Ron Klain Thinks The Biden ‘Alliance’ Is Strong Enough To Withstand Gaza And Trump

Ron Klain near the end of his time as chief of staff, Feb. 1 2023. (TPM Illustration/Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
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There were two hours to go before Ron Klain would officially become President Biden’s White House chief of staff, and he was locked out. Klain was about to become arguably the second most powerful person in the West Wing, but he ended up standing alone in a hallway outside the office he was set to occupy after an unsettling and odd saga that unfolded as former President Trump and his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, attempted to hold on to power during their final weeks in office. 

“It was weird,” Klain said of the fraught transition in a wide-ranging interview with TPM last week. “We never met with Trump. I never met with Mark until Inauguration Day.”

Klain’s full story of his bizarre first day on the job has not previously been reported. The spectacle of the incoming White House chief of staff being unable to reach his desk is a particularly vivid example of how Trump and his allies tried to thwart the traditional democratic order. Now, Biden is trying to take on that Trumpian threat on the campaign trail. 

As he runs for re-election, Biden is facing persistent questions about his age, sagging poll numbers, and signs of strain on a vital alliance with progressives that Klain was credited with helping to build. In one of his first in-depth interviews since leaving the White House in early 2023, Klain spoke with TPM late last week about the challenges facing his former boss. Klain also made his case for believing that Biden can hold it all together and defeat Trump a second time. 

Klain is a singular figure in Democratic politics with an extraordinary breadth of experience. After a long career on Capitol Hill, he served in senior roles in every Democratic administration of the last three decades, and in most of the party’s presidential campaigns as well. As Al Gore’s chief of staff and, later, the general counsel of his recount committee, Klain had a front row seat to the contested election crisis of 2000. In the Obama administration, Klain served as Biden’s vice presidential chief of staff and as Obama’s Ebola czar. During the 2016 race, he helped Hillary Clinton prepare for her debates against Donald Trump. 

Much of Klain’s political career was spent in the service of established or centrist Democratic politicians. But along the way, Klain earned a reputation as a progressive voice in the upper reaches of the Democratic hierarchy and as a conduit for more left-leaning elements of the party to reach elected leaders. Klain helped bring progressives on board to pass Biden’s first term agenda — a delicate negotiation we chronicle in our book, “The Truce: Progressives, Centrists, and the Future of the Democratic Party” — even as he faced stringent resistance from Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and other centrists. Klain’s reputation as the left’s inside man is one he talks about somewhat wryly. 

“As Chuck Schumer used to say to me, ‘Ron, I’ve known you [since] before you were the great progressive hero,’” Klain recalled.

While they clearly take pride in certain progressive policy achievements, Klain and Biden are both emphatic about being capitalists. And while he now sits in a comfortable corporate perch at the vacation rental giant Airbnb, Klain continues to be one of Biden’s most enthusiastic advocates. 

“If people want to stop Trump, they need to rally behind the one guy who has ever stopped Trump, Joe Biden,” Klain said. “Let me tell you something: No generic person is beating Donald Trump. He beat a strong field in 2016 in terms of the Republican primaries. Everyone could have thought, oh, well, all these Republicans could beat Trump. Well, they couldn’t. And then, Hillary Clinton couldn’t beat Trump, and Joe Biden did. And I think he has a unique combination of assets to do that, and I think he’ll do it again in 2024. And that’s what will save democracy.”

Communication Breakdown

Key questions in the 2024 race, as Biden runs for a second term, are anchored in the chaos that preceded his first one. Trump’s refusal to leave office and his ardent efforts to stoke the rage of his most fervently delusional dead enders were just some of the pressures facing the country after Biden won the November 2020 election. The COVID pandemic was still in full effect with vaccines yet to roll out and the economy reeling from the impact of the virus. 

In spite of these urgent issues, Klain and his predecessor, Meadows, talked only “periodically” during the period between Biden’s victory and Inauguration Day in 2021. The traditional presidential transition was essentially not happening and, Klain said, Biden lacked access to “information” and even to the “Defense Department.”

Famously, a Trump appointee at the General Services Administration refused to “ascertain” that Biden was the winner of the election until late November 2020, depriving Biden’s team of federal funds, office space, and, crucially, legal authority to begin planning discussions with federal agencies. But according to Klain, the obstruction was even more pervasive. In his conversation with TPM, Klain narrated one of his typical conversations with Meadows to illustrate how the transfer of power ground to a halt. 

