Biden World gives a shoulder shrug to the raging culture wars

There’s a war on The Muppets. And “The Cat and the Hat!”
But Biden is busy. He has no time for all that.

Over the past few weeks, Republicans have simmered over the “cancellation” of seemingly innocent family favorites, including the venerated Mr. Potato Head toy and Dr. Seuss books. Glenn Beck has likened it to fascism. Fox News has covered it obsessively. In recent days, conservative legislators have made speeches at confabs and in the halls of Congress, warning about what they describe as out of control PC culture.

And yet, even as it becomes all consuming on the right, White House advisers and Biden aides insist they’re unbothered by the culture-wars-du-jour. Unbothered, they say. They respond with a snore. (Okay, we’re done).

“I don’t think there is any danger in ignoring a debate on Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss,” said John Anzalone, a Biden adviser and campaign pollster.

Anzalone contends there’s no benefit to engaging in “meaningless” topics, and that there may indeed be an upside in disregarding them as the Biden administration and Democrats close in on a massive Covid-relief package, amid more than 500,000 deaths from the pandemic. “The Republicans are in danger of ignoring getting Covid vaccine distribution money to states, funding to schools to reopen and checks in the pockets of struggling Americans,” he added.

Other aides to the president agree, pointing to the often-fleeting nature of the stories burning up conservative airwaves as proof there’s no need to weigh in.

The divide over what the right sees as “cancel culture” and what the left considers “concern trolling” is somehow growing larger in the post-Trump political landscape. And neither side is showing signs of retreating. While Biden World may find it all a tiresome distraction, Republicans see a salve. Lacking power and a unifying political message, a relentless focus on “cancel culture” has proven to be a galvanizing force for their base.

“At the end of the day I think it unifies the party but expands it into the area we need to — the suburban moms, the college educated men that we struggled with in 2020, there’s common ground with these constituencies” said Mercedes Schlapp, senior fellow American Conservative Union Foundation and a former Trump White House aide. “We’re the party of common sense and we’re not going to be the party of continuously policing what our children are reading and not for this cancel culture mob to decide.”

On Thursday, Republicans opened a new front in the battle, one that centered on Biden’s use of the phrase “neanderthal thinking” to describe the rationale among leaders in GOP-run states who are lifting their Covid-19 restrictions.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) trolled the left by calling on the president to apologize for offending people whose very, very, very, very distant ancestors were of the archaic human species. He suggested Biden “seek training on unconscious bias.” And Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) even took to the airwaves to defend the reputation of cavemen and women.

“Neanderthals are hunter-gatherers, they’re protectors of their family, they are resilient, they’re resourceful, they tend to their own,” Blackburn told Fox Business. “So, I think Joe Biden needs to rethink what he is saying.”

The fights metastasize so swiftly that it becomes, at times, hard to recall how they started. In the case of Dr. Seuss, the Biden administration omitted the famed children’s book author in a proclamation for Read Across America Day, which was intentionally founded on the good doctor’s birthday. Then the estate of Dr. Seuss decided not to publish six of his children’s books because they included illustrations that the estate itself considered “hurtful” and “wrong.”

The topic quickly became a fixation of GOP lawmakers and conservative cable programming. On Tuesday, it was the primary focus on Fox News even as FBI Director Christopher Wray sat in the hot seat for a hearing on the Jan. 6 riots on Capitol Hill. All told, the network talked about it 60 times, according to a Washington Post tally.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy even took the issue to the House floor during a debate on a voting rights bill introduced by Democrats. “First, they outlaw Dr. Seuss and now they want to tell us what to say,” McCarthy said.

For the White House, it’s been generally worth sidestepping. White House press secretary Jen Psaki punted when asked about why Biden did not include Dr. Seuss in his reading day announcement as former presidents Trump, Obama, and Bush did.

“The proclamation was written by the Department of Education, and you could certainly speak to them about more specifics about the drafting of it,” Psaki said.

That’s not the only culture war in which Psaki has refused to engage. When asked about Biden’s neanderthal comment, she called it a “reflection of his frustration” with Americans refusing to follow public-health guidance. Earlier, she declined to directly respond when asked about Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s announcement that his team would cease beginning games by playing the National Anthem — a policy on which he eventually reversed course.

