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So Long, Ron Klain
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So Long, Ron Klain

Biden prepares to navigate the remainder of his term and a reelection campaign without his longtime aide.

Happy Tuesday! No spoilers in the comments about who received the first impression rose, please—Declan didn’t have time last night to catch the Season 27 premiere of The Bachelor.

(Editor: I probably should cut this just to save Declan the embarrassment his lack of self-awareness is causing him here…Nah.)

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Department of Justice on Monday announced it was charging Charles McGonigal—a former high-ranking FBI counterintelligence agent who retired in 2018–with money laundering and sanctions violations. In the nine-count indictment, prosecutors allege McGonigal took money from sanctioned Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska in 2021 in exchange for investigating a rival oligarch, as well as attempting to get U.S. sanctions on Deripaska lifted. McGonigal is also facing charges for allegedly accepting $225,000 from a former Albanian intelligence official while still employed by the FBI. McGonigal was arrested Saturday evening, and faces a maximum of 80 years in prison. 
  • Seven people were shot and killed Monday afternoon in San Mateo County, California, just two days after a mass shooting left 11 dead in Monterey Park, California, on Saturday. Yesterday’s shooting occurred in two locations a mile apart in Half Moon Bay, 30 miles south of San Francisco. The suspect, a 67-year-old man, was apprehended in his car in the parking lot of a sheriff’s office substation.
  • French President Emmanuel Macron announced Friday that, in response to the ongoing war in Ukraine, his government aims to increase defense spending 40 percent by 2030. Pending approval by the French parliament, the defense ministry hopes to bring defense spending in line with its NATO commitment of 2 percent of France’s GDP, a benchmark it routinely misses. 
  • As first reported in The New York Times, U.S. troops deployed to Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base will remain in Romania—just across the Black Sea from Russian-occupied Crimea—for another nine months. Some 4,000 members of the 101st Airborne Division have been stationed at the Romanian base since the summer, training soldiers from other NATO countries and acting as the first line of defense should Russia’s invasion touch NATO territory. The troops from the 101st will be replaced by members of the same division in the next two months, accompanied by a two-star general and top military planners. 
  • Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona announced Monday he will challenge Sen. Kyrsten Sinema—who recently switched her party affiliation from “Democrat” to “Independent”—for her seat in 2024.  Sinema has not yet detailed her plans for the race, but a three-way contest could split Democratic support and aid the Republican nominee.
  • The U.S. and Israel launched their largest joint military exercise to date on Monday. Covering all aspects of warfare from cyber to space, the live-fire exercises are the first since the new Israeli government took power.
  • The Treasury Department announced another tranche of sanctions against Iran on Monday, this time targeting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Cooperative Foundation for its funding of the IRGC’s repressive practices. The sanctions—which come in response to crackdowns on protests over the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini—also target five members of the foundation’s board, four IRGC officers, and an Iranian intelligence minister.   
  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Monday Turkey will not support Sweden’s accession to NATO after protests against Turkey and in support of the Kurds broke out in Stockholm over the weekend, including a far-right politician burning a Qu’ran. Turkey has already held up NATO membership for both Sweden and Finland for months, demanding those governments agree to extradite Turkish political dissidents. 
  • In his first public remarks since FBI agents conducted a search of President Joe Biden’s home in Wilmington, Delaware, over the weekend, Attorney General Merrick Garland pushed back on criticisms the Justice Department was treating the Biden case differently than the investigation into former President Donald Trump. “We do not have different rules for Democrats or Republicans, different rules for the powerful or the powerless, different rules for the rich and for the poor,” he told reporters. “We apply the facts and the law in each case in a neutral, non-partisan manner.”

An Inflection Point in the Biden Presidency

Biden and his longtime adviser, Ron Klain. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Writing a State of the Union speech is our idea of a nightmare group project: Cobbled together with talking points from seemingly every corner of the executive branch, it’s delivered after months of preparation to a nation that’ll only remember it if something goes wrong. 

“I would so much rather write the pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey speech than the State of the Union,” said Mary Kate Cary, a former George H.W. Bush speechwriter and a professor in the University of Virginia’s politics department. “Nobody listens to the pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey and says, ‘That is the worst turkey pardoning speech I’ve ever heard.’” 

Such is life when you’re facing both Republican spin teams eager to shred any misstep and a ratings matchup on February 7th against The Real Housewives of New Jersey Season 13 premiere.

At the top of the year, President Joe Biden had plenty of reasons to look forward to the speech. After seeing some marquee legislation through Congress during the first half of his term, he entered the final two years of his presidency with surprisingly decent midterms results, easing inflation, and approval ratings showing signs of a rebound. He’ll still take a victory lap in next month’s speech—only traditional, after all—but his steadily worsening documents debacle will be the albatross around his neck at the lectern. And as Biden turns his attention to implementing his legislative victories and mounting a reelection campaign, he’s reportedly set to trade out his trusted Chief of Staff Ron Klain for Jeff Zients, a capable but less politically experienced administrator.

A couple of happy months had put some wind beneath Biden’s wings. Democrats’ better-than-expected midterm showing had some of the president’s would-be primary challengers slinking back into the shadows, so instead of a knives-out atmosphere, Biden found Democrats lining up behind him. His approval rating edged up—still underwater, but climbing to 44 percent approval from last July’s low of around 38 percent. Democrats high-fived in the background of Republicans’ ugly House speakership fight, and the Biden administration settled in to make the case for abortion access and tout another month of slowing inflation.

But the drip, drip, drip of classified documents discoveries has doused the White House’s parade. Biden maintains he has “no regrets” over how he’s handled the discovery of the material and has insisted “there’s no there, there.” White House officials continue to argue that—unlike former President Donald Trump—they’ve complied with law enforcement efforts to regain and secure the president’s improperly retained classified documents. That’s a nuance that could matter in court—but the unfolding document drama looks increasingly damaging for the president. 

Biden’s personal lawyer Bob Bauer, for example, said Saturday the Department of Justice had searched Biden’s Wilmington, Delaware home for almost 13 hours Friday, collecting six additional “items with classification markings.” We don’t know if that’s six sheets of paper, boxes of documents, or overloaded filing cabinets, but the “items” reportedly date back not only to Biden’s vice presidency—when he at least had permission to bring classified documents home, though they should have been returned—but also to his time as senator, when he most likely did not. Biden’s spokesfolk have highlighted that his lawyers proactively granted access to his home, but that was almost assuredly a face-saving measure: the DOJ likely could’ve easily gotten a warrant if it had to. Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Tim Kaine told Fox News they support investigations into Biden’s handling of the documents, and according to polling, about two-thirds of Americans agree with them.

And it’s no wonder. Biden campaigned for office on promises he’d return the country to political normalcy—that unlike his predecessor he’d work within the norms of politics and respect the rules that proper presidential conduct required. Beyond that, Biden promised a new era of transparency to help restore faith in government. The documents debacle has made a mockery of both promises, with the recklessness (at least) of mishandling of the documents itself and the administration’s inability or unwillingness to answer many basic questions about the whole mess. 

Document revelations aren’t the only cloud on Biden’s political horizon. Though the administration has touted its new humanitarian parole programs for reducing illegal crossings by migrants of specific nationalities, Customs and Border Protection reported this week December saw the highest number of illegal crossing attempts of Biden’s presidency. (Officials blamed the growth on smugglers spreading misinformation.) Republicans will keep hammering Biden on the border and using their new House majority to conduct investigations—into his family’s business dealings, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the southern border—to attempt to damage the president.

With Republican control of the House, Biden is not going to match the more than $3 trillion in legislation passed during the first half of his term. The president’s focus, then, will likely be on implementing the programs already passed—particularly the infrastructure law and the “Inflation Reduction Act” with its climate and Medicare drug price initiatives—and on running for another term.

But Biden may be tackling these tasks without his right-hand man just down the hall. Klain has lasted an unusually long two years as chief of staff—the high-stress, 24/7 nature of the job quickly burns people out—but he reportedly plans to step down after the State of the Union. While an at-times overenthusiastic tweeter who critics said listened too closely to progressives, Klain brought a broad skillset to the role, having worked in multiple White Houses and at the DOJ, as a Supreme Court clerk, and on a congressional committee. Combined with his campaign and private sector experience, Klain offered a formidable understanding of how the federal sausage gets made. “He basically checks every box in terms of government experience,” said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a Miller Center senior fellow who studies presidential staffing. “Not only did he have all of that experience, but then he also had an incredibly close relationship with Biden and had known him for decades.”

Management consultant, bagel shop investor, and experienced Washington operator Jeff Zients has reportedly been tapped to fill Klain’s shoes. Zients is no newcomer—he served in the Obama administration as director of the National Economic Council and acting director of the Office of Management and Budget. After a stint at an investment firm and on Facebook’s board, Zients returned to the White House to run Biden’s COVID-19 response and, more recently, help Klain prepare for post-midterms staff turnover.

While Zients has a reputation as an effective administrator, his political background is thin compared to Klain’s. He doesn’t have much experience negotiating with Congress or reading the political winds to help a president seeking reelection to connect with voters. Zients may also face pushback from the Democrats’ progressive wing, which frowns on his corporate background and support for deficit reduction under Obama. A statement by the left-wing Revolving Door Project chided Zients for becoming “astonishingly rich by profiteering in health care” and representing “corporate misconduct” that the executive branch should punish.

But barring further turnover—and we’ll likely see some—Biden still has plenty of senior advisers around who may pick up some political slack, including longtime operatives Anita Dunn and Steve Ricchetti. And Klain is unlikely to be more than a phone call away, though he could probably use some time to catch up on sleep. “Those jobs are such a pressure cooker,” Tenpas said. Between January 6 fallout, COVID management, inflation, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, border surges, and more—“It’s been one blow after another.”

Or, as Klain tweeted on the second anniversary of Biden’s inauguration: “Two hard years.” Get some rest, Ron.

Worth Your Time

  • As the country nears its self-imposed debt limit, populist Republicans are making two incompatible demands: Get spending under control, and don’t touch social security. “Realistically, the only serious approach will require some changes to existing Social Security benefits,” Eric Boehm writes in Reason. “That could mean reducing benefits for wealthier retirees or implementing across-the-board benefit reductions that would be phased in over time, allowing younger workers to offset smaller Social Security benefits with private savings. Ideally, workers would be able to opt out of Social Security altogether, so they can save and invest for their own retirement without having to pay payroll taxes. But none of those options can begin to be considered if a critical mass of Republicans adopts the short-sighted view advocated by Trump and [Sen. JD] Vance. That’s particularly galling in Vance’s case, given his previous support for a more thoughtful and workable approach to Social Security’s fiscal issues. On his personal blog (where he went by the name ‘JD Hamel’), Vance wrote approvingly in 2011 of plans put forth by then-Rep. Paul Ryan (R–Wisc.) to balance the budget and reform entitlements.”
  • From thorn in his side to right-hand woman, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s relationship with Speaker Kevin McCarthy has come a long way. In the New York Times, Jonathan Swan and Catie Edmonson explain how the unorthodox political alliance came to be. “It is a relationship born of political expediency but fueled by genuine camaraderie, and nurtured by one-on-one meetings as often as once a week, usually at a coffee table in Mr. McCarthy’s Capitol office, as well as a constant stream of text messages back and forth,” they write. While MTG was instrumental in McCarthy’s accession to the speakership, “the relationship has also paid off for Ms. Greene, no longer the fringe backbencher stripped of her power. Republican leaders announced last week that she would serve on two high-profile committees: Oversight and Homeland Security. She is also likely to be appointed to a new Oversight select subcommittee to investigate the coronavirus.”

Presented Without Comment

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Toeing the Company Line

  • ​​It’s Tuesday, which means Dispatch Live (🔒) returns tonight at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT! You won’t want to miss this week’s episode, as the core four—Sarah, Steve, Jonah, and David—assemble one last time before David jets off to the New York Times. (David will be a regular presence here after he’s made the move, with twice-weekly spots on Advisory Opinions and occasional visits with the Dispatch Podcast and Dispatch Live teams.) On the agenda tonight: How big a deal is an FBI official being charged with money laundering? Have lawmakers made any headway on debt ceiling negotiations? What’s going on in conservative media?
  • For all of Illinois’ tough talk on tackling “gun crime,” the state’s attorney general’s office doesn’t even keep data on straw-purchase prosecutions. “Guns obtained through straw-buyers are commonly used in crimes,” Kevin notes in this week’s Wanderland (🔒), arguing Democratic efforts focus primarily on guns that aren’t. “You’d think that the nation’s attorneys general and governors would respond appropriately, but you would be wrong.”
  • In Monday’s edition of Boiling Frogs (🔒), Nick chastises Republicans for having no real plan as the country careens toward its self-imposed debt ceiling. “Having a fight with Democrats is the priority; the specific concessions that might be extracted are an afterthought,” he writes. “All Republicans know is that they’re keen to take a hostage. The ransom is a detail, a blank to be filled in as this game of political Mad Libs plays out.”
  • On the site today, Kevin reflects on what the latest George Santos revelation reveals about the state of the GOP and the American Enterprise Institute’s Robert Pondsicio writes about a recent victory of Arizona’s sweeping school choice program. 

Let Us Know

Do you think Biden’s classified documents scandal will have any bearing on whether he’s the Democratic nominee in 2024? Should it?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.