Before Vice President Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisFewer children, families crossed into US from Mexico in May Meet the most powerful woman in Washington not named Pelosi or Harris White House ‘looking into’ woman claiming to be reporter at Harris press conference MORE’s plane touched down at Joint Base Andrews after 1 a.m. on Wednesday, the narrative of her first foreign trip had already been cast.
Biden allies and even some people close to Harris said they viewed her trip to Guatemala and Mexico as a “disaster,” as one put it.
They said they were left wondering why she seemed so ill-prepared to handle basic questions like “Why you haven’t been to the border?” that have been telegraphed by Republicans and conservative media as well as more mainstream outlets given her focus on the Northern Triangle countries and immigration.
Harris’s comments about visiting the border during the trip left almost everyone shaking their heads inside and outside the White House.
“It wasn’t great,” said one longtime Biden ally. “A little cringeworthy too. I don’t know how they weren’t preparing for these questions.”
Another ally was blunt: “It was terrible. I don’t know how else to say it.”
The allies pointed to several comments that gave critics of Harris and the Biden administration an easy talking point.
First, they pointed to Harris’s remarks at a press conference on Monday, where she pointedly told migrants “don’t come” to the border. Those comments drew a backlash from progressives, including Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who said they sent the wrong signal.
The following day in an interview with NBC News’s Lester Holt, the sources said Harris came off as defensive when Holt repeatedly asked if she was going to visit the border.
“We are going to the border, we’ve been to the border,” Harris told Holt. When Holt told her she had not visited the border, Harris replied: “And I haven’t been to Europe.”
The comment was played on loop on the cable networks even before Harris left Mexico City for Washington. The flub even found its way to late night television, when The Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon played the clip Tuesday night.
“Well, that escalated quickly,” Fallon said, after making an inquisitive face about Harris’s comments. The studio audience laughed.
Democrats say it’s still early in the administration and mistakes are bound to happen.
Harris, the first woman to hold the vice presidency, is already a historic figure who many believe could be the party’s standard-bearer in a future presidential election — perhaps as early as 2024 if Biden chooses to not run for reelection.
But they also say, in some respects, it’s a lose-lose proposition for Harris to have to handle one of the thorniest issues in American politics as vice president.
“It makes her an easy target and a heat shield and obviously that wasn’t the intention,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “With an issue like immigration, it’s very easy to find threads to pull on to scapegoat people and that’s what her team is desperately trying to avoid right now.”
One Democratic strategist said there is clearly a “failure of strategy on how to position the vice president on the issue” and it’s apparent in how they handled sending Harris on her first foreign trip.
“It makes her look a little listless,” the strategist said. “It’s an issue you can’t win on.”
Democratic strategist Christy Setzer acknowledged that the comments to NBC were “clumsy.”
“The White House’s lead spokesperson on immigration should be able to talk about the root causes of migration and what’s happening at the border without getting defensive or handing the opposition an infinitely re-playable soundbite,” Setzer said.
But she added: “This feels mild in the grand scheme of things— a muffed up interview on a notoriously no-win topic. I doubt we’re still speaking about it this weekend, let alone by the November midterms.”
What will be critical for Harris is how she handles the coming months, political observers say.
Since the border is not a problem that can be ‘solved,’ one measure of Harris’ political skills will be how she studies it, issues a report, and shunts responsibility back onto the Department of Homeland Security and its Border Patrol with as few people noticing as possible, said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University.
But one strategist said the immigration issue will come back to haunt her down the road.
“The political adversaries of this administration have a vested interest in spinning this into a controversy even if one doesn’t exist and I know her team is well aware of that,” the strategist said.