The culture war playbook is a well-worn one for the GOP, especially when they are outnumbered in Washington. But the recent examples have taken a different form than those in the past. That was especially true in the Trump era when rather than being tied to a specific policy or politician, they often take the form of backlash to the perceived social pressure for political correctness.

During Barack Obama’s presidency, aides saw many of these “scandals” as being motivated by their dislike for him personally, or having to do with his race, or often a combination both. Incidents included photos of Obama not wearing a jacket in the Oval office (after no such pictures were snapped of George W. Bush over eight years) and the Obamas inviting the hip hop artist and actor Common to the White House as part of a poetry reading, which drew the scorn of Karl Rove and Sarah Palin. “Oh lovely, White House…” she said.

There was also the so-called Starbucks salute, when Obama informally saluted Marines while holding a cup of coffee in his raised hand.

“The not-so-subtle implication was ‘he’s part of the Other and he doesn’t belong here,’” said a former Obama White House official, describing many of the attacks as racist.

Today, much of the fracas doesn’t even involve Biden, or his administration, or his policy agenda. Instead, it involves things like corporate decisions around kids’ toys.

Last month, toymaker Hasbro announced that it was dropping the “Mr.” from its logo and branding in an effort to promote gender equality and inclusion. After an initial firestorm over the decision, the company clarified that both Mr. Potato Head and Mrs. Potato Head would continue to be sold under the names. Hasbro acknowledged the initial confusion. But by then the story had taken off. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), speaking at CPAC last weekend, mockingly referred to the Potato Head toy as “America’s first transgender doll.”

Republicans, split by warring factions, have found common ground in pushing back against “cancel culture.” “America Uncanceled” was the dominant theme of Conservative Political Action Conference this year, with Donald Trump and 2024 hopefuls like Sen. Ted Cruz, (R-Texas) elevating the issue along with topics like immigration, China, and climate change.

“Will this supplant the pandemic or the economy at the top of voters’ minds? No,” said GOP strategist Matt Gorman. “But it is a cultural touchstone for folks that shows where a party’s priorities are. Suburban parents seeing school districts banning a kids book or changing names of schools, but not getting kids in the classrooms is one way to infuriate them. They see them focused on the absolute wrong things.”

There are numbers that seem to bolster Gorman’s point. According to a new Harvard CAPS-Harris poll, a majority of Americans view “cancel culture” as a threat to freedoms in the U.S. Eighty percent of Republicans viewed it as a threat, compared to 48 percent of Democrats in the survey.

Pollster Frank Luntz said wielding “cancel culture” as a cudgel is “definitely” effective for rallying the GOP base.

“The delegitimization of Trump and his voters five years ago is what led to his election,” Luntz said. “The cancel culture by the left is exactly the same strategy, and it will cause the same result. It doesn’t matter if you are on the left or on the right: people will fight for their right to exist.”

Even those in the entertainment industry — one of the vanguards of the “cancel culture” wars — have fretted that it all might prove effective. “This is how Trump gets reelected, by the way, cancel Dr. Seuss, cancel Abe Lincoln. Melt down Mr. Potato Head’s private parts and throw them at the Muppets,” Jimmy Kimmel said in a recent show. “This is his path to victory.”

So, will Republicans succeed? Is it, in fact, 98 ¾ percent guaranteed? The White House doesn’t think so, as evidenced by the fact that an official there responded with a Seussian rebuttal of their own.

“Republicans may complain, but they’re still in thrall
To a President who acted like a Neanderthal

Instead of coming together, the flames they fan
When they should be working with Joe on the Rescue Plan

Cry, whine, and gnash their teeth as they may
It’s actually the Republicans who are in disarray!”

Senate braces for brutal debate on Biden’s Covid aid bill

Senate Democrats are confident they can pass President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill well before the official March 14 deadline. But Republicans are setting up a grueling debate that appears likely to carry the partisan battle into the weekend.

Early Thursday afternoon, Senate Democrats are expecting to rally their 50 senators to kick off debate on their own version of the stimulus bill, a key test vote that will demonstrate that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has the support to prevail.

The vote will take place against the backdrop of heightened security concerns at the Capitol. The House cleared out Wednesday — one day ahead of schedule — amid the threat of another QAnon-inspired attack on the building. Senate Democrats will likely require an appearance from Vice President Kamala Harris to cast a tie-breaking vote on the relief package, while police and National Guard troops beef up their presence around the Capitol complex.

