The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden whisperer, longtime Washington lobbyist helps secure breakthrough in infrastructure talks

Steve Ricchetti is playing a key role in guiding the president through negotiations, drawing on decades of experience and relationships

Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president, leaves a bipartisan infrastructure meeting on Capitol Hill on June 22. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
10 min

The liberals believed they had Steve Ricchetti on their side. They just couldn’t entirely trust his motives.

Almost 20 years ago, before he emerged as President Biden’s enigmatic but indispensable senior aide, Ricchetti and his brother Jeff Ricchetti joined forces with left-wing advocacy groups pushing to preserve the estate tax. It was an awkward fit for some of the advocates because the Ricchettis were doing so as lobbyists for life insurance companies that feared repealing the tax would lead families to buy fewer of their products.

“They were our ‘dark side allies,’ ” said Chuck Collins, a liberal tax expert who worked with the Ricchetti brothers on trying to beat back President George W. Bush’s estate tax cuts.

The episode reflects the ideologically flexible — some critics say mercenary — style that has defined Steve Ricchetti through his four decades in Washington and is now key to high-stakes infrastructure negotiations crucial to Biden’s presidency.

Bipartisan group of senators to brief Biden on infrastructure ‘framework’ after potential breakthrough in talks

The effectiveness of Ricchetti’s shuttle diplomacy on Capitol Hill could determine whether many of Biden’s key domestic priorities become law, potentially shaping the 2022 and 2024 elections. Ricchetti was among the White House officials on Capitol Hill on Wednesday night securing the “framework” of an infrastructure deal with Senate Democrats and Republicans. Later in the evening, Ricchetti was among White House officials briefing top Democratic leaders about the next steps. The senators will meet with Biden about the plan on Thursday.

Ricchetti, 63, is part of Biden’s inner circle, one of the few aides who has Oval Office walk-in privileges. He is close enough to the family that he golfed with the president and his grandson last weekend in Wilmington.

Ricchetti is deeply involved in some of the president’s most intimate affairs, managing Biden’s schedule through the death of his son Beau Biden and controversies related to Hunter Biden. He serves as a key conduit for Biden’s most important donors. Ricchetti is among those tasked with running point on important personnel choices, including the administration’s ambassadorships.

Senior congressional officials on both sides of the aisle view Ricchetti as the most important administration emissary in infrastructure negotiations — one of the few White House aides who can credibly speak on the president’s behalf.

“He is a trusted confidant and advisor to the President, and a critical member of the senior White House team that has achieved historic progress in our first 150 days,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain told The Washington Post in a statement. “I personally rely on Steve’s expertise every day and I know it’s a shared feeling throughout the West Wing.”

He is also seen as unusually adept at managing outsize Washington personalities. Whereas Klain is described by allies and colleagues as sober, serious and policy-focused, Ricchetti reflects Biden’s freewheeling extroversion — a gregarious, jovial schmoozer. Ricchetti is constantly on the phone. Even skeptics describe him as disarmingly self-effacing and solicitous. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told The Post that “the premium that Steve places on relationships and the great respect that he commands across the aisle and across the Capitol make him an indispensable partner.”

“There’s a lot of people in D.C. who act like they’ve known you their whole lives even if they just met you,” one senior Democratic congressional aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. “Ricchetti is exactly like that.”

Despite senior roles in each of the past three Democratic administrations, Ricchetti has operated largely out of the limelight. In private, he is careful to not even implicitly get ahead of his boss. He deliberately cultivates a low profile.

“There are times when people are in positions of influence where it can go to their head, and they start to get confused as to who is the ultimate decision-maker,” Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Barack Obama who worked with Ricchetti in that administration, said in an interview. “You have to be able to sublimate your own ego and recognize you are there in service, and Steve does that.”

A family affair: Children and other relatives of Biden aides get administration jobs

But scrutiny of the longtime insider has started to build in recent weeks. His brother’s ongoing lobbying operation has grown markedly since Biden’s election, and the ethical firewalls set up by the administration have been disparaged by some good-government experts. Criticism has mounted over the hiring of three of Ricchetti’s children, including a 2020 college graduate, to positions in the administration. And delicate congressional negotiations stand as a major test of Ricchetti’s political acumen, putting him in direct conflict with many of the large companies that paid him generously to advocate for their interests.

