Vice President Kamala Harris endured a rocky first foreign trip since taking office, with sources telling CNN her two-day swing through Mexico and Guatemala left some administration officials quietly perplexed about what they perceive as her bumpy answers to questions about whether she will go to the US-Mexico border.
Several sources say there was a real hope inside the White House that Harris’ first trip abroad would be a success, and worry that what looked like ill-prepared answers to that inevitable question would overshadow it.
But officials made clear they didn’t view the overall outcome of the trip as driven by a single answer during a TV interview, and the goals of the trip were largely attained. However, they acknowledged it was a sound bite that would likely stick with Harris as she continues to confront the issue at the southern border.
The response came during an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt that aired Tuesday in which Harris was pressed about the fact that she hasn’t yet visited the US-Mexico border.
“At some point, you know, we are going to the border,” Harris said in the interview. “We’ve been to the border. So this whole, this whole, this whole thing about the border. We’ve been to the border. We’ve been to the border.”
Holt responded: “You haven’t been to the border.”
“I, and I haven’t been to Europe. And I mean, I don’t – I don’t understand the point that you’re making,” Harris said with a laugh. She added: “I’m not discounting the importance of the border.”
The vice president’s team, for their part, were frustrated by what they perceive to be questioning driven by Republican attacks falsely painting her as the administration’s border czar, rather than focused on the root causes of migration.
As it became clear on Tuesday that her answers were distracting from her broader trip, Harris decided to change her tune – acknowledging that she would eventually visit the border, without specifying when.
Asked by CNN later that day if she can commit to visiting the US-Mexico border and if she will do it soon, Harris replied: “Yes, I will,” adding that she had “spent a lot of time on the border, both going there physically and aware of the issues.”
But, she continued, she thinks the country needs “to prioritize what’s happening in the border, and we have to prioritize why people are going to the border.”
“I think it’s shortsighted … to suggest we’re only going to respond to the reaction as opposed to addressing the cause,” she said.
Harris’ response to NBC raised the issue of potentially overshadowing a trip White House officials saw as an opportunity to display the true intent of an assignment that has been conflated in the weeks since its announcement.
Instead, she was stuck once again dealing with an issue that has drawn repeated GOP attacks – one some officials said they had assumed she would be able to easily address and move on from when it was inevitably raised.
Harris has been tasked by President Joe Biden to lead efforts to stem the flow of migration from Central America, and has sought to clarify that managing the southern border is not part of that assignment. Speaking to reporters later Tuesday, she said her two-day swing through Guatemala and Mexico was a success.
“Do I declare this trip a success? Yes, I do. It is success in terms of a pathway that is about progress. We have been successful in making progress,” she told reporters in Mexico City, before going on to discuss the deliverables after meeting with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Harris’ comments come as Republican critics have tried to make her the face of the Biden administration’s response at the border.
“I care about this and I care about what’s happening at the border. I’m in Guatemala because my focus is dealing with the root causes of migration,” Harris said in the earlier interview. “There may be some who think that that is not important, but it is my firm belief that if we care about what’s happening at the border, we better care about the root causes and address them.”
Republicans took aim at Harris for her answer, pointing to her laugh when answering the question as disrespectful.
“Many Americans living in border communities are afraid to leave their homes. Smugglers are abandoning children as young as 5-years old on the border. Fentanyl seizures are increasing across the country,” said Tommy Pigott, rapid response director for the Republican National Committee, in a news release. “Yet, Biden and Harris continue to fail the American people.”
Harris is facing the first major diplomatic test of her vice presidency, and her trip to Guatemala and Mexico underscores the Biden administration’s heightened focus on Central America and migration from the region.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday she expects Harris will travel to the border “at some point,” but said the vice president is currently focused on addressing root causes of migration in Central America.
“What her focus has been, what the assignment is specifically, is to work with leaders in the Northern Triangle. She’s on a trip doing exactly that, exactly what the President asked her to do,” Psaki said.
Psaki said: “Her focus of this trip is on meeting with leaders, having a discussion about how to address corruption, how to address the root causes, how to work together to address humanitarian challenges in these countries. That’s exactly what she’s doing on the ground and I’m sure she’ll report back to the President when she returns.”
The vice president met with Giammattei on Monday, and on Tuesday flew to Mexico to meet with López Obrador.
Harris said Tuesday that she believed the US and Mexico were “embarking on a new era” during her meeting with López Obrador and touted the long-standing relationship between their two bordering nations.
The vice president was expected to focus on economic development, climate and food insecurity, and women and young people during her trip to the region, according to her staff. In Guatemala, the vice president met Guatemalan community leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs and greeted and thanked US embassy staff. In Mexico, Harris was to participate in a conversation with female entrepreneurs, hold a roundtable with labor workers and greet US mission Mexico staff.
Biden tasked Harris with the politically fraught assignment in March, and one official previously told CNN that Harris is “really picking up” from where Biden left off, after he was tasked by then-President Barack Obama to lead diplomatic efforts in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in his last term, following a surge of unaccompanied minors from those countries arriving in the US.
The vice president and her staff have made it clear that they want to focus narrowly on diplomatic efforts in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where they believe they are more likely to achieve tangible results in addressing the root causes of migration, like economic despair, according to two White House officials familiar with the dynamic.
This story has been updated with additional developments on Tuesday.
CNN’s Jasmine Wright, Jason Hoffman and Devan Cole contributed to this report.