Several allies and former aides to Vice President Kamala Harris had “flashbacks” last week as they watched her fumble a politically sensitive question during her first foreign trip, seeing the misstep as part of a broader pattern of messaging challenges that have dogged her since her presidential campaign.
This time, though, the interview came after Harris participated in a wide-ranging media training session to improve her delivery and presentation in interviews and speeches, the latest of several sessions over the last year, according to multiple sources.
A senior Harris aide declined to detail the mid-April training, but said it was a “comprehensive session” that was similar to others she underwent after joining the Democratic ticket last summer and before taking office during the transition. The aide said the April session was not in response to, or in preparation for, any particular interview or topic. And political strategists said it is not unusual, and can be beneficial, for candidates and elected officials at the national level to engage in those types of trainings.
“We’ve seen this before. Harris is criticized by her detractors, sometimes fairly and usually unfairly,” said a friend of Harris’, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about her style. “And her instinct is to dig in, which in most instances only makes the situation worse.”
While some allies saw a pattern of stumbles and expressed concerns about the strategy at play for securing Harris’ long-term political future, others – including aides to the President and vice president – insist this latest stumble has been “overblown.” Those close to Harris point to the agreements fostered from both Guatemala and Mexico’s governments, and the effusive praise she received from leaders of both countries and civil society afterwards, as clear signs the vice president achieved her objective: deepening diplomatic relations.
“I know a thing or two about vice presidents. She’s off to the fastest start of any vice president I’ve seen,” said White House chief of staff Ron Klain, who also served as chief of staff to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden. “It’s a job that always has this weird kind of microscope on it. And I think, given all that, I think she has done remarkably well.”
“Not a spinner”
Minyon Moore, an outside adviser to Harris and veteran Democratic strategist, said she has been struck by Harris’ “level of discipline” and “curiosity,” but suggested Harris’ challenge is that she is “not a spinner.”
“I’ve always known her to be a person that – she’s always well prepared, she always thinks through how she wants to approach answers, but she’s not a spinner, if you will,” Moore said, addressing the criticism Harris has faced for the NBC interview last week. “The bigger answer to your question – was it unfair? – perhaps. But, you know, life is not always fair and we get that.”
Harris spokeswoman Symone Sanders said Harris “is aware of the coverage of her – positive coverage and coverage that is not so positive.”
“She takes note of it, but she is not focused on it,” Sanders said. “She is really focused on day in and day out, doing her job and getting to the work.”
Harris returned from her trip to a packed scheduled of events to advance her other portfolio items, like a bus tour on vaccinations starting in South Carolina and meeting with Texas politicians responsible for blocking a restrictive voting bill, part of her new role on voting rights.
But the most recent media training session makes clear that Harris and her team – at a minimum – see an opportunity to finesse her performance in front of the camera, particularly as she adjusts to the unique challenges of the vice presidency, including the constraints of being a messenger for someone else’s agenda, rather than her own.
Harris had been prepped extensively by her team ahead of her first foreign trip, including for the question that tripped her up – whether she would visit the border, one that has dogged her for months as Republicans have sought to portray her assignment focusing on the root causes of immigration as that of “border czar.”
The prep made her answer – pointing out that she had also not yet been to Europe – all the more unnerving to allies and administration officials, who were perplexed and concerned that the answers would overshadow an otherwise successful first foreign trip.
“Watching Kamala Harris walk this weird tightrope on the border gives me flashbacks of her not having an answer for ‘Medicare for All’ or her position on busing,” a former aide said. “There’s only so much staff can do to prepare her. At some point she has to stop being scared of herself.”
Current and former Harris aides described the vice president as someone who prepares “meticulously” for hearings, interviews and foreign trips alike – but can be overly cautious when answering questions on which she does not feel like an expert and can grow frustrated when pressed.
“In her mind she’s being careful to be truthful, but to observers it sometimes looks like she’s being dismissive,” a former aide said.
That trait appears to have been exacerbated by the role she now fills, in which she must be careful to hew to the talking points and agenda of the President and his White House, which can be an adjustment for a senator accustomed to being their own boss. It’s a task that the gaffe-prone then-Vice President Joe Biden struggled with, most notably when he announced his support for gay marriage before President Barack Obama did.
“The nature of being the vice president means that there is always someone else you are thinking about,” a senior Harris aide said.
Going viral again, but in a different way
Stepping away from the Senate and into the vice presidency has also put Harris more frequently on the other end of the same kind of dogged questioning that defined her political brand and helped catapult her to the vice presidency.
Days after fumbling the border question, a clip of one of Harris’ star turns in a Senate hearing resurfaced: her grilling then-Attorney General William Barr in May 2019 over whether the White House had ever directed him to investigate specific individuals. Barr’s uneasy demeanor under Harris’ questioning became newly relevant amid revelations about the Justice Department’s leak investigations that targeted congressional Democrats and news outlets.
Those viral, praise-worthy moments have been harder to come by since Harris became vice president, replaced instead by a portfolio offering no easy wins and at least three interviews that have raised questions about her political and messaging savvy – including an early interview in West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s home state and a February interview in which she refused to back the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance declaring teacher vaccinations not required for school reopenings.
To some allies, those called to mind moments during Harris’ 2020 campaign, like her zig-zag on the role of private insurance in Medicare for All and the fallout from her debate night attacks on then-candidate Biden over segregated busing.
Longtime allies say Harris’ strength is in doing the actual work, not necessarily in talking about it.
“Throughout her career, Kamala Harris has eschewed ‘grand gestures’ that might yield short-term political wins,” said Brian Brokaw, her campaign manager when she ran for the Senate, adding that she “focuses on doing the real work, often behind the scenes, that will bring about lasting results.”
One close ally said Harris can be a victim of the “pressure” that she puts on herself as the first woman and Black and South Asian person to serve as vice president.
Democratic strategists and allies were also quick to argue that some of the scrutiny and criticism Harris has faced is a factor of her race and gender.
“I think so much of it is sexism,” said Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist. “My guess is if it was a man who was in her role, he would not be nearly as scrutinized in terms of how he gave those answers as she was.”
“When it’s a woman, it’s, all of a sudden, ‘Oh God, she doesn’t know what she’s doing!’” Elrod added. Allies of Harris pointed out that Biden didn’t receive the same level of scrutiny when he told migrants earlier this year not to come to the US.
And several allies and former aides also raised concerns about Harris’ overall strategy in office, pointing to a portfolio that includes a pair of high-profile issues – the root causes of migration from Central America and the fight for voting rights – that offer no easy policy wins that she could tout in a next run at the presidency. While some say that’s just the nature of being vice president – getting the prickly assignments – allies of Harris say the President wants to see her triumph.
Klain, the White House chief of staff, said that Biden – who also managed the same issue in his portfolio as vice president – “knows what a tough assignment it is,” which is why he gave it to Harris.
“When he gave the same assignment to his vice president, it’s a sign of how he regards her as an incredibly competent, talented person who can deliver results,” Klain said.
Klain and others said Biden is happy with his No. 2’s performance so far. Aides said Biden called Harris on Friday to congratulate her on her trip, deeming it a success.
“In the end, vice presidents are judged by the results that they deliver for the country and the results they deliver for the administration,” Klain said. “And on all of those standards, Vice President Harris is performing exceptionally. I know the President feels that way. I know everyone in the West Wing feels that way.”
CNN’s Kyung Lah and Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.