Donald Trump made numerous outrageous but not necessarily consequential decisions throughout his Presidency: awarding Rush Limbaugh and Jim Jordan the Medal of Freedom, say, or trying to get rid of the iconic blue-and-white paint job on Air Force One. His endless hiring and firing of staff resulted in his Administration having the highest turnover of senior jobs that anyone can remember. But it did not make as much of a difference as it might have, in the sense that Trump created a White House so devoid of process and normal policy deliberation that he largely fulfilled his goal of being “the only one who matters.”
The failure of the Administration’s four different chiefs of staff to rein in the impulsive President, however, indisputably mattered, and it became worse and more significant with each new man to hold the job. Mark Meadows, the final and Trumpiest of them all, was named to his post almost a year ago, in early March, as the interlocking crises of 2020 were just gathering hellish force. Meadows—a cynical congressman from North Carolina with zero governing experience—had spent much of the previous few years turning the Trump-skeptical House Freedom Caucus, which he chaired, into the President’s biggest congressional cheering section. As chief of staff, Meadows invariably encouraged Trump’s most dangerous instincts, whether denying the severity of the coronavirus or attacking the legitimacy of the Presidential election in ways that had direct and lethal effects on the country. Chris Whipple, who wrote “The Gatekeepers,” the definitive book on White House chiefs, told me that Meadows, who served Trump as a combination of “valet,” “sycophant,” and partisan hack, now “owns the title of worst chief of staff in history,” a distinction for which there used to be robust competition.
The contrast, in other words, between Meadows and his successor, Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff for President Joe Biden, could not be greater. Klain, a longtime adviser to Biden, who served as his chief of staff when he was Vice-President, is arguably the most experienced person ever to hold the job among the thirty who have since the position was created, following the Second World War. He knows how White Houses run when they work and how they fail when they don’t—and, just as importantly, what government is actually supposed to do. Klain, who ran the Senate Judiciary Committee for Biden when Biden chaired it decades ago, worked under nine chiefs of staff during the Clinton and Obama Presidencies, and twice served as Vice-Presidential chief of staff, first for Al Gore, in the late nineties, and then for Biden, from 2009 to 2011. He is, he tells people, the White House chief of staff who has worked for more chiefs of staff than any other.
The new Administration is a month old this week, and so far it’s clear only that it will need all of that experience, and a whole lot of luck besides, to dig out from under Trump’s mess: the raging pandemic, catastrophic unemployment, a country still riven by the recent election and Trump’s explosive Presidency. Klain’s main qualification, aside from decades of fluency in understanding Biden, may well be a combination of policy wonkery and political knife-fighting that the new Administration will need in order to pass its massive $1.9 trillion COVID-relief package, which will start making its way through congressional committees next week. The measure is an early test of whether Biden’s calls for post-Trump “unity” will prove to be anything more than rhetoric, given the realities of an evenly split Senate and a Republican Party still largely in thrall to Trump.
A couple of weeks ago, reports after an early Oval Office meeting with Senate Republicans on the White House COVID package showed how things might go for Klain. G.O.P. aides accused Klain of vigorously shaking his head during the session and shooting down possible compromises toward which the President supposedly seemed more amenable. Politico soon reported that Senate Republican aides were calling the chief of staff “Prime Minister Klain.” It was clear they did not mean it as a compliment, either to Biden or to Klain, perhaps an easier target than the President given that Biden is still well liked among his former Senate colleagues and relatively popular with the public. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, were understandably left wondering why their Republican colleagues were the first to land an in-person session at the White House. Klain, a senior Administration official said, is happy to take “the slings and arrows” if Republicans mistakenly thought they were going to come out of the meeting with a “quick and inadequate deal.”
Heat shield for the President is a time-honored role for a White House chief of staff. So is, in the memorable phrase of Jim Baker—the only person to serve as chief to two Presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush—that of “shit detector.” Klain will have to be very good at both. Baker, who is widely considered by both Democrats and Republicans as the gold standard for the job, once explained that figuring out how to make sure the President does not step in a mess was a big part of the job, as well as “when he gets into trouble, to get him out of it.”
