February 12, 2024
🕶️ Good Monday morning! Smart Brevity™ count: 1,393 words ... 5 mins. Edited by Bryan McBournie.
🎤 Situational awareness: John Kirby — the public face of the Biden administration's response to the Israel-Hamas war, and a favorite of President Biden — is being promoted to White House national security communications adviser, with the rank of assistant to the president. Go deeper.
1 big thing: How Biden botched the border
Aboard Air Force One en route to tour the southern border in January 2023, President Biden sat at the head of his conference table and exploded with fury, Axios' Alex Thompson and Stef Kight report.
- The president lit into his team, which included then-Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O'Malley Dillon, Homeland Security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall and other immigration officials. He demanded obscure immigration data points — and vented when his staff didn't have them handy.
Why it matters: The previously unreported meeting, recounted to Axios by three people familiar with the events, is emblematic of the Biden administration's struggle with the border crisis during the past three years — infighting, blame-shifting and indecision.
Biden's fury subsided, and aides scrambled for the information he wanted. People in the meeting later told others in frustration that his winding process and irritability were making it more difficult to reach decisions about the border.
- The White House counters that the meeting was "productive." Spokesperson Andrew Bates told Axios that "multiple firsthand participants of the meeting refute this description of the tone and outcome" of a conversation on "the specifics of this complex issue."
- The rolling chaos along the border has grown to the point that Biden now is embracing immigration policies he ran against in 2020 — such as restricting asylum laws and suggesting he'll "shut down" the border — as the crisis threatens his re-election.
Reality check: Much of the current crisis is rooted in factors Biden's team has had little control over — including unprecedented global calamities that have pushed millions of migrants to the U.S., decades of congressional inaction, and the state of key agencies after the Trump administration.
- Many current and former Biden officials say they believe they've done their best considering the circumstances. But others told Axios they think the administration has fallen far short on matters within its control.
What happened: The crisis grew slowly. Many administration leaders treated the issue like a hot potato because it was politically thankless, several sources in and out of government told Axios.
- The idea that no one wanted to "own it" came up repeatedly in interviews about the border crisis. But the problem required a robust and coordinated response at several levels of the federal government.
As the humanitarian conditions at the border have deteriorated and the politics surrounding immigration have become a thorn for Biden, he has become scratchier when the issue comes up, according to current and former aides.
- "There are definite incentives ... to not be the person who owns the scary issue with no solutions," a former government official close to the issue told Axios.
- "If you're the person briefing the president, you get to piss him off every day."
2. 🔎 Part 2: West Wing border war
Warring ideologies inside the White House and the Democratic Party slowed decision-making about the border, Axios' Alex Thompson and Stef Kight report.
- Some officials wanted policies designed to punish or deter people who crossed the border illegally. Others — including vocal immigration advocates outside the administration — pushed to reform asylum policies and expand legal pathways for migrants to stay in the U.S., sources said.
- The White House's immigration team also saw constant turnover.
- As a result, "the strategy was incoherent from the very beginning," said one former Biden White House official involved in immigration policy.
The White House generally didn't want to talk publicly about immigration or the border for much of Biden's first three years, feeling it would draw attention to a political vulnerability, sources said.
- White House officials limited and pushed against having Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas or other immigration officials appear on TV until a few months ago.
- Publicly, the White House also initially downplayed jumps in illegal border crossings as normal "ebbs and flows" — even as some internally pushed to acknowledge that the problem was significant.
Infighting broke out among those on Biden's team.
- Domestic policy adviser Susan Rice emerged as a central — and controversial — coordinator of the administration's approach to the border. Even many of her critics credit her with taking on more responsibility on the border at a time when most other top Biden officials were shying away from it.
- There's still deep animosity toward Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra for what was seen as his reluctance to find more space in child migrant shelters, which are overseen by HHS, according to several sources familiar with the dynamics.
Rice referred to Becerra as a "bitch-ass" and privately called him an "idiot," according to multiple sources.
- During one meeting when Biden was tearing into Becerra, Rice passed Mayorkas a note that read: "Don't save him," according to two people familiar with the meeting.
White House spokesman Andrew Bates told Axios: "President Biden is proud that his team has worked well together as they work to resolve unprecedented challenges, and as congressional Republicans continue to choose politics over securing our border."
3. ⚖️ Bauer tears into special counsel report
Bob Bauer, personal attorney to President Biden, says he made a written appeal to Attorney General Merrick Garland over "pejorative" language about Biden's acuity in the special counsel's report.
- "This is a report that went off the rails," Bauer said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
"It starts with a legal conclusion that was foregone from the very beginning," Bauer said. "The investigation could have been concluded in two or three months. It went on for over 15 months."
4. Austin re-hospitalized
After a blizzard of criticism for the secrecy surrounding Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's last hospitalization, the Pentagon issued three statements in seven hours yesterday when he was taken back to the critical care unit at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
- Austin was brought in "for symptoms suggesting an emergent bladder issue," his doctors said: "The current bladder issue is not expected to change his anticipated full recovery. His cancer prognosis remains excellent."
5. 🤔 Your hidden reviewer: ChatGPT
The sensitive chore of writing your self-assessment, or the reviews of people who report to you, is so daunting or monotonous that many people are turning it over to AI, Axios' Megan Morrone writes.
🥊 Reality check: Lee Gonzales, an engineering director, told Axios he can spot content written by ChatGPT all over LinkedIn and blogs and in magazines: "I find ChatGPT writing is visible from space for me now."
6. 🔮 Coming next month: What's Next Summit
Axios' third annual What's Next Summit is coming to Washington on March 19, with a half-day of networking + conversations on AI, the future of work, business disruptions and how it's all changing daily life. The lineup includes newsmakers, policymakers and innovators:
- Google DeepMind COO Lila Ibrahim
- Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg
- Slack CEO Denise Dresser
- Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt
- ESPN Chairman James Pitaro
- Girls Who Code CEO Reshma Saujani
With more coming! More info: Sign up here.
7. 📺 RFK Jr.'s expensive nostalgia
A super PAC backing Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s presidential bid ran a Super Bowl mirroring a 1960 presidential campaign ad for his uncle, former President John F. Kennedy, Axios' Erin Doherty reports.
- Why it matters: The ad ran just before halftime and generated online buzz for the long-shot presidential candidate.
The 30-second ad cost $7 million, American Values told Axios.
8. 🏈 1 for the road: Chiefs dynasty
President Biden trolled MAGA conspiracy theorists with this X post after the Chiefs came from behind for a thrilling 25-22 overtime win over the 49ers, with Taylor Swift watching Travis Kelce from a suite.
- During the game, Biden's campaign announced its TikTok debut.
Why it matters: Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Andy Reid have made the Kansas City Chiefs a dynasty. They're already thinking three-peat. Keep reading.
Swift smiled, with her eyes looking misty from tears, as she stood next to Kelce's mother while he held aloft the Lombardi Trophy. He shouted "Chiefs nation!" and bellowed "Viva Las Vegas."
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