“Hey Mark,” Klain said. “This is going really poorly.”

“Tell me your top three things that need to get fixed,” Meadows replied, according to Klain. “I’ll work on them.” 

Despite Meadows’ apparent willingness to help, there was little progress.

“Four days later, nothing would change,” Klain explained. 

Even as Trump fueled false conspiracy theories about Biden’s election victory, Klain said he continued trying to work with Meadows. 

“I’d call him again. I’d go, ‘Mark, we still have these problems,’” Klain recounted, adding, “I kept on saying, ‘Hey Mark, let’s get together. I’ll come down to D.C.’”

While Meadows indicated willingness, a meeting between the two chiefs never happened. Of course, as we would all learn later on, Meadows was actively working with right-wing activists and officials to overturn Trump’s loss. Those efforts culminated on Jan. 6, 2021, two weeks before Biden was set to take office, when Trump urged his supporters to march to the U.S. Capitol and “fight” as Congress voted on the electoral certification. At that point, communications between Klain and Meadows broke down.

“Of course, Jan. 6 happened,” Klain said. “We stopped talking, and then, a couple of days before Inauguration Day, he called and he said, ‘Hey, I’m sorry we haven’t gotten together, why don’t you come by early on Inauguration Day and we’ll meet in my office, and then you can just stay and be in your office when 12 noon rolls around?’”

Klain agreed, but once again, Meadows’ promises did not pan out.

“About 10 o’clock on Inauguration Day, I show up at the White House, go up to the chief of staff’s suite, it’s locked shut,” Klain said. “There’s nobody there.” 

Trump had — in a major break from tradition — decamped to his private Florida beach club, Mar-a-Lago, that morning in lieu of attending Biden’s inauguration. But the departing President wasn’t the only one missing as Klain arrived for the last minute transition. 

Klain eventually encountered Cassidy Hutchinson, the former Meadows assistant who would go on to testify about her experience on Jan. 6 before the House select committee that was tasked with investigating the attack. According to Klain, Hutchinson informed him that Meadows couldn’t meet in person, but wanted to speak on the phone in the Situation Room, the secure complex on the lower levels of the West Wing used for urgent operations and high-level intelligence issues. Klain went downstairs and got on the phone with his predecessor. 

“Ron, this is Mark, I’m sorry I’m late, but President Trump’s departure from Andrews [Air Force Base] was delayed and, so, I was with him, so I’m late,” Meadows said, according to Klain’s recollection, adding, “I’ll be there soon.”

Hutchinson offered a very different version of Meadows’ activities that morning in the memoir she released last year. In it, she wrote that, as Klain arrived, Meadows was engaged in a frantic scramble to recover classified documents that Trump had given to right-wing media personality John Solomon as the former President tried to publicize information related to the FBI’s investigation into the role the Russian government played in his 2016 election. Meadows, who did not respond to a request for comment on this story, ultimately managed to make time for a brief meeting with Klain.

“Eventually, Mark showed up. We had about a five minute conversation,” Klain said.

Klain recalled Meadows inquiring if he’d been briefed on various matters before making an abrupt exit.

“Call me if you need me,” Meadows said, according to Klain. “I’m out of here.” 

“That was my entire meeting with Mark Meadows,” Klain said. “He was polite and gracious in the meeting, but it was on Inauguration Day at about 11 o’clock in the morning.”

About an hour later, Biden became President. Due to the dual threats of the pandemic and the violence that unfolded just two weeks earlier, Biden was sworn in before an unusual level of security that included National Guard soldiers deployed in the locked down streets of Downtown D.C. Klain watched the inauguration from the Situation Room.

“We were monitoring events very carefully to make sure we weren’t going to have a repeat of Jan. 6th on Jan. 20th,” he said.

Klain and his colleagues soon found there were reasons for the lack of information exchange that went deeper than Trump’s quest to stay in power. 

“During the transition, it dawned on me that it wasn’t that they had a great plan to distribute the vaccine and they weren’t sharing with us, it’s that they didn’t have a plan,” Klain explained. “I think part of it was we were looking for things that didn’t exist. … They were certainly stiff arming us on some access to information, but otherwise they were just empty file cabinets.”

