- Sep 2, 2005
There is dysfunction inside the VP’s office, aides and administration officials say. And it’s emanating from the top.
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 douroffice 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.”