The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Daily 202: Kamala Harris is playing an unusually large role in shaping Biden’s foreign policy

with Mariana Alfaro

Welcome to The Daily 202 newsletter! Today, we look at Vice President Harris's early contributions to foreign policy. But don’t miss the latest on the CDC's new guidance for the vaccinated, Biden's economic rescue package, and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) continues the string of GOP retirements. Did you spot a politics or policy story you think has been overlooked? Send it my way. And tell your friends to sign up here.

Just six weeks since taking office, Vice President Harris is playing an integral role in President Biden’s foreign policy, putting her personal stamp on behind-the-scenes debates and on the world stage as she works to advance Biden’s diplomatic agenda.

Harris has spoken independently of Biden to at least six world leaders, the White House says, an unusually large number for a new vice president; joined his virtual White House summit with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; and given remarks at the State Department.

She was also a vocal participant in deliberations over how to respond to Iran-backed militias’ attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, as well as whether to sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, White House aides said. 

“She was part of a small group that met twice with [Defense Secretary Lloyd] Austin and [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark] Milley and talked through the options,” said a senior White House official. “She really pressed on the question of how to try to achieve some measure of deterrence while managing escalation.”

Harris “was there in the Sit[uation] Room for the final decision, and she crystallized the case for taking action,” said the official, speaking anonymously to describe private national security discussions.

It’s too early to say whether the president will formally entrust Harris with a specific national security portfolio, the way President Barack Obama handed Biden Iraq, Ukraine, and relations with Turkey after a 2016 coup attempt there.

But the skills, knowledge and relationships she is building as vice president could serve her well if Biden at 78, the oldest person ever to take the oath bows out after one term, leaving the former California senator his designated heir.

When it comes to foreign policy, modern vice presidents can play a wide variety of roles. All of them advise the president they serve. But they can also go on specific missions, as Dick Cheney did with trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan in President George W. Bush’s final two years. Or they can manage specific diplomatic relationships, as Biden did when he became the point person for contacts with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the coup attempt against him. 

How much or how little foreign policy falls to a vice president depends on the priorities of the person sitting behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office as well as global circumstances frequently beyond their control. Senior White House aides emphasize 

Harris is committed to Biden’s priorities.

“She has some issues of particular interests … she doesn’t have a separate agenda,” said one. “Her agenda is the president’s agenda,” said another.

While some observers see Biden’s relationship with Harris through the prism of his age, one aide said, his reliance on her stems from two factors. First, he knows “the scope and complexity of the modern presidency is so much broader and deeper” than ever. And second, he “understands that empowering others really serves his interests and brings strength to the entire team.”

Harris usually starts her day by reading the “presidential daily brief” the highly classified, CIA-produced, global overview of threats and top-secret projects before attending the live version in the Oval Office with Biden, aides say.

She keeps a busy schedule of regular meetings or meals with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Austin and other foreign policy and national security officials.

As part of Biden’s effort to rekindle alliances and revive U.S. participation in multilateral institutions, Harris has spoken one-on-one by telephone with the leaders of Canada, France, Denmark, Democratic Republic of Congo, Australia and Israel. She also spoke to World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Her one-on-one calls to Trudeau, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, French President Emmanuel Macron and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu followed Biden conversations with those same leaders. (The president has held roughly 20 calls with world leaders.)

“You don’t rebuild an alliance with a single call, it’s repeated engagement,” said one aide.

Harris is also attentive to even the smallest nuances of diplomacy. Her formal summary of the call with Macron highlighted the French contribution to the Mars rover Perseverance, to the delight of French diplomats.

“That’s about respect, because the French have their piece of it,” said an official. “With Macron in particular, showing that this is a relationship of equals … that’s something Biden cares a lot about.”

Harris gravitates towards specific issues preparing for the next pandemic, the effects of conflict and climate change on women’s health, and the way technology can shape human life for better (advances in communications) or for worse (hacking), aides said.

