The Revolving Door Project, a Prospect partner, scrutinizes the executive branch and presidential power. Follow them at therevolvingdoorproject.org.
When President Biden assumed office, he made it his mission to clean off the cobwebs clinging to the Domestic Policy Council (DPC), a White House office long eclipsed in both visibility and power by its prestigious cousin, the National Security Council. To revamp the advisory body focused on critical policies like Medicare, immigration, education, and labor, Biden installed at its helm one of D.C.’s most high-profile power players, former National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
Biden has worked hard—on both the campaign trail and in the Oval Office—to project a Norman Rockwell-esque aura of respectability to the American public, in contrast to the Trump administration’s poorly concealed chaos. Part of that image is represented by the way some colleagues have publicly described Rice as “an extraordinarily generous person” and “full of kindness.” However, the desire to tone down the vitriol of the previous administration is also deeply at odds with another side of Rice’s reputation during the Obama years for running a fiery workplace, filled with “shouting matches,” “insults,” and middle fingers.
Conversations with current and former White House officials suggest that little has changed in the intervening years. Rice regularly excoriates her colleagues, creating an “abusive and dehumanizing environment” according to one source, who spoke to The American Prospect on the condition of anonymity. The vitriol of the Rice-controlled workplace is something of an open secret, with previous reports filed about Department of Health and Human Services staff being yelled at in meeting after meeting.
The Prospect has learned previously unreported details that Rice also berated HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, himself the son of immigrants, alleging incompetence at addressing the processing of migrants crossing the U.S. southern border. At one point during a meeting, where President Biden expressed his displeasure at Becerra’s efforts at HHS, Rice wrote a note to a colleague that said, “Don’t help him,” referring to Becerra.
Refusing to help became a theme for Rice’s immigration outlook, according to the White House sources, current and former, contacted by the Prospect. After learning that expulsion flights of migrants were not always full, Rice developed a daily fixation with ensuring full capacity on flights operating under Title 42, a Trump-era policy that allows for the rapid expulsion of migrants and asylum seekers.
At one point, a series of emails was circulated with a picture of a man who had been expelled to southern Mexico with several gun barrels in his mouth. The emails described the perils faced by those on expulsion flights in southern Mexico at the hands of cartel gangs that control vast swaths of territory. The communications did not elicit immediate action at the highest levels of the DPC, an oversight described by one former official as a “fuckup.”
Another series of emails, describing the way expulsion flights to Guatemala were helping to cripple the Central American country’s health care infrastructure, was circulated among White House staff but similarly did not change Rice’s outlook on immigration policy.
As The New York Times reported in November, Rice’s hardfisted stance toward illegal immigration went so far that she blocked a plan to vaccinate migrants at the border, a policy she justified by arguing that vaccinations could be viewed as an incentive for further illegal migration.
When reached for comment, a White House official told the Prospect that Rice played an integral role in marshaling an all-of-government approach to build an orderly immigration system helping to minimize the time children spend in federal custody. They also added that Title 42 was and continues to be law, and to best use taxpayer dollars means ensuring that methods of transport are being used by the Department of Homeland Security as efficiently as possible.
Another source described to the Prospect that, after learning that Russians were crossing the southern U.S. border at higher rates, Rice realized that alongside them were also Mexican immigrants. She then organized additional screenings to detain and expel Mexicans without furthering a plan to address the rise in Russians. “Rather than making moves to address the swelling Russian population, Susan discovered that a high number of Mexicans were copying that influx. She deployed asylum officers to do extra screenings at a higher threshold to make sure that they could be expelled,” the source said.
This all comes as Rice is reported to be under consideration to succeed Ron Klain as Biden’s next chief of staff, a position that would allow her to further consolidate an already heavy grip on the president’s agenda.
Rice’s harsh stance on immigration has not had its intended effect. Republican politicians like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott have continued to hammer Democrats on immigration, even staging high-profile stunts like busing migrants to Washington, D.C., and engaging in fruitless searches of trucks at the Mexican border. “The problem is that Democrats are hiding under their desk with a ’90s strategy of triangulation. But you’re never going to out-enforce Republicans.” one source told the Prospect.
The reporting on Rice’s stance against vaccinating immigrants drew ire from progressive groups, but activists pushing for another high-profile domestic policy overseen by the DPC, student debt cancellation, have also found Rice a target for their outrage. Americans are currently struggling under the weight of over $1.6 trillion in student debt, rendered even more crushing given Joe Biden’s recent comments that he’s considering student debt forgiveness, with the caveat that he will not seek full cancellation as many activists have hoped for.
The Prospect and other outlets reported in January that Rice has served as one of the main impediments to student debt cancellation, despite her maternal forebear’s accolade as “the mother of the Pell Grant.” This has been vigorously rebutted by the DPC and colleagues in the White House, though never by saying simply that Rice supports mass debt cancellation. “The notion that Susan Rice has argued against more financial relief for students and borrowers is simply not true,” White House adviser Bruce Reed insisted in a statement to the Prospect. “Susan has been the driving force behind Administration actions that have provided $17 billion in targeted debt relief to more than 700,000 borrowers and paused student loan payments during the pandemic.” Nothing in the statement suggested support of activists’ goal of mass cancellation.
This all comes as Rice is reported to be under consideration to succeed Ron Klain as Biden’s next chief of staff, a position that would allow her to further consolidate an already heavy grip on the president’s agenda. The inability to treat Becerra—a former member of House leadership and the most prominent Latino in the administration—with respect portends badly for a Democratic administration hoping to keep the leadership and the base united amidst various crises, all while staring down the barrel of a potentially devastating GOP congressional majority.
In a swearing-in ceremony at the start of his presidency, Joe Biden made a pledge to hundreds of soon-to-be government officials awaiting their official position start. “I am not joking when I say this, if you are ever working with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect … talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot. On the spot. No ifs, ands or buts. Everybody … everybody is entitled to be treated with decency and dignity. That’s been missing in a big way the last four years.”
In February, Eric Lander resigned from his post as Biden’s top science adviser after a two-month investigation first reported by Politico into “credible evidence” that he bullied his then–general counsel, Rachel Wallace. The investigation also concluded that there was “credible evidence of disrespectful interactions with staff by Dr. Lander and OSTP [Office of Science and Technology Policy] leadership,” according to a recording of a January White House briefing on the investigation’s findings. In addition, “14 current and former OSTP staffers shared descriptions of a toxic work environment under Lander where they say Lander frequently bullied, cut off and dismissed subordinates.”
As Biden looks toward the choppy waters of the second half of his administration, he will have to contend with diminished power in Congress, a growing number of attacks from an emboldened GOP, and perhaps a new chief of staff roiling the White House with rhetoric and behavior that has already cost a senior White House appointee their role in Washington.
Alexander Sammon contributed reporting.