Klain and Biden in August 2021. (TPM Illustration/HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

‘I’m Really Sorry, Bernie’ 

Once the wheels of transition were set in motion, however haphazardly, Biden and his team turned toward his policy agenda. After Biden ran as an expressly moderate alternative to Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described “democratic socialist,” en route to winning the 2020 primary, the pair worked together to create a “unity task force” that crafted policy recommendations. In our book, The Truce, we documented how that work helped Biden heal the rift that split the Democratic Party after Sanders’ bitter primary fight with Hillary Clinton in 2016. Vocal support from progressives helped Biden bring together a diverse coalition, including young voters, that was essential to defeating Trump. 

“I think it’s more than a ‘truce,’” Klain told us. “I think it’s an alliance. A truce means we’re not going to be shooting each other and alliance means we’re working together. And I think the President and progressives in his presidency have formed an actual alliance to achieve positive policy objectives.”

The alliance extended beyond the campaign. Klain confirmed Biden had seriously intended to bring Sanders into his Cabinet — a plan stymied by Democrats’ unexpected success in the two runoff Senate races in Georgia on January 5, 2021. Those victories gave the Democrats a delicate two-seat majority in the legislature’s upper chamber.

“He talked to Senator Sanders about being Secretary of Labor,” Klain said. “They discussed it in November, December. The President was enthusiastic about it and said, we’re going to have to see what happens in Georgia. And I don’t know [that] anyone expected us to go two-for-two in Georgia, but we did. And the President called and said, ‘Look, I’m really sorry Bernie, but we’re 50-50. I can’t take any chances here.’ And Senator Sanders kind of understood that, appreciated that.” 

In an interview for our book, Sanders confirmed he “wanted” the job but understood he needed to stay in the Senate to preserve Democrats’ edge. Since 2017, Vermont has had a Republican governor, Phil Scott, who would initially fill any Senate vacancy created by Sanders’ departure until a special election could be held.

Keeping Sanders in the Senate was part and parcel of the White House’s overall approach to legislating, which perceived progressives on the Hill as indispensable — the President’s most reliable and most numerous allies. Klain noted the progressive caucus is “the most votes” and, during negotiations on Biden’s sweeping and ultimately unpassed Build Back Better package in 2021, they were stronger supporters of Biden’s platform than many centrists. 

“I’d just say that my experience was, it wasn’t members of the Progressive Caucus who were going on Fox saying, we’re going to kill the President’s legislation,” Klain explained. “That was Senator Manchin. And so when people say, why were you more amiable with progressives than with Senator Manchin? My answer is, progressives were going on TV saying, let’s pass the President’s agenda. And my job as White House Chief of Staff was to get the President’s agenda passed. And so they were aligned with us, we were aligned with them. That was pretty simple to me.”

As a testament of the ongoing working relationship, Klain pointed to what he sees as progressive policies Biden has enacted — from “taxing billionaires” to fighting “junk fees.” And he credited Biden’s progressive primary rivals, Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, with shaping those policies.

“When the President won the primaries,” Klain recalled, “we weren’t like, ‘Okay, Senator Sanders, Senator Warren: just endorse him. You’re done.’ We sat down and talked to them. … We didn’t treat Senator Sanders or Senator Warren as defeated opponents. We treated them as potential allies and built a coalition.”

As much as Klain was eager to tout Biden’s coalition, he also drew a distinction and made clear that the President has ideological differences with more progressive Democrats. Klain described Biden’s truce with the left as a “two-way thing” and credited progressives with being “willing to shift their agenda and rally behind the President’s version of these ideas and take half a loaf in many cases.” 

“His personal views on these issues, his political views, are rooted in a very pro-working class, pro-working people, pro-union framework. And so, I don’t think it’s a surprise that Joe Biden wound up being the first president to walk a picket line. That’s who he is,” Klain said. “Yet he also stood there in the State of the Union … and said, ‘I’m a capitalist. I have no problem with billionaires as long as you pay your fair share.’ … And I know Senator Warren has often said, ‘Every billionaire is a policy failure.’ That’s not what Joe Biden thinks.” 

Klain also distinguished his own personal ideology from the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. 

“You definitely did not have a democratic socialist chief of staff. You had a person who spent every day trying to get done what Joe Biden wanted to get done,” Klain said, adding, “My own personal views probably line up very closely with the President’s.”