This story was based on interviews with more than two dozen senior administration officials, Biden advisers, donors, congressional officials and former colleagues of Ricchetti. Many of these people spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss matters they were not authorized to reveal.

“Washington is, in many ways, a small Southern town, and there’s no such thing as a secret here. You have to be very careful in what you say, and Steve understands that as well as anybody,” said Bob Kerrey, who was a Democratic senator from Nebraska during Ricchetti’s time spearheading negotiations with Congress for President Bill Clinton’s White House. “[Ricchetti] was never indiscreet; he never told me something he shouldn’t tell me. And that makes him very valuable to the president.”

‘Willing to do almost anything I asked’

It was among the darkest periods of Biden’s presidential campaign. Polls showed him far behind in Iowa and New Hampshire. The campaign was running out of money, and major donors wanted the candidate to change directions.

At a New York City meeting in January 2020, just weeks before the Iowa caucuses, top donors pleaded with Ricchetti — then chairman of Biden’s campaign — to force the former vice president to adopt new tactics. One even took issue with the campaign naming Biden’s bus trip through Iowa the “No Malarkey” tour. But Ricchetti defended Biden, arguing that despite the long odds, he should resist political pressures and stay true to his original vision as a candidate.

“He told all these presumably brilliant political minds: If we’re going to win this election — and it might look dark right now — we’re going to win if you let Joe Biden be Joe Biden,” one person who attended the meeting said.

With the campaign under siege, Ricchetti “did a whole lot of corralling to keep things functioning and keep the flood walls intact,” preventing donors and elected officials from jumping to endorse other campaigns, one senior official on the campaign said.

Lobbyist brother of top Biden adviser poses challenge to president’s ethics promises

Ricchetti’s battle-tested willingness to stand by Biden helps explain his current preeminence. In 2012, the then-vice president fought successfully to make Ricchetti his counselor, a move criticized at the time as exploiting a loophole in the Obama administration’s rules on hiring lobbyists. Ricchetti has repaid that decision with close to a decade of loyal service. He stuck by Biden through the political wilderness, helping him set up his life after the vice presidency and crafting his successful 2020 presidential primary strategy.

Biden is described as at ease when talking to Ricchetti. Many White House aides are viewed as having strong policy convictions or as jockeying for their next position. But Ricchetti is probably at or near the pinnacle of his political career, and Biden, 78, has come to trust that the aide primarily has his interest at heart.

“For Biden, a lot of it is about loyalty and comfort level. … Especially now that Joe is almost 79, you get to the point you’re not looking to make any new friends and know the people you can trust,” one person in close communication with numerous senior White House officials said. (Jarrett and other allies disputed that Biden’s age had anything to do with his trust in Ricchetti.)

These close ties have put Ricchetti in charge of some of Biden’s most sensitive matters. After receiving grim news about his son Beau’s cancer diagnosis, Biden met privately with Ricchetti in his West Wing office. Biden instructed Ricchetti to fill his schedule as much as possible to “just keep me busy.”

Biden wrote in his 2017 book, “Promise Me, Dad,” that the request appeared to make Ricchetti uncomfortable. Biden also said: “Steve is an easygoing guy who had proven willing to do almost anything I asked.”

Ricchetti’s rise in Washington

Biden is known to emphasize that “all politics is personal.”

Ricchetti has made a career from that maxim.

After graduating from law school, Ricchetti worked as a lobbyist for Allied Corp., an international health and technology company, and then ran the political department of Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. He spearheaded the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee before rising to a senior White House legislative affairs role under Clinton, working on campaign finance reform, health-care programs and Middle East peace talks, among other issues. He went on to start a lobbying firm with his brother Jeff between moving in and out of Democratic administrations.

Bill Galston, a policy aide in the Clinton White House, said Ricchetti was adept even in his 30s at navigating fissures within the Democratic caucus in trying to pass legislation.

“Even as a young man, he had an excellent network of relationships,” Galston said. “He did not have to be introduced to many people.”

Ricchetti quickly returned to lobbying. After leaving the Clinton White House, he returned in 1999 — walking away from a $1.1 million payday — and helped convene emergency planning meetings related to the fallout from the president’s sexual relationship with an intern. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank once wrote that Ricchetti “has been through the revolving door more often than a bellhop at the Mayflower Hotel.”

