A month into the job, he is facing the most significant blowback of his tenure after pushing for a controversial friend to lead Biden’s budget office without consulting first with key senators, leading to questions about overconfidence in dealing with an evenly divided Senate.
Since the moment Klain was selected to serve as chief of staff on November 14 — an unsurprising choice made one week after Biden was projected to have won the election — his decisions have been at the heart of virtually every significant move Biden has made.
Inside the building, he has involved himself in decisions big and small, leading to a reputation as a micro-manager, albeit a capable one whose input is generally regarded as helpful given how close he is to the President.
And then there is his hyperactive Twitter account, which has broken the tradition of top White House staffers seeking to shrink into the background. One GOP aide said within a few weeks of Biden taking office, Klain’s feed became so closely watched and scrutinized that congressional staff “probably need to set alerts on his tweets.”
Klain’s Twitter has also become a must-follow among outside progressive groups and activists, for whom a signal boost from the chief of staff brings mainstream media attention and a new level of credibility.
Faiz Shakir, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ former campaign manager, praised Klain as a “straight shooter” whose directness has been crucial to building and maintaining Biden’s relationship with the broader progressive movement.
“He’s kind of a whirling dervish of activity,” Shakir said. “I don’t know if there’s one Ron Klain or if there’s 15 Ron Klains, but somehow he’s managing to tweet, answer phone calls, get a lot of sh*t done, quite frankly, at the same time.”
The view of him among Senate Republicans is decidedly less positive. His steadfast position on maintaining the size and scale of Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief proposal — something administration officials say is a necessity to finally address and put an end to the dual public health and economic crises — played a major role in shutting down nascent negotiations with the GOP.
And his role in selecting Tanden, a close friend, to lead the Office of Management and Budget is now coming under harsh scrutiny. Tanden shares a similarity to many of Biden’s nominees and aides: she is close to Klain.
“Ron is not a dispassionate observer here,” a senior Democrat who has previously worked with Klain told CNN, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the White House. “He selected Neera and doesn’t want this to fail.”
As she’s drawn opposition, White House officials have defended Tanden as a strong pick to run the budget office because of her decades in senior policymaking and her experience being raised by a single mother who relied on food stamps.
As her viability as a nominee waned, the circumstances around Tanden’s nomination and confirmation process came under sharper scrutiny, much of it directed at Klain. The decision not to consult with Sanders, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, before selecting her has been questioned, particularly because Sanders and Tanden have clashed. The announcement caught Sanders’ team off-guard and left some feeling blindsided.
And a lack of early outreach to Republican senators — presumably in the belief they wouldn’t be needed to secure her confirmation — has led to second-guessing among some White House allies, who say it was clear from the beginning that Tanden would face steep odds in the Senate given her past insults of lawmakers on Twitter.
A top Democratic adviser close to the White House called the Tanden confirmation “a misfire,” but applauded how the White House has handled the controversy this week. Instead of immediately withdrawing Tanden’s nomination when it became clear last Friday that she was in trouble, Klain and other aides concluded “it was a fight worth having,” the Democratic adviser said.
Tanden will meet with a key Republican vote, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, on Monday, leaving open the prospect that she could squeak through.
Other allies of the White House pointed out a silver lining in the Tanden episode: instead of scrutiny about what is contained in the $1.9 trillion relief bill, the searing spotlight this week is on a shaky Cabinet nomination that — even if it fails — would still put Biden on track to have most of his picks confirmed.
“Another White House might have backed down on Neera,” the Democratic adviser said. “This was a fine fight to have.”
‘Knowing what the boss wants’
Because Klain has worked for Biden stretching back decades, from his days running the Senate Judiciary Committee to his time as his vice presidential chief of staff, he is viewed as one of the building’s ultimate arbiters of “knowing what the boss wants,” in the words of one official. At times that has meant interpreting for others with less experience in dealing with Biden where his head may be at any given moment.
Leaning on his experience as the Ebola czar under President Barack Obama, Klain keeps tabs on the daily efforts of the White House’s coronavirus response team, speaking with coronavirus czar Jeff Zients multiple times a day. In a White House with a wartime mindset against the coronavirus, a senior administration official likened Klain to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, with Zients playing the role of top commander on the ground.
“It’s not an uncommon thing for Jeff to say, ‘OK, that sounds great, let me run it by Ron,’ ” the official said.
For all of Klain’s previous experience in the Senate and in the White House, the Biden administration marks the first time he has actually commanded decisions from the chief of staff’s corner office in the West Wing. While every new president and his advisers must navigate some type of a learning curve, Klain’s innate knowledge of the bureaucracy — and his Indiana roots, of which he constantly reminds staffers in meetings — has prepared him for this moment.
