At the Biden White House, normal operations for abnormal times

New team has already brought a level of predictability to 1600 Penn. unseen for the last four years

Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, speaks Thursday at a White House news briefing. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, speaks Thursday at a White House news briefing. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Posted January 25, 2021 at 11:30am

ANALYSIS — On the first full night of Joe Biden’s presidency, his longtime adviser and White House chief of staff was outside the White House doing a live TV interview while wearing a light blue surgical mask.

Ron Klain’s predecessor, Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, once refused to take questions from reporters when asked to keep his mask on inside a Senate office building by a CNN producer who has spent much of the pandemic helping to lead the effort to minimize exposure for the congressional press corps.

Biden’s team of seasoned professionals has already brought a level of predictability to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that’s been unseen for much of the last four years; it’s requiring a recalibration for everyone.

For members of Congress and congressional aides, there is sure to be an adjustment period to dealing with a conventionally constructed administration. At times, President Donald Trump had consiglieri familiar with Capitol Hill, like when longtime Senate leadership aides Marc Short and Eric Ueland were running point on legislative affairs. But other times it was simply hard to tell what presence the Trump team even had, outside of Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Loading the player...

Hill relations are a known priority for Biden, given his 36 years in the Senate even before becoming vice president for eight under President Barack Obama. Louisa Terrell, the first Senate chief of staff to New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker and a former senior aide to Biden in the Senate who also worked in the Obama White House, is leading a legislative affairs shop that also includes longtime floor aides: Shuwanza Goff from House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer’s office and Reema Dodin from Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin’s office.

Several members of the Cabinet will have no trouble finding their way around the Capitol either. The president’s nominee to be secretary of State, Antony Blinken, was the longtime Democratic staff director at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Biden was leading the panel.

For the press corps, it’s a return to regular press briefings that are scheduled far enough ahead of time for journalists to actually make it to the White House complex, without setting off a mad dash among reporters to actually get enough people in the room to fill the even fewer number of socially distant seats.

Biden’s press operation — filled with veterans of various roles from when he was vice president to Obama — is signaling an end to the awkward situation in which the official policy statement of the White House is incongruous with what the president says on Twitter.

“I think it’s safe to say that you can expect that President Biden is not going to be breaking news at 1 a.m. on Twitter, so everybody can just take a deep breath and take a step back,” White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said in an interview with The 19th.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who was such a familiar face in the briefing room early in the pandemic until his message about the severity of the COVID-19 crisis didn’t match Trump’s rhetoric, has returned to the briefing room with the added title of Biden’s chief medical adviser. Fauci made an observation that perhaps could only be made by a well-respected career federal employee who has already received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, some 13 years ago.

“You know, one of the new things in this administration is: If you don’t have the answer, don’t guess; just say you don’t know the answer,” Fauci said Thursday.

Fauci was not as critical of the coronavirus vaccine rollout to date as some of the incoming Biden officials, who have argued that there was no national plan from the Trump team. But Klain, speaking Thursday night on MSNBC, expressed no interest in getting the medical adviser to stick to a defined message.

 “What you heard today … most importantly, was Dr. Fauci at that podium telling it like it was, with no handlers, with no one editing his remarks, with no one denying him access to the press. He’s going to speak truthfully about the science, about the state of the disease. That’s what President Biden wants him to do, to tell the truth, tell the American people where we are in this fight, where we have to go, what has to be done.”

Even Klain’s choice of venue for his first interview was instructive, a reminder of how long both the principal and the aide have been around Washington, and Capitol Hill to be specific. Klain was on Lawrence O’Donnell’s MSNBC show. The two men overlapped in the Senate about three decades ago, when O’Donnell was a top aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., and Klain was working for — you guessed it — Joe Biden.