“She recognizes the need for a strong military,” one White House aide said. “But she also recognizes that national security is made up of issues like health and climate and technology. You will see her focused on those topics and increasingly stepping out on them.”

Harris also played an active role in the internal deliberations over whether and how to respond to attacks by Iran-back militias in Iraq and whether to punish MBS for the killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor.

“She was in every meeting and was a very active participant in all the discussions leading up to, and subsequent to, those decisions,” another senior White House official said on condition of anonymity to describe Harris’s role behind the scenes.

“She and the president share a view on this issue,” another official said. “There’s no clean option. Doing nothing is not a clean option. Striking is not a clean option.”

In those debates, Harris took the approach that reportedly won her bipartisan praise during her years on the Senate Intelligence Committee, her most significant prior exposure to national security issues.

“She asked questions,” one White House aide said. “She said ‘wait a minute, let me challenge that assumption. Let’s challenge that premise.’ ”

Asked whether this was Harris taking the approach of the former prosecutor that she was, one aide said: “It is being precise and rigorous if you want to ask how the legal background plays.”

Another said “she’s not prosecuting in the sense that she’s pushing anybody to the wall, quite the contrary … what she’s trying to do is drive deliberations to see things that don’t normally come up or perspectives that others might not have considered.”

What’s happening now

New CDC guidelines give fully vaccinated Americans limited freedoms. The long-awaited guidance says fully vaccinated people can gather indoors with those who are also fully vaccinated, Lena Sun and Lenny Bernstein report. They also don’t need to quarantine or be tested after exposure to the virus if they show no symptoms. 

“The guidance outlines several ways that fully vaccinated people can return to their old routines, although it is more general than what some people might have hoped for,” Sun and Bernstein write. “It doesn’t explicitly say, for instance, whether vaccinated grandparents can hug and kiss their unvaccinated grandchildren, but appears to endorse such behavior by saying vaccinated people can safely gather indoors with those in one unvaccinated household without masks or physical distancing, as long as no one is at risk of severe disease.”

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) is retiringAfter ten years in the Senate, Blunt, the GOP’s No. 4 leader, said he won’t run in 2022. Missouri is moving toward the solid red column, but Republicans should be worried about the number of other Republican senators who've bowed out this year. Twenty GOP seats are up in 2022 and now five of them will be open ones.

The Supreme Court will not consider Trump’s challenge to the election results in Wisconsin. This was the last remaining appeal contesting Biden’s 2020 victory, per Bloomberg News.  

The landmark murder trial of the former Minneapolis police officer charged with George Floyd’s death was set to begin today but it was paused for at least a day. The judge overseeing the trial of Derek Chauvin, who was filmed with his knee on Floyd’s neck in May, “paused jury selection for at least a day while an appeal proceeds over the possible reinstatement of a third-degree murder charge,” the AP reports. Chauvin’s trial has the city on edge, with protests starting last night and expected to continue today, Darryl Fears and Jared Goyette report

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma, tested positive for the coronavirus, his office said, adding that their condition is stable, Sarah Dadouch reports.  

To start your day with a full political briefing, sign up for our Power Up newsletter.

Lunchtime reads from The Post

  • The $15 minimum wage is not dead,” writes former Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.) for Opinions: “The American Rescue Plan may have been the first fight, but it will not be the last. A second reconciliation bill is expected this year, and it’s time for Senate Democrats to find a way to get this done. … Whatever the strategy, there are options: Bring recalcitrant Democrats in line. Use the upcoming infrastructure bill to incentivize them. Or, bring it on, overrule the parliamentarian or end the filibuster.”
  • Meet the GOP voters who could decide whether the U.S. reaches herd immunity,” by Dan Diamond: Polls have repeatedly shown that nearly one-third of Republicans are resistant to coronavirus vaccines for a variety of reasons. Some “worry they were developed too quickly. Others argue without evidence that many vaccines are unsafe or will make them sick. Still more echo [former president Donald] Trump’s repeated contention that the coronavirus threat is overblown and simply don’t trust the government’s involvement. … As a result, millions of Republicans could remain unvaccinated, a potential roadblock to efforts to achieve the high levels of immunity needed to stop the virus in the United States.”
  • “‘An essential service’: Inside Biden’s struggle to meet his school reopening promises,” by Ashley Parker, Laura Meckler, Fenit Nirappil and Annie Linskey: “Unlike many of his other vows and directives … reopening schools is a daunting task over which the federal government has little authority. Local and district leaders, and sometimes state officials, control how and when schools reopen, with guidance from Biden and his team on the margins.”