Don’t cry for Biden counselor Steve Ricchetti

In 2000, Tony Podesta — another lobbyist whose brother, John, went in and out of politics — boasted to the New York Times about their and the Ricchettis’ influence: “The Medicis controlled everything. … We have it split into two families.”

Despite lobbying ties, Ricchetti plays crucial role in infrastructure negotiations

Ricchetti’s expansive network is a key asset to Biden now as he tries to figure out what kind of trillion-dollar infrastructure package may be able to pass Congress amid steep divisions in the Democratic caucus. But some critics say he is out of touch with the current moment in American politics and the needs of the country.

As a lobbyist, Ricchetti represented several pharmaceutical giants that stand to be affected by White House efforts to rein in prescription drug prices. (Biden has called for Congress to pass that measure by the end of the year.) Ricchetti’s firm was also hired by many corporations — including AT&T and General Motors — that stand to be hit by Biden’s proposed corporate tax hikes and are fighting to stop them. White House officials have adamantly disputed that Ricchetti’s lobbying ties influence his government work.

Ricchetti stopped working as a registered lobbyist in 2009, although he ran the company he founded with his brother until he was hired by Biden in 2012.

Some Democrats also doubt the depth of Ricchetti’s expertise. During the Obama administration, some White House officials regarded Ricchetti as a talented political strategist but a lightweight on policy, two former Obama administration officials said. Jarrett, another Obama official, disputed this and said Ricchetti’s policy views were well respected within the administration.

And then there is the profusion of Ricchettis throughout the administration, which has intensified questions about his adherence to avoiding conflicts of interest.

Ricchetti’s son J.J. Ricchetti landed a junior-level post as special assistant in the Treasury Department. His daughter, Shannon Ricchetti, is a deputy associate director for the office of the White House social secretary, while another son, Daniel Ricchetti, is a senior adviser in the office of the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. A fourth Ricchetti child, Tyler Ricchetti, is listed as working for Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), according to Politico. There is no evidence that any of Biden’s aides have played a role in securing jobs for their children or other relatives, and the White House has said the relatives are well qualified for their posts.

Still, other ethics concerns persist. Jeff Ricchetti’s business has boomed under the Biden administration, although he told The Post this month that he will no longer lobby the White House and has not lobbied his brother.

Steve Ricchetti has tried to allay some of these anxieties with his go-to tool — the phone.

Liberal lawmakers such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have developed a close working relationship with Klain. But Ricchetti has made overtures toward members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in recent weeks, according to aides to House and Senate lawmakers on the left, who said the efforts were interpreted as an attempt to quell fears that he is too close to private industry.

“Every dealing I’ve had with him has been ethical,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said in an interview about his fellow Cleveland native. “Obviously, his influence is so important in this White House.”

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a liberal lawmaker, praised Ricchetti and said he had been highly responsive in working with the left. Ricchetti made a point of emphasizing that he understood the importance of incorporating the party’s “progressive voice,” Khanna said.

“As an ambassador to the Hill, he’s very good to work with,” Khanna said. “He’s called or text to ask what I’m thinking or what progressives are thinking. … A number of times, he’s taken our feedback back to the president, and he’s very empathetic.”

But the next few weeks could strain Ricchetti’s relationship with his own party. The White House has sent three main aides to its briefings with Senate Republicans over infrastructure: Ricchetti; Brian Deese, director of the White House National Economic Council; and Louisa Terrell, director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs. Deese is regarded with suspicion by Republicans for his leading role in the $1.9 trillion stimulus package, which passed with no GOP votes, and Terrell is junior to Ricchetti.

At stake is whether the White House takes a nearly $1 trillion infrastructure offer from the GOP or holds out for a partisan bill that goes further in expanding the social safety net, combating climate change and raising taxes on large corporations. Democratic officials say they will aim to pass both a bipartisan agreement and a partisan budget bill, but the fate of the legislation is uncertain.

The decision will be made by Biden. Despite inaccurate GOP assertions that he is being controlled by his staff, the president is hands-on in sculpting White House policy and legislative strategy. But Ricchetti is, in all likelihood, the second-most crucial voice.

“He’s deliberately keeping a low profile. … For a Washington politico, he’s very much self-effacing,” said former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell (D), an early Biden supporter. “He’s not out for credit or for the limelight. And that’s absolutely crucial for these kinds of negotiations.”