Insiders to Politico: Kamala Harris's office is dysfunctional, abusive, "not healthy"

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Intriguing, and not the first time a major newspaper has dropped a scoop about how unhappy and poorly managed a Harris-led organization is.

But the spiciest quotes here are vague, with no supporting details. Is Harris’s office really “abusive” or have ex-staffers resorted to exaggeration because they have axes to grind?

Harris herself isn’t even the subject of the loudest complaints. That would be Tina Flournoy, her chief of staff, who’s worked in Democratic politics for years and used to manage access to Bill Clinton. The chief’s role is to perform gatekeeping for the VP; the knock on Flournoy is that she’s too zealous in her role, making it hard for VIPs to get Harris on the phone. It sounds like Flournoy can be hard on underlings too, which is nothing new for D.C. and has led some of her defenders to wonder if she’s being singled out for imperiousness because she’s a black woman.

Still, this makes twice in two years that a political operation with Kamala Harris in charge has allegedly been rife with morale problems and weak leadership. Something new for the ol’ 2024 resume to go along with her haplessness in handling the border crisis.

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 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.

Yesterday CNBC published a story about “several longtime political and business world allies” of Harris who are having trouble getting in touch with her thanks to Flournoy despite their support for her various state and national candidacies. Again, you wonder how many of the reports of “dysfunction” are the result of big egos exacting a little revenge through the press because they haven’t felt as soothed as they might like lately.

But then you think back to this NYT pre-mortem of Harris’s failing presidential campaign in late 2019 and wonder if the problem isn’t Flournoy or self-important donors but Harris herself. The Times made the case that the campaign was bitterly split between two camps, one led by her sister and campaign chairman Maya Harris, the other by her campaign manager Juan Rodriguez, with Harris unwilling or unable to resolve the dispute. “In one instance after another, Ms. Harris and her closest advisers made flawed decisions about which states to focus on, issues to emphasize and opponents to target, all the while refusing to make difficult personnel choices to impose order on an unwieldy campaign, according to more than 50 current and former campaign staff members and allies,” the paper reported. A common thread between the campaign and her current office in the White House is poor lines of communication, if Politico is to be believed. But the two aren’t perfectly similar: If the campaign’s problem was that a house divided between Maya Harris and Rodriguez couldn’t stand, the problem with the VP’s office seems to be the opposite, that Flournoy rules with an iron fist.

There may be a common reason for poor morale in both operations, though — bad strategy by Harris herself. Read the Times piece to revisit some of her blunders in 2019 during the primary campaign, then reflect on the fact that she’s now been tasked with “solving” one of the most intractable policy quagmires that the United States faces in immigration. Maybe she felt she wasn’t in a position to tell Biden no when he asked her to take charge of the border crisis but she should have probably resisted — if not for her own sake then for the party’s, since she may well end up at the top of the ballot in 2024 and will now have to answer for the administration’s immigration failures. Harris has blundered within the parameters of her portfolio too, though, taking waaaaay too long to visit the border and blowing off Lester Holt’s question about it a few weeks ago. (According to Politico, her own staff were blindsided when she announced her trip to Texas, further evidence of bad communication.)

All of which is to say is that an office is bound to be unhappy when it’s flailing in its mission, a Harris specialty since 2019. Even if Flournoy were more relaxed in managing aides and there had been clearer lines of authority on the campaign, the fact is that staffers would have been stuck scrambling to clean up strategic and rhetorical messes made by their own boss. How is morale supposed to thrive in those circumstances?

We’ll see if today’s Politico scoop leads to a dam-break in which other Harris staffers, current or former, speak up about what it’s like to work for her. Stay tuned.