Klain and Biden meet with congressional leadership in November 2022. (TPM Illustration/Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

‘A Particularly Problematic Issue’ 

The separation between Biden and more progressive Democrats has increasingly started to show in recent months, particularly around the war in Gaza. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, worked closely with Klain on Biden’s first term agenda. In recent weeks, Jayapal has given a series of interviews where she suggested the Biden coalition had “fractured” over the administration’s support for the Israeli government’s war in the Gaza Strip, which has left over 31,000 Palestinian civilians dead. That support has included military aid. For her part, Jayapal has called for the cessation of offensive aid to Israel along with a focus on a ceasefire, including negotiating the release of Israeli hostages that were captured by the Palestinian militant group Hamas in the brutal Oct. 7 attack that sparked the latest hostilities. 

“We could lose this election over Democrats and the President’s position on what is happening in Gaza,” Jayapal told Slate in a podcast interview last week. “I think there needs to be a dramatic policy shift. I believe we can still win, but I think it’s got to come soon.”

There is data to back up her concern. A poll conducted by the New York Times and Siena last December found a majority of voters disapproved of Biden’s handling of the situation in Gaza. Most importantly, the poll found three quarters of people under 30 disapproved of Biden’s Gaza policy. That finding has coincided with Trump improving his standing with young voters, a crucial Democratic bloc who widely favored Biden in 2020, and taking an outright lead in the presidential race in a spate of recent national polls

Biden has seemingly responded to those concerns — and the rising death toll in Gaza — in recent weeks. The President, who has sought to block an Israeli incursion into the southern border city of Rafah and pushed for a negotiated ceasefire. Those talks have had various stops and starts in recent weeks. With mounting casualties from Israeli bombing and starvation, Biden announced a plan in his State of the Union address to build a “temporary pier” in the Mediterranean to deliver food aid to starving Gazans in defiance of Israeli restrictions. However, even as he has worked for a peace deal and increasingly put pressure on the Israeli government to curb the violence, Biden has stopped short of ending military aid to the country

Klain, who stepped down as chief of staff in February 2023, described Gaza as “a particularly problematic issue for the coalition because many progressives feel very strongly about it and don’t line up where the President is.” Citing the pier project, Klain said Biden has taken “some pretty dramatic steps” on that front. 

Klain urged those on the left who are angry with Biden’s position on the issue to consider what would happen if Trump, who is a staunch supporter of right-wing Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, were to take office. 

“As I say to my progressive friends, when they raise this with me, I can’t think of a person — a better person — you want in the White House if your real goal is to get help and relief to the people of Gaza, I can’t think of a person who would understand that better and do a better job of that than Joe Biden,” said Klain, adding, “In the end, people are going to have to choose. The choice is going to be Joe Biden or Donald Trump. That’s the choice and anyone who cares about Gaza and the humanitarian crisis there who thinks Donald Trump being President would be better for the people of Gaza, I’d like to meet that person.”

It’s a contrast Klain continually returned to as he discussed the current campaign.

“It’s not like I’m saying to progressives, ‘Hey, you have no choice.’ They have a choice, but I think the only choice — alternative to Joe Biden — is a very bad one,” Klain declared.

Klain’s line echoes a common refrain in Biden’s own rhetoric. “I’m often quoted as saying, ‘Don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative,’” Biden said in a recent campaign appearance.

That might seem like a negative argument to base the campaign on. However, pointing to the progressive policy achievements in Biden’s first term, Klain argued the President has a “very affirmative, positive message” to run on. Biden’s recent State of the Union address, he noted, “was jammed full of meat-and potato-issues.” But, Klain pointed out, the speech also emphasized the threat posed by Trump. 

While some pundits and political reporters have questioned the idea this approach will resonate with voters, Klain said Biden has always “felt very strongly” that framing Trump as a clear threat to democracy should be a central part of his case to the nation.

“Can democracy survive? Yes. I think people go to the polls, they vote for Joe Biden, I think democracy will survive. We’ll turn back a threat again,” Klain said.

Klain and Biden in 2014, during Klain’s time as Ebola coordinator for the Obama administration. (TPM Illustration/Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The Frustrations Of Institutionalism

Faced with that threat and the Trump movement’s established tendency to violently reject an electoral defeat, some Democrats wish Biden had done more to confront Trump — not just as a political opponent, but as a federal policy problem. During Biden’s first term, there was some notable frustration with the deliberative approach Attorney General Merrick Garland took with the federal investigation into Jan. 6 and other cases against Trump. While Trump now faces an unprecedented array of federal charges, they did not come fast enough for the trials to conclude prior to the coming election in November. 

