White House press secretary Jen Psaki claimed Thursday that a staff exodus from Vice President Kamala Harris’ press office was “natural” and “a very positive thing” — and at one point said that top executive branch staffers may also leave because they just want “to sleep more.”
Psaki denied that there’s a house-cleaning underway amid abysmal polling for Harris and mass disgruntlement among her staff after reports on the latest in a trio of high-profile staff departures.
“Working in the first year of a White House is exciting and rewarding but it’s also grueling and exhausting,” Psaki said.
“If you look at past precedent, it’s natural for staffers who have thrown their heart and soul into a job to be ready to move on to a new challenge after a few years and that is applicable to many of these individuals. It’s also an opportunity as it is in any White House to bring in new faces, new voices and new perspectives.”
The Harris aides leaving include chief spokeswoman Symone Sanders, director of press operations Peter Velz and deputy director of public engagement Vince Evans.
Harris communications director Ashley Etienne also recently departed.
When pressed on whether main White House aides also would begin jumping ship, Psaki gave an answer intended to forestall any future blow to President Biden.
“In my experience, it is a normal course of events that people are ready to do something new,” she said. “They’re ready to spend time with their families, they’re ready to sleep more. And that is to be expected in the first year, 18 months, two years of any White House.”
Harris had high turnover among her Senate and 2020 campaign staffs and the main White House press office hasn’t had a parallel spate of high-profile exits — with the exception of spokesman TJ Ducklo, who resigned in February after reports emerged about his vulgar and sexist treatment of a journalist.
Psaki said Sanders “is whip smart and she has charisma coming out of her eyeballs, and she’s going to do plenty of interesting things in the world in the future.”
Psaki spoke as Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg jointly visited Charlotte, NC, on Thursday and sought to douse speculation of a rivalry ahead of a possible 2024 clash in the Democratic presidential primary amid conjecture that Biden won’t seek a second term.
Harris and Buttigieg hugged at Joint Base Andrews before boarding Air Force Two for a flight to Charlotte to promote the recently passed $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Aboard the plane, Buttigieg spoke with reporters and downplayed talk of a rift.
“It’s 2021,” Buttigieg said. “And the whole point of campaigns and elections is when they go well, you get to govern. And we are squarely focused on the job at hand. I am excited to be part of a team led by the president and the vice president and I think the teamwork that got us to this point is really just beginning.”
Buttigieg continued: “As transportation secretary, I get to be the face of a lot of these investments that we’re doing, but we would not be here without the leadership of the vice president as well as the president, of course, and so many others. So I am glad we’re able to shine a light on that today.”
Harris, if elected, would be the first female president — as well as the first of Asian ancestry and the second of African descent. But a recent poll by USA Today and Suffolk University found her with a 28 percent approval rating — 10 points below Biden’s own anemic numbers — making her vulnerable to a challenge.
Although Biden says he intends to seek a second term in 2024, he’s already the oldest-ever president at age 79 and Democrats are bracing for a possible primary between Harris, 57, and Buttigieg, 39.
An ally of the VP recently told CNN that many Harris supporters are upset that the West Wing gave less support to Harris, who is of African and Indian ancestry, than to Buttigieg, whose ancestry is European, when they were criticized in the press.
The former Harris aide told CNN, “It’s hard to miss the specific energy that the White House brings to defend a white man, knowing that Kamala Harris has spent almost a year taking a lot of the hits that the West Wing didn’t want to take themselves.”
Harris’ staff reportedly are frustrated that Biden handed her tough assignments, such as reducing illegal immigration from Central America, and a recent Business Insider report said Harris allies consider it likely that she would face a challenge from Buttigieg.
“I have no doubt that he’s going to run and he’s not going to need much persuading,” prominent Harris fundraiser Steve Phillips told Business Insider, adding, “The K-Hive is a very energetic and fiercely loyal constituency.”
While Harris drew significant heat this year over her work on the migrant crisis, including her initial reluctance to visit the US-Mexico border, Buttigieg recently drew criticism for taking paternity leave amid a mounting supply-chain crisis at ports.