That, of course, is what Meadows and the Trump-era chiefs could never do. As I learned, while writing a biography of Baker over the past few years, there really is one absolute prerequisite for any successful White House chief of staff: having a President willing to invest genuine authority and power in him, which is something Trump never would consider doing. The Biden Administration is an entirely different matter, with a Washington-lifer President who knows how to empower his staff and still remembers a time when across-aisle dealmaking was both good politics and a governing fact of life.
“The Biden White House reflects Joe Biden,” Klain told me, in a conversation this week. “And that’s an effort to try to be uniting. It’s an effort to try to pull people together. It’s an effort to be professionals, to bring experience to things, to bring expertise to challenges. I mean, I just hope that what we’re doing here as a staff reflects what he said he’d do as President. I think it does. But I think, ultimately, the tone always comes from the top.”
Tone, of course, is the easy part. In that, the Biden White House is lucky in what it’s followed. Given that we are only a few weeks removed from the extreme chaos of Trump, merely appointing experienced, qualified professionals such as Klain and restoring the daily White House press briefings still counts as a blow for normalcy. After an apocalyptic few months—the pandemic surging, the Capitol insurrection, Trump’s historic second impeachment—the new President’s soothing vow this week, at a CNN town hall, to stop talking about “the former guy” still seems to herald a much-needed era of political detox. “Look, for four years, all that’s been in the news is Trump,” Biden said. “The next four years, I want to make sure all the news is the American people. I’m tired of talking about Trump.”
Trump-bashing, however, may be more unifying than almost anything that comes next for the Biden team, whose challenges are so epic that even this week’s historic cold spell in the South and catastrophic power outages seem par for the course in a country already on the brink. The new White House faces not only the upcoming challenge of passing its COVID-relief package but also serious questions about the pace and timing of the national vaccine rollout. Will life be back to normal by July, as Dr. Anthony Fauci said recently, or not until December, as Biden said the other day? Republicans are already blasting the new Administration’s “mixed messages” on COVID, and the question of where it stands on reopening schools. Democrats, meanwhile, fear that Biden’s promises to enact liberal priorities such as immigration reform, college-debt relief, and gun control are dead on arrival in Congress—if they even get as far as Capitol Hill.
As we try to map out how power will work in the Biden Administration, tracking Klain may offer a few unvarnished glimpses into a White House where message discipline has so far been much more prevalent than the backstabbing background quotes to reporters that characterized the Trump years.
A prolific tweeter in the Trump era, Klain has kept on tweeting, now from the West Wing, offering, at least for the moment, far more insight into the day-to-day political fray than his colleagues or Biden himself, whose anodyne feed tends toward exhortations to mask up and photos of his cute White House dogs.
In recent days, Klain’s @WHCOS account has been courting Republican senators and governors per the boss’s bipartisan marching orders, pushing out statistics about the new Administration’s “progress” fighting COVID, and even snarking off a bit about the Former Guy. “Schools closed under President Trump,” Klain observed, in a tweet just before we spoke, on Thursday morning, “and they will reopen under President Biden.”
But these are early days yet. The votes in Congress that will determine whether Democrats and Republicans can still come together in the midst of an extreme crisis have not yet been taken. The terms of Biden’s call for unity are still being negotiated, as is the amount of time that Democrats are willing to spend on a possibly vain effort to convince Republicans to join them. Senior officials in the new Administration are clear that they will be judged not on a bipartisanship that may never materialize but on whether they deliver for Americans desperate for relief from the pandemic and the attendant economic catastrophe.
I asked Klain how he thought his White House was set up, compared with the many previous iterations he has seen. With so many serious problems facing the country, Klain said, the current White House is the most serious he’s ever seen, with a serious President and a serious set of advisers in place. “And I hope I’m a serious chief of staff,” he said—an aspiration that, in and of itself, speaks to a Washington that could not be more different from what it was just a month ago.