“It’s hard to imagine anybody better prepared than Ron Klain to be White House chief of staff,” said Chris Whipple, whose book about the position, “The Gatekeepers,” has been read and studied by many who hold or want to hold the job. “He knows how the place works. And the relationship with Biden is everything.”
“Biden understands he has to empower a chief of staff as first among equals in the White House. It seems clear that Klain is that guy,” Whipple said. “And contrary to what Biden pledged during the campaign, I think it’s probably not Kamala Harris but Ron Klain who’s the last person in the office when he makes big decisions. At least it should be, which is not a knock on the vice president.”
The head shaking incident
Despite the struggles with Tanden, Klain is credited for overseeing what is widely seen as a remarkably smooth transition to power for Biden. Since entering office, his focus has largely been on fighting the pandemic, people close to him say, and giving the President the confidence to press ahead with the $1.9 trillion Covid-relief bill — with or without bipartisan support in the Senate.
That has not necessarily earned him favor among Republicans on Capitol Hill, who now mention two things when asked about Klain: the movement of his head inside Biden’s Oval Office meeting with 10 GOP senators at the start of February; and his Twitter account.
The Oval meeting was described by every Republican involved as positive, with one exception: throughout the meeting, participants said, Klain repeatedly shook his head side-to-side signaling “no” when Republicans were presenting points to Biden.
Biden didn’t seem to notice, one senator at the meeting said, or if he did, it had little effect in how he operated. But Republican senators, especially Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a key moderate who has a long-standing warm relationship with Biden, all picked up on it.
“Ron was shaking his head in the back of the room the whole time, which is not exactly an encouraging sign. I thought that was unfortunate,” Collins said this week.
“I don’t know what the inner workings are at the White House,” she said, adding that Klain is “not someone I personally deal with.”
Even those who were seated with Klain out of view were quickly apprised of Klain’s actions after the meeting. When a statement from Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki was released an hour later reiterating the White House had no intention of scaling back their proposal, several senators attributed it to Klain.
A senior administration official countered that Klain only shook his head when he disagreed with the points of GOP senators or found them hypocritical. And the White House has denied there is any daylight between the President and his chief of staff when it comes to the necessity of a large Covid-19 relief measure.
Klain’s relentless support for the bill — and the administration’s refusal to water it down in search of a few Republican votes — has helped cement his standing with progressive leaders, a number of whom stepped up to support him on Thursday night after he came under fire from some Democrats over the Tanden mess.
“My assumption is the White House feels that (not giving Sanders a heads up on the Tanden pick) was a mistake, but it won’t be repeated and that it was an honest mistake,” Shakir said. “We take it as that and hopefully, in future terms, make sure that we’re all better coordinated as we move forward.”
For those on Capitol Hill accustomed to four years of Trump’s Twitter-inspired drama, what they see is not in the same area code of the bombast from Biden’s predecessor. Instead, Klain is someone closely in tune with, in the words of one aide, “whatever liberal Twitter is saying.”
For at least one senator, it’s also become a tool to get a message across.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, sent a letter to Klain raising concerns about a White House regulatory freeze. Capito tweeted out the letter, tagging Klain. Eighteen minutes later he responded with a quote tweet, noting he’d look into it and get back to her.
Within days, Klain let Capito know the Environmental Protection Agency would be clear to move forward with the regulatory notification.
“I greatly appreciate Mr. Klain’s prompt attention, and I’m encouraged by the administration’s response to this environmental and public health matter,” Capito said. “I’m hopeful we can continue to work together in this way on other issues.”
Melissa Byrne, an advocate for student loan debt cancellation who also previously worked for Sanders, described Klain’s tweets as a form of retail politics — and a validator for her and fellow activists whose work Klain has highlighted in his feed.
“When he retweets somebody, people notice. And that tells other people, these words matter,” Byrne said. “It also then signals to other people, yes, (the White House is) reading all of this. They’re seeing all of that.”
For now, the hyper-visible role Klain has assumed — both on Twitter and in frequent television appearances — seems to be in service of the President’s agenda. But there is always a risk of a chief of staff coming to “love the chief part of the title but not the staff part as much,” according to Whipple.
“There’s always the potential that the chief of staff becomes the prime minister, or thinks he is,” he said. “So far I don’t see that.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the size of Biden’s relief package in one instance. It is $1.9 trillion.
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond and Kaitlan Collins contributed to this report.
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