her defense with a statement calling her "an extraordinary person."

Why it matters: 2024 is the elephant in the room. While Biden aides overwhelmingly believe he'll be the Democratic nominee, they also know he'd be 81 when seeking re-election.

  • An operation sometimes visibly out of sync with Biden's — and missteps during a recent trip to the U.S.-Mexico border, including an interview with NBC's Lester Holt — have reignited questions from Harris' 2020 primary bid.
  • Harris would be the presumptive nominee if Biden didn't run. Administration sources believe it would be nearly impossible to unseat the first African American woman vice president.

Yet many Democrats, including some current senior administration officials, are concerned she could not defeat whomever the Republican Party puts up — even if it were Donald Trump.

  • One Democratic operative tells Axios' Alayna Treene that most Democrats aren't saying, "'Oh, no, our heir apparent is f***ing up, what are we gonna do?’ It's more that people think, 'Oh, she’s f***ing up, maybe she shouldn't be the heir apparent.'"
  • Some Democrats close to the White House are increasingly concerned about Harris’s handling of high-profile issues and political tone deafness, and question her ability to maintain the coalition that Biden rode to the White House, sources tell Axios' Hans Nichols.

What we're hearing: Relations between the West Wing and the Vice President's office are tense.

  • Several administration officials used "shitshow" when describing Harris' office, and contrast her operation with disciplined, virtually leakproof Biden aides.
  • Some Biden officials view the Harris operation as poorly-managed and staffed with people who don't have long-term relationships with her. They feel she's gotten bad advice from her press and communications shop and think it's telling that she's already lost two advance aides and a digital director.

Case in point: A few months ago, what should have been a no-brainer of a press request came to the vice president's office. Forbes wanted to feature Harris on the cover of its "50 Over 50" issue — saluting her rise to be the "first woman, the first Black person, and the first South Asian-American to become U.S. vice president."

  • After concluding that Flournoy had been sitting on the request — a characterization that an aide to the V.P. flatly disputes, explaining that she was simply nailing down details before sharing it with a larger White House circle — ultimately the West Wing intervened to get an answer for Forbes.
  • The vice president ended up participating — and getting glowing treatment. But Biden advisers couldn't understand why it had to be this hard, people familiar with the incident tell Axios.

What they're saying: Harris' senior adviser, Symone Sanders, and deputy chief of staff Michael Fuchs defended Harris and Flournoy. Harris' team notes the president has entrusted the V.P. with a portfolio that includes voting rights, migration from Central America, space, labor, broadband, small-business assistance and women in the workforce.

  • "People are not fighting every day," Sanders said. "There's not consternation among aides. That is not true. ... I hear that there are critics. Those who talk often do not know and those who know usually are not the ones talking."
  • Fuchs dismissed criticisms of Flournoy and Harris as "rumors" and "not true," and said they've shown integrity and leadership as the pandemic added more hurdles to an already difficult job.

Klain praised Harris and her team as "off to the fastest and strongest start of any Vice President I have seen," and said "her talents and determination have made a huge difference" already.

  • "She’s delivering for the American people on immigration, small business, voting rights, and economic growth," Klain said. "The results speak for themselves: a decline of border arrivals from the Northern Triangle, improved vaccine equity, and increased economic opportunities for women."

Richmond called Harris a "staunch advocate for the Biden-Harris agenda," and said demand for her participation in events remains high.

  • He said no one's brought complaints about her or her team to him. And he said it's unfair to compare any vice president's staff to a president's staff — much less Biden's team, which includes some advisers who've worked for him for decades and served in three White Houses.
  • "You can’t hold the vice president's team to that standard," Richmond said. "But I think they’re good, I think they’re busting their tails and I think the VP is executing all her assignments and taking on her issues."
  • Of the narrative against Harris, he said: "At some point it just becomes, one person says something long enough and it becomes an urban legend. It doesn’t have to be credible. It doesn’t have to be real. Someone says something and it can just snowball."
  • "Not one named person. That’s what bothers me most. We’re in a day where the stakes are high. You’d just hope if there’s a legitimate criticism they’d put their name next to it."

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