… and beyond

  • Georgia Republicans are pushing dozens of 'election integrity' bills. Black voters are the target, rights groups say,” by NBC News’s Jane Timm: “The Republican-controlled state Senate votes Monday on a package of legislation that would, among other things, limit mail-in voting primarily to Georgians who are elderly, disabled or out of town on Election Day. … Grassroots organizers say Georgia, which just elected two Democrats to the Senate, flipping the seats from red to blue, is ground zero for a movement happening across the country.”
  • How Biden is betting on Buttigieg to drive a new era of racial equity,” by Politico’s Sam Mintz: “Barely a month into the job, Buttigieg has touched on improving racial equity in transportation at virtually every television interview, embarked on a listening tour with all manner of minority groups and lists it as one of his highest priorities in the job.”
  • He got $300,000 from credit-card rewards. The IRS said it was taxable income,” by the Wall Street Journal’s Richard Rubin: “Konstantin Anikeev’s … American Express card offered unlimited 5% rewards at grocery stores and pharmacies after he had spent $6,500. So Mr. Anikeev used his AmEx card to buy prepaid Visa gift cards at grocery stores. … He often used the gift cards to buy money orders, then used the money orders to make deposits in his bank account, then used that money to pay his credit-card bill. … The millions of dollars of those transactions tripped the sensors at the Treasury Department. … That agency kicked the case to the IRS, which said he owed back taxes.”

The first 100 days

The House is expected to send the $1.9 trillion relief bill to Biden’s desk as early as tomorrow. 
  • The Senate approved the legislation on Saturday, “which authorizes $1,400 to millions of low- and middle-income Americans, bolsters families by providing new yearly child tax benefits, boosts unemployment payments for workers still out of a job, and invests heavily in the country’s attempt to climb back from” the crisis, John Wagner reports. The House is expected to pass the package tomorrow, likely without any GOP support.  
  • “People could start seeing the $1,400 stimulus payments hit their bank accounts within days of Biden signing the bill,” CNN reports.
  • Last time around, the IRS started sending $600 payments three days after Trump signed that bill in late December. “But it's possible that tax filing season, which is currently underway, could slow down the process this time.” Millions of people could be at risk of not receiving the new checks because the IRS does not know how to reach them.
Next up: Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) thinks at least 10 Republicans can be persuaded to support a sizable infrastructure package. 
  • Manchin said he will not cooperate with the push for Biden’s next major legislative package if Republicans are not given more of a voice, Wagner reports. Manchin said he’s “not going to get on a bill that cuts [Senate Republicans] out completely before we start trying.” “I’m not going to do it through reconciliation,” he said, adding he believes Democrats can get 60 senators to advance the legislation.
  • Manchin is sticking to his guns about the filibuster being here to stay. But he would support changing Senate rules to require a “talking filibuster,” meaning any senator objecting to ending debate would have to remain on the floor and talk the entire time, making invoking the procedure far more onerous.
Biden is pushing for the Education Department to direct a fresh review of the Title IX rule on campus sexual assault. 
  • Biden will today sign an executive order directing the Education Department to evaluate whether a system implemented by former education secretary Betsy DeVos is “consistent with the policies” of his administration, Meckler reports.
  • DeVos's rules "mandated a judicial-like process in which the accused has the right to a live hearing and to cross-examine accusers, providing what supporters see as much-needed due process protections. Opponents argued it would allow assailants and schools to escape responsibility and discourage victims from coming forward.”
  • Biden is also expected to sign a second executive order today establishing the White House Gender Policy Council, which will be tasked with reviewing domestic and foreign policy and programs “with an eye toward ‘full participation of all people,’ regardless of gender, an administration official said.”
Biden endorsed the female generals whose promotions were delayed during the Trump administration. 
  • Biden nominated the two female generals Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost of the Air Force and Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson of the Army to elite, four-star commands, the Times reports, months after the Pentagon held back their promotions out of fears that Trump would reject them because they’re women.
The U.S. and South Korea reached a cost-sharing agreement for the American troops stationed on the Korean Peninsula. 
  • The deal breaks through a deadlock stemming for the Trump administration’s demand for a significant increase in payments, Michelle Ye Hee Lee reports. The agreement includes a “meaningful increase” in payments from South Korea, the State Department said, but neither side provided details about the deal, which is being finalized.
The U.S. proposed an interim power-sharing government between the Taliban and Afghan leaders. 
  • The sweeping plans come ahead of a May 1 deadline for the possible withdrawal of all U.S. troops, Karen DeYoung reports. “Along with the proposal, shared with both sides over the past week by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, [Blinken] warned Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that a U.S. departure remains under active consideration and could lead to ‘rapid territorial gains’ by the Taliban.”
  • The letter and plan were first published by Afghanistan’s Tolo News on Sunday. Biden officials refused to confirm or deny the specifics of the plan or Blinken’s letter, while the Afghan government reacted to the letter’s leak by saying the U.S. cannot make decisions on behalf of the Afghan people.
  • Afghan First Vice President Amrullah Saleh said this morning he is not “concerned about [Blinken’s] letter” and it doesn’t change his administration’s position that only elected leadership can govern Afghanistan.

