The chief of staff for newly-confirmed Interior Secretary Deb Haaland planned to throw a party for her boss to celebrate Haaland’s new job. Then the White House learned about the event being planned for Haaland and shut it down. The event that was being planned for 50 guests violated the Biden administration’s Covid-19 protocols.
It’s the optics, baby. How would it look to Americans being told to remain indoors, away from family and friends, only to read about or see pictures from a celebration for Haaland? It would be saying the quiet part out loud – not all of us are in this pandemic together. Not all of us are abiding by mitigation protocols handed down by government officials at the federal, state, and local levels. Haaland’s chief of staff, Jennifer Van der Heide, wanted to plan a reception at the Interior Department for Haaland, the first Native American to hold a cabinet post. It was going to be held in the Interior Department’s library at 4:00 p.m. on March 16. Van der Heide may not have understood the optics of such a celebration during a pandemic but the White House did. The Office of Cabinet Affairs ordered it shut down before invitations went out. A menu was already in the works with a Northern Virginia caterer.
In addition to concerns about the size of the party in the middle of a still-virulent pandemic, White House officials expressed consternation about the political optics of hosting such an affair while the administration was urging Americans to be responsible about public health.
The theme of the menu, to be catered by Anita’s of Northern Virginia at a cost of $547, was intended to reflect Haaland’s roots in New Mexico: two appetizer platters with beef and chicken flautas, chicken quesadillas, bean chimichanga and chile con queso. A garden salad, small fruit tray, chips and guacamole, and chicken and veggie red chile cheese enchiladas were also included.
Tiffany Tellez, the catering director for Anita’s, said that a lower-level Interior official first reached out to her at 9:30 a.m. on March 8 to start setting up the catering package.
“She told me what she liked, made her a quote and recommended some stuff. She told me she was going to get some delivery instructions for me, but then she canceled before she gave me anything concrete,” Tellez said in an interview. She said that the Interior official had described it as an “in-person meeting in the library” but that the event was getting too large so the order was canceled on March 10.
A “meeting”, indeed. Some junior staffer was tasked with getting the menu lined up so that person is being thrown under the bus, as though she/he was working without instructions from the chief of staff. That’s not how these things work. Haaland wasn’t even confirmed by the Senate until March 15. Her confirmation was in question up until the vote was taken. She received a vote of 51-40. Now the story from the Interior Department is that a junior staffer was making “soft inquiries” for a party that didn’t happen.
“The secretary and Interior leadership have diligently observed Covid protocols both in and out of the building,” said an Interior spokesperson in a statement. “That includes implementing a first-ever mask mandate for the agency, a stringent telework posture, and multiple communications to staff assuring them that their health and safety is a critical priority. What this shows is that junior staff made soft inquiries for something that never happened. That the new team conducted research and gathered estimates for potential future events and opportunities should not be shocking. There was no event at Interior.”
They think we are stupid. There was no event because it was shut down, not because it was never being planned. As it turns out, Haaland’s chief of staff has a history of running amok with the official policy of a boss.
This is not the first time that Van der Heide has attracted negative attention for her work for a boss. In 2015, the Office of Congressional Ethics said that Van der Heide, when she was chief of staff for former Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), had appeared to have run afoul of ethical guidelines that separate government activities from campaign activities. One example was how she emailed a campaign staffer asking the person “how are we doing to outreach to them for $?” for a State Department event that Honda co-hosted in 2013.
At the time, lawyers for Van der Heide and Honda said the report “addresses actions which either do not violate applicable ethics rules or, at worst, present narrow concerns.” But Van der Heide also apologized for her conduct in 2014, saying that although she had volunteered for Honda’s campaign on personal time without using government resources, “I fell short of the congressman’s expectations and the example I try to set for the office.”
Under normal circumstances, this kind of attempt of skirting the protocols in place with the administration wouldn’t be a big deal. But, this White House is determined to virtue-signal how pure and devoted to the exact opposite of what the bad Orange Man’s administration did to mitigate the pandemic. Every time an event was held at the White House, Trump critics and most of the media had a hissy fit about the potential of it being a super spreader event. The Trump administration did not have a specific policy in place for White House gatherings, though, so there were no concerns of hypocrisy. If Team Biden wants to maintain its superiority, it has to walk the walk, even when it concerns a diversity hire at the cabinet-level.
The protocol violations would have been from guidance from the CDC and the Interior Department itself.
If the Interior party had been held, it would have violated the Biden administration’s own March 8 guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends that people “[a]void large events and gatherings, when possible.” Another CDC webpage, updated Feb. 18, says: “As much as possible, avoid crowds and indoor spaces that do not offer fresh air from the outdoors.” The D.C. public health emergency’s latest notice, issued last week, also says that indoor gatherings are limited to 10 people.
An Interior Covid-19 workplace safety plan issued in January also advises that “no DOI indoor workplace or visitor experience facility, venue, or other areas where visitors typically congregate in large crowds should operate above 25% of normal occupancy standards during periods of significant or high community transmission as defined by CDC.”
This is especially hypocritical given the words of Secretary Haaland on staying home and looking at the beauty of nature on a computer screen, not outdoors where the risk of infection is vastly reduced to almost zero. Our cousins over at Twitchy had this little tidbit.
Safety should always be the top priority. Luckily this year, the beauty of the cherry blossoms can be enjoyed from home through the BloomCam and other amazing virtual resources at https://t.co/VfRas0vTYw pic.twitter.com/nVwS1VfLz0
— Secretary Deb Haaland (@SecDebHaaland) March 26, 2021