Klain said that, during his time as chief of staff, Biden never considered taking steps to press the Justice Department to move faster. He also said the President was not interested in the other legal remedies that could have prevented Trump from again running for office, such as Constitutional amendments to keep him off the ballot for his role in the effort to overturn the election. 

“I think we’ve always — those of us close to the President — always believed the only way to stop Donald Trump is to beat him at the polls and the person to do that is Joe Biden,” Klain said. “I think whatever legal accountability there is, it should come. It should be what it is … but I never thought we were going to ‘14th Amendment’ him off the ballot or have some deus ex machina. The only solution to protect democracy is democracy.”

Gaza and the approach to Trump are not the only areas where some Democrats — particularly young people — have voiced frustration with Biden. While Biden has cited cooling inflation and job growth to make the case that he shepherded “an economy that was on the brink” during the COVID pandemic through a comebook, polls show voters have lingering financial concerns. Younger voters in particular have expressed frustration with the high cost of living. While some experts have cited the gulf between this anger and the economic indicators to dismiss it as a “vibecession,” Klain suggested the concerns are “fair.” He argued Biden has worked to address them, but, particularly when it came to an ambitious proposal to eliminate some student debt, he was thwarted by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court. 

“It was a big priority of mine, and we got it up, we got it running, it was all good, and the Supreme Court stopped us. So, he has done what he can with smaller chunks of debt relief,” Klain said. “I think the President knows the pain, the economic pain that millennials are going through, and the challenges of trying to get out in the workforce and deal with their debts and try to buy a home and have access to the American dream. And he is fighting for that every day.”

Of course, the Court is another area where Democrats — particularly progressives — are eager to see more aggressive action from Biden. Both Warren and Jayapal’s congressional caucus have called for structural reforms to the Supreme Court in the face of an entrenched conservative majority that was aided by Republicans’ refusal to confirm a justice during the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency, and subsequent scramble to add three during Trump’s. While Biden appointed a commission to look at Supreme Court reform during his first year in office, it ultimately produced a report that SCOTUSblog described as “more of an academic study than anything resembling an action plan.” Klain suggested Biden does not believe there is sufficient congressional support to change the composition of the court. He also suggested that, even if there was, Biden would not be eager to go that route. 

“That’s not where the President’s head was. He is an institutionalist,” Klain said. Klain went on to say Biden has “grave reservations” about expanding the number of justices on the court.

“I think he’s read a lot of the democracy literature and, what’s happening in some of these countries that have done court expansion, is the court just becomes delegitimized and keeps getting expanded,” Klain explained. “Whoever comes into office adds more judges and the court winds up becoming not an effective institution. So, I think he’s concerned that even if he had the votes to take the Supreme Court from nine to 11, what happens when someone else gets in and they take it from 11 to 17, or 17 to 23?”

The Court may be an example of how, for progressives, the Biden administration may be, as Klain put it, offering “half a loaf.” However, Klain is confident that the contrast with Trump coupled with the results Biden has achieved will be enough to keep the coalition from splitting. Klain pointed to Biden’s achievements, including having “successfully managed” a global coalition to confront Russian aggression in Ukraine and pulling the economy out of “free fall” when asked about the question that so often hangs over Biden in campaign coverage: his advanced age. 

“I think what the President believes is, look, people can ask whatever questions they want to ask, that’s part of the political process, but there’s just a bunch of speculation on one side and there’s actual results on the other side,” Klain said. 

“I always say, when people say to me, ‘Is he too old? Is he too old?’ For what?” Klain asked. “I mean, maybe he’s too old to compete in the Olympics, but the evidence that he’s not too old to be President is the kind of President he’s being.” 

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Notable Replies

  1. Wow. Never show that photo again while treating him like the face of the party lol

  2. ^^^^^^^

    Among its many sins and lapses the Trump maladministration was incompetence and a fundamental lack of interest in doing the job or even learning enough to do it.

  3. That’s because most people in that administration throught their jobs consisted of two things: getting rich and hurting people.

  4. Even simpler, the job was pleasing Trump and since he liked getting rich and hurting people, well …

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