Quote of the day

“Simply put, our world does not yet work for women as it should,” Vice President Harris said in a speech before the European Parliament on International Women’s Day.

Hot on the left

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) says quitting would be “antidemocratic.” Cuomo, who faces sexual harassment accusations and reports that his senior aides tampered with coronavirus death numbers in nursing homes, said last night he is not going to quit because “the system is based on due process and the credibility of the allegations,” Politico reports

The governor signed a New York state bill stripping him of his emergency powers, but refused to step down. Last night, the Democratic majority leader of the New York State Senate, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and House Speaker Carl E. Heastie (D) directly called on Cuomo resign.

Hot on the right

Mike Pence will give his first speech since leaving office before a conservative South Carolina nonprofit. The former vice president will next month deliver a keynote at a dinner hosted by the Palmetto Family Council, the AP reports. The conservative Christian nonprofit is known for lobbying for “biblical values,” including heterosexual marriage and anti-abortion causes. By picking South Carolina as his first post-administration stop, Pence is signaling he is considering that potential 2024 bid. 

Deficit impact of major coronavirus relief bills, visualized

This week in Washington

Biden will visit a veterans medical center that is administering vaccines with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough today at 1 p.m. He will then deliver remarks on International Women’s Day at 4 p.m. 

In closing

Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah stunned – but it is unlikely to change the British monarchy. While the Duke and Duchess of Sussex described the royal family as “trapped” in their roles and fearful of the British tabloid press, their revelations probably will not “do significant harm to the British monarchy in the public eye,” writes William Booth, in part because many people assume the royals are distant and dysfunctional just from watching Season 4 of Netflix’s “The Crown.” 

Headlines across the U.K. were filled with interview highlights “about suicidal thoughts, alleged racism within the royal family, and the fact that at one point, Prince Charles stopped taking calls from Harry,” Karla Adam writes. "Harry and Meghan loaded up a plane and dropped bomb after heavy bomb on Buckingham,” British broadcaster ITV said this morning. Peter Hunt, the BBC’s former royal correspondent, said, “The claim of racism is one that will endure. No Palace spin can erase it from the collective memory.” 

In an interview with NBC's "Today" show that aired March 16, 2021, Michelle Obama responded to Meghan and Harry's Oprah interview. (Video: The Washington Post)

John Oliver talked about the obstacles in America's unemployment system: