The power players, latest policy developments, and intriguing whispers percolating inside the West Wing.
The power players, latest policy developments, and intriguing whispers percolating inside the West Wing. Ndfeb Magnet Factory
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By ADAM CANCRYN, ALEX THOMPSON and MAX TANI
Welcome to POLITICO’s West Wing Playbook, your guide to the people and power centers in the Biden administration. With help from Allie Bice.
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ANDY SLAVITT has worn many hats: businessman, health care wonk, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and a senior adviser to JOE BIDEN’s Covid task force.
These days, he’s a podcaster, too. And in that role he’s scoring tons of Biden world interviews. Nearly a dozen top Biden administration officials have appeared on Slavitt’s show, including chief of staff RON KLAIN, ANTHONY FAUCI, Covid response coordinator ASHISH JHA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief ROCHELLE WALENSKY, and Surgeon General VIVEK MURTHY.
The White House has come to view Slavitt’s “In the Bubble” podcast — which started as a Covid-specific show in April 2020 but increasingly covers other topics — as a favorable destination to promote a major new health initiative, or present counter-narratives when certain storylines aren't going their way. It’s also the latest instance of the White House trying to circumvent more mainstream outlets by taking advantage of sympathetic voices across a variety of mediums.
Last week, Jha went on Slavitt’s podcast to talk up the latest Covid booster campaign the administration was rolling out. In August, Walensky dropped in to expand on her admission weeks earlier that the CDC needed a revamp after making too many mistakes in combating the pandemic. After the White House came under fire for its sluggish monkeypox response, it dispatched its newly appointed monkeypox czars to appear on the pod.
In the subsequent interview, Slavitt pushed ROBERT FENTON and DEMETRE DASKALAKIS to address various shortcomings. But he also allowed them to defend themselves at length and with little immediate pushback — a luxury not often afforded in more traditional outlets.
“I’ll give you guys a chance to talk about some of that progress, because some of it I think is recent and I think will be good news to people,” Slavitt said early on.
The Klain interview largely focused on Biden’s recent legislative victories. “Some of us have been working for decades on defeating the pharma lobby, not to mention the oil and gas lobby and the gun lobby just to get some commonsense things done,” Slavitt said to open the episode. Still, Slavitt said he also felt obligated to ask Klain about inflation, pressing him — albeit gently — on the administration’s struggle to slow rising prices.
Slavitt doesn’t pretend to be a traditional journalist. His podcast follows in the recent tradition of Pod Save America — the media venture launched by a group of ex-BARACK OBAMA aides who used their platforms to, among other things, interview one-time colleagues and Obama himself. But Slavitt has strived to establish his podcast as a credible destination for listeners who want to learn something through substantive conversations — not just hear the latest Dem talking points.
At the same time, the White House sees him as a friendly face. They insist his interviews are not softballs but, rather, nuanced. He’s someone who’s been on the inside and is more interested in delving into policy plans than extracting a soundbite.
“It’s been a very open conversation where a question is asked and the entire answer is included in the podcast,” one administration official said.
Within Washington’s tight-knit community of health care officials and policy wonks, there’s been a fair bit of marveling — and some annoyance — at Slavitt’s ability to parlay his government stints into media prominence. Among reporters, a common complaint is that Slavitt — like other officials-turned-media members — reinforces tropes about the “liberal media” by hopping between government and something resembling the Fourth Estate.
For his part, Slavitt maintains he can be many things at once — but is particularly sensitive to the suggestion he’s just a mouthpiece.
"The thing I live in fear of is the response afterward that's like, ‘Slavitt didn't ask the question that needed to be asked,’" he told West Wing Playbook.
Despite his personal ties, Slavitt still has to submit requests to the administration for every guest, just like the rest of us media hacks. And he says he’s been turned down for some of his attempts to interview top officials.
He’s yet to formally request a sitdown with Biden or Vice President KAMALA HARRIS, concluding he has nothing distinctive to ask them… yet.
But in the meantime, Slavitt said he’s set his sights farther afield. While the pope is the ultimate dream guest, he so far has tried, and failed, to book the interview he thinks would be the most interesting: Wyoming Republican Rep. LIZ CHENEY.
MESSAGE US — Are you TRACY DUNCAN, a White House information services operator? We want to hear from you and we may publish your response tomorrow. Email us at [email protected] .
WHAT YOU WROTE IN: In response to last night’s top about Fox News’ BILL MELUGIN, a Democratic source wrote in to tell us we “left out the best part”: Melugin’s past part-time job at an Abercrombie & Fitch store, which was known for hiring men with a particular physique.
In 2011, Melugin, who went by Billy then, told Arizona State University’s student paper that Abercrombie was “always going out into the public trying to find people that fit their look." He explained he was outside, studying for a test, when “two of their recruiters came up to me, said I had a great look and offered me a part-time job."
This one is from reader JASON D’ANTONIO. Which president sold his personal book collection to the Library of Congress after the building was burned by the British in 1814?
IT’S OV-AH: The White House continues to defend Biden’s declaration on “60 Minutes” that Covid-19 is essentially over. During an appearance Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” (with our colleague JONATHAN LEMIRE), press secretary KARINE JEAN-PIERRE noted the president had made the comments from a Detroit auto show postponed for years because of the pandemic. She argued that with vaccinations and treatments, the pandemic was clearly “not as disruptive as it has been in previous years.”
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE WANTS YOU TO READ: Anything about the Biden administration’s push for electric cars. White House national climate adviser ALI ZAIDI tweeted out a few different articles about the efforts Wednesday morning, including this Bloomberg piece by IRA BOUDWAY: “Just over half of passenger cars sold in the U.S. will be electric vehicles by 2030, thanks in part to consumer incentives included in the $374 billion in new climate spending enacted by Biden.”
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ: This NYT story by EILEEN SULLIVAN about how arrests along the U.S.-Mexico border have soared: “For the first time, the number of arrests of undocumented immigrants along the southwestern border exceeded two million in one year, continuing a historic pace of undocumented immigrants coming to the country. The number of arrests at the border increased slightly from July to August, with a total of more than 2.1 million for the first 11 months of the 2022 fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30.”
FLASHBACK: When pressed on migrant problems at the border in April 2021 by NBC News’ CRAIG MELVIN, Biden blamed the early difficulties on the Trump administration and its lack of cooperation during the transition. “We’ve now gotten control,” he said of the border and noted that the numbers were going down.
KLAIN RT OF THE DAY: Biden’s chief of staff retweeted JOHN HARWOOD, who is more willing to share his opinions after leaving CNN. As Harwood wrote today: “The juxtaposition of two events in NYC today — Biden's speech to the UN and the NY AG's fraud suit against the Trumps - underscores the simplest contrast: a decent man who believes in the American experiment has replaced an indecent con man, who does not, as president of the US.”
BLOOD RUNS COLD: During a speech today at the United Nations, Biden again strongly denounced VLADIMIR PUTIN’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Russian president’s threat this morning to use nuclear weapons. Lemire reported that Putin’s latest rhetoric prompted White House aides to make changes to the draft of the president’s speech Wednesday morning “before Biden left his midtown Manhattan hotel for the short drive to the United Nations complex overlooking the East River. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan reviewed the speech with Biden in the morning, adjusting and emphasizing certain lines.”
IT’S FED DAY: In an effort to counter inflation, the Federal Reserve on Wednesday moved to raise rates by .75 percentage points, its third consecutive jumbo rate hike. NYT’s JEANNA SMIALEK has more details on the Fed’s decision.
NO TO (CERTAIN) TARIFFS: The president opted against restricting imports of neodymium magnets that come primarily from China, steering clear of a new trade fight with Beijing and Japan, our DOUG PALMER reports. The magnets are used in electric vehicles, wind turbines and a variety of other tech and defense applications. Biden’s decision calms the concerns of U.S. automakers and other manufacturers who rely on imports of the magnets to produce their products.
RAMPING UP THE BOOSTERS: The FDA is releasing millions of Moderna Covid-19 booster shots after states have reported shortages, WaPo’s DAN DIAMOND scooped. The disbursement was delayed because of a safety inspection at a production plant in Bloomington, Ind.
PERSONNEL MATTERS: SAIGE WENIK is now staff secretary coordinator in the office of the vice president, DANIEL LIPPMAN reports. She most recently was a legislative assistant at WilmerHale.
NOMINATIONS ON NOMINATIONS: Biden announced the nominations of two Republicans to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. board — TRAVIS HILL, a former senior adviser to past FDIC Chair JELENA MCWILLIAMS, to serve as vice chair, and JONATHAN MCKERNAN, who currently serves as senior counsel at the Federal Housing Finance Agency, to be a director. But our KATE DAVIDSON, SAM SUTTON and VICTORIA GUIDA report that the nominations will likely not move until the White House puts forward a Democratic nominee to serve as the board’s chairman.
How did an image of a fake Massachusetts flag end up in a brochure for Martha’s Vineyard migrants? (The Boston Globe’s Spencer Buell)
U.S. Gas Prices End Streak of Declines Just Short of 100 Days (NYT’s Isabella Simonetti)
The difference between DeSantis’s migrant flights and the Biden administration’s (WaPo’s Aaron Blake)
U.S. Spy Agencies Haven’t Kept Pace With Threats, Senate Report Says (WSJ’s Warren P. Strobel)
Treasury Secretary JANET YELLEN and White House chief of staff Ron Klain at the Atlantic Festival in Washington, D.C. tomorrow.
We’ve previously noted that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen met her husband, GEORGE AKERLOF, who is also an economist, when they both worked at the Federal Reserve and that the couple even talked economic policy at the dinner table.
But being the partner of an equally accomplished economist (not to mention a woman who has an extensive stamp and rock collection) comes with a lot of media inquiries.
When journalist NOAM SCHEIBER was working on a profile of Yellen and called to interview her, Akerlof picked up the phone and said: "Well, I'm a pretty good economist, too."
George, feel free to call us anytime! We’d love to get your thoughts on inflation.
THOMAS JEFFERSON. By 1814, when the British burned down the nation’s capitol and the library, “Jefferson had acquired the largest personal collection of books in the United States. Jefferson offered to sell his library to Congress as a replacement for the collection destroyed by the British during the War of 1812,” according to the Library of Congress.
A CALL OUT — Do you think you have a harder trivia question? Send us your best one about the presidents with a citation and we may feature it.
Neodymium Magnets Cube Edited by Eun Kyung Kim and Sam Stein.