After the Senate kicks off debate on the House bill, Republicans are planning to make life as excruciating as possible.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) will force the Senate clerk to read all 500-plus pages of the Senate substitute. Senate Democratic leaders estimate that it will take four to five hours to complete that task, though Johnson believes it may take longer. Then Republicans can use up to 20 hours of debate time, and then force unlimited amendments votes if they so choose.

Schumer vowed that the Senate would stay in session this week until the bill is passed and dismissed Johnson’s effort as a delay tactic that “will accomplish little more than a few sore throats for the Senate clerks.” But he added that Democrats would welcome Johnson’s reading of the bill.

“We Democrats want America to hear what’s in the plan,” he said. “And if the senator from Wisconsin wants to read it, let everybody listen. Because it has overwhelming support.”

The bill’s so-called vote-a-rama now may begin on Friday, instead of on Thursday, as a result of delays on Wednesday in getting a Congressional Budget Office score for the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion bill. That’s a key step in the process, ensuring Democrats can use budget reconciliation and its simple majority requirement instead of needing 60 votes — and the support of 10 Republicans. CBO has since assured that the bill gels with the arcane budget rules guiding its passage, a Democratic aide said Thursday morning.

Johnson and other Republicans are vowing to make the vote-a-rama lengthy and uncomfortable for Democrats with what they view as tough votes. And timing is important: Enhanced unemployment benefits shut off on March 14 and Democrats say they need to pass their bill well in advance to give states time to avoid missing payments. Plus, the House will still need to approve the Senate’s changes.

Though Senate Democrats and Biden agreed to keep unemployment bonus payments at $400 per week through August, mirroring the House proposal, some Republicans or centrist Democrats could offer amendments trimming that down to $300 per week. Increasing the intrigue, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has not officially decided she’s against the bill, and Biden and Democrats would be ebullient to receive any GOP support.

Biden and Democrats also agreed to more narrowly target the next round of $1,400 stimulus payments, phasing out completely for single filers at $80,000 and joint filers at $160,000. But Democrats will have to stick together to make sure their carefully negotiated truce is not upset by GOP amendments. In the last amendment series, moderate Democrats infuriated progressives by approving an amendment barring undocumented immigrants from getting stimulus checks. House Democrats are watching closely.

Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden said he “would have preferred the House threshold” on checks, but that he still thought the bill was in a good place. He acknowledged that the party was still tweaking the bill as of Thursday morning.

“There are a couple of numbers that people are still going back and forth on. But I think we’re very close,” he said.

Senate Democrats are also tweaking cash for state and local aid, ensuring that small states receive more money and that every state receives at least what it got from the massive stimulus bill passed last March.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that House Democrats would like to study the compromise on unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, but said, “So far, so good.”

Some progressives seemed skeptical of the deal, but stopped short of saying it would jeopardize the near-lockstep support that Pelosi needs to get the amended Senate bill through the House in the coming days.

“I just — I don’t like that this is being narrowed,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I feel like the survival checks are the easiest, simplest, most popular, populist, proposal. But let me take a look at what it actually means in terms of numbers of people.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is also planning to offer an amendment that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, despite the Senate parliamentarian ruling that including that provision would violate Senate rules. While the amendment is expected to fail, it will put Democrats on record over whether they support the boost. Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jon Tester of Montana are among those whose vote will be watched on the Sanders amendment.

Rick Scott gets no love from the MAGA-verse

Sen. Rick Scott has spent years courting MAGA supporters. But he can’t quite get them to love him.

The billionaire-turned-politician is trying to build his own national brand ahead of a potential run for president, but some early stumbles — including a recent pivot away from Trump — aren’t endearing him with the base.

“I would argue what he has done since the election has been confusing,” said Tony Fabrizio, Trump’s top 2020 pollster and a former Scott adviser. “He votes to not certify Pennsylvania, yet the other day said Biden obviously won the election. He defends Trump on impeachment, yet also defends Liz Cheney. I think the real question is ‘what the hell are they thinking?”’

Though Scott has been unbeatable since first running for statewide office in 2010, the tone and direction of the GOP under Trump has shifted to a place outside of his comfort zone. Trump’s GOP is largely foreign to Scott, a former health care executive who embraces focus groups and adheres to the talking points of the day, not the off-the-cuff brashness Trump embraces. That, along with his well-known lack of charisma, could spell early trouble for Scott’s White House ambitions.

Scott, a former two-term Florida governor and now the state’s junior senator, was one of the first establishment-type politicians to back Trump’s bid for president. A tea party darling, Scott chaired a pro-Trump super PAC in 2016 that raised $20 million and, more recently, bashed Trump’s second impeachment trial, and challenged the certification of the 2020 election.

But in recent public remarks, Scott has created distance between himself and Trump. He claimed the Republican civil war is “cancelled” even as Trump openly plots revenge and potential primary challenges against GOP critics. As the new head of the GOP Senate’s campaign arm, he said he would favor incumbents over challengers, which largely closes the door on the organization supporting Trump-backed insurgents.

“In the eyes of Trump voters, Scott plays it too safe,” said state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, an Orlando-area Republican who sponsored a bill that would rename a stretch of Florida highway after Trump. “Sure he stands with Trump on a lot of votes and issues, but he’s not charging the hill on anything or pushing the conversation like others are.”

A pair of recent polls also shows Scott is having difficulty breaking through. Last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll had Scott at less than half a percent while Ron DeSantis, a longtime Scott rival, got 43 percent if the former president doesn’t run in 2024. In another poll taken last month by Florida Republican pollster Ryan Tyson, 69 percent of Republicans viewed Scott’s performance as strongly or somewhat favorable, compared to 84 percent for DeSantis, and 83 percent for Trump.

Scott was not even included in the poll looking at a potential 2024 field that does not include Trump done last month by GOP pollster Patrick Ruffini.

Some veterans of Florida politics, however, warn against paying too much attention to early 2024 numbers. Scott has been a giant over the past decade in Florida politics, and they have watched him use his vast wealth to knock off favored rivals in the past, and rack up an impressive 3-0 record in statewide political races, a number that jumps to 4-0 if you count Scott knocking off Republican establishment-favored Attorney General Bill McCollum in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary.

For them the message is clear: doubt Rick Scott at your own peril.

“I don’t know if CPAC is the most telling audience in the world for who is going to be the next nominee, or whatever,” said Brian Ballard, a Florida-based lobbyist who was close with Scott when he was governor and is a well-known Trump influencer. “Rick Scott has a political graveyard littered with opponents who did not take him seriously.”

“I think he will be able to resonate with Trump voters when the time comes,” Ballard added. “Just like Marco Rubio will. Just like Ted Cruz will. Everyone has their place.”

Chris Hartline, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee who previously worked for Scott in his U.S. Senate office, said in a text message: “Rick Scott is focused on one thing — saving the country from socialism by winning back the U.S. Senate. Any suggestion or story beyond that is dumb.”

Susie Wiles, who has run both of Trump’s Florida campaigns and advised Scott in his past races, says that Scott will be able to break through with the Trump base when he focuses on his own politics again.

“Rick Scott is focused on being a senator right now, and outside of winning races for other Republican senators,” she said. “When he decides to focus on something else, he will be successful. He always has been.”

Brian Burgess, Scott’s communications director after he first became governor in 2010, said his old boss never relied on “lofty” political rhetoric to energize supporters.

“His strength is in methodical execution of a strategic plan, and then living or dying by the results,” Burgess said. “That’s who he is, and if he decides to run for president in a few years, it will be because there are large numbers of Americans are hungry for that kind of leadership, not because he can ‘out-Trump’ other potential candidates.”

While Scott has struggled to gain traction among Trump’s most loyal voters as compared to other rising Republican stars, he has also shaken up establishment corners of the party. When taking over as head of NRSC, he fired a handful of top staffers and replaced them with his own longtime aides, according to two sources familiar with the matter. Scott replaced the staff without informing Senate leadership but after the heated Georgia runoffs that saw Democrats pick up two Senate seats and flip control of the chamber.

“He is trying to please two masters,” Fabrizio said. “In this day and age, I just don’t know how you do that.”

A Florida GOP consultant said that Scott’s failure to get traction with Trump voters and scuffles with the GOP’s more establishment could leave him somewhat politically rudderless headed into a 2022 election cycle where he will be charged with helming Republican Senate campaigns.

“The problem is he has no lane anymore. Trying to be a Trump person is not working,” the person added. “Trying to be a Senate leadership person is not working. So, what does he do? Think he just tries to win races, which is one thing he has done well.”

Trump made Twitter the White House’s spiked-ball cudgel. Ron Klain wants to change that.

After four years in which the White House used Twitter as a tool to batter the media and knife political opponents, the Biden administration is trying a softer touch.

Officials are using the social media platform to project a sense of competence and calm — not launch narcissistic tirades. It’s being deployed to woo lawmakers, and less often shame them. And instead of the president himself doing the rapid-fire posting, it’s his grammar-obeying chief of staff.

Washington’s hottest Twitter feed is now an acronym managed by its most powerful bureaucrat, Ron Klain. His handle, @WHCOS, has become the source of fascination—building a sense of intrigue that the White House seems inclined to feed, with aides studiously letting reporters know that he operates it on his own.

To outside observers, including Capitol Hill aides, lobbyists and the news media — many of which have set their phones to ding every time Klain tweets — his feed is a kind of Rorschach test: either reinforcing the idea that Klain is a partisan combatant masquerading as an honest broker or the work of an expert multitasker with a knack for documenting Biden’s incremental achievements while keeping the focus on big-picture priorities.

Behind the theatrics of it all, there is a strategy. Take Klain’s decision to use Twitter to elevate a news story about Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) unveiling his plan to provide at least $3,000 in child benefits, lending bipartisan support to similar efforts being drafted at the time by Biden and Senate Democrats.

“Obviously, Romney can give his own ideas a lot of prominence, but it’s not lost on him and not lost on his colleagues that, with one introduction, he got the notice of the chief of staff of the president,” said Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, whose Twitter claim to fame was a profane parody account that described him as Chicago’s “next [motherf—ing] mayor.”

“Ron was out there shaping the debate around these things. He’s not only prolific, but he’s strategic,” Emanuel said.

While Klain may be using Twitter to occasionally charm Republicans, his postings far more often end up inflaming them. GOP staffers said they were not amused with the chief’s running digital commentary, including retweets they believe disrespect their bosses and promote opinion-makers critical of them — position’s antithetical to Biden’s vows to work with them.

“Resistance Twitter trolls rejoice — you have a comrade in arms in Ron Klain,” said a senior GOP aide with alerts set for Klain. “He has the will, the appetite, and apparently the time to join you in trolling senators, elevating deep thinkers like Jennifer Rubin and Kyle Griffin, and carelessly retweeting things he later has to delete.”

Klain isn’t the first White House chief of staff to use Twitter, but he’s much more active than his predecessors. Mark Meadows, former President Donald Trump’s last chief of staff, tweeted only about 150 times during his nearly 10 months as chief of staff.

Klain, by contrast, has tweeted every day since Biden took office. He sends an average of 34 tweets a day (40 if you exclude weekends and holidays), though he’s tweeted as many as 65 times in a day. Since Jan. 20, he has retweeted the aforementioned Rubin, a columnist for The Washington Post who once was a conservative but has become deeply critical of Republicans, 15 times; he’s retweeted Griffin, a senior producer for Lawrence O’Donnell’s MSNBC show, 37 times.

Klain appears to have settled into a daily rhythm on Twitter. He usually sends out his first tweet of the day by 8 a.m. and rarely tweets after midnight on weekdays, though he’s made a few exceptions, such as his 1:59 a.m. retweet of a C-SPAN producer last month during a late-night Senate “vote-a-rama.” He’s un-retweeted messages that contained errors, as well as one promoting Vice President Kamala Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg as a presidential ticket in 2028.

If you were to only consume news through the lens of his Twitter account, the Biden administration would seem like a very serious place where very serious people do very serious work. There’s the real task of rebuilding trust in government (“If you’ve worked in government at any level, you know that @fema is an incredible organization,” as he wrote on Jan. 30). And the temperature taking of public sentiment for Biden’s executive orders (they were popular); Biden’s rescue plan (widely popular; even among registered Republicans) and Biden himself (popular!)

Klain’s earliest tweets tried to lower the bar for an administration by focusing on the daunting challenges that lay ahead.

Often, he amplifies news stories shared by reporters. Sometimes, he promotes the tweets of allies who are pushing back on unflattering reports about him. In others, he’ll gently do the flacking himself, dropping reminders that Biden isn’t even halfway to his first 100 days.

It’s all fascinating. And it might be effective.

“A lot of people look back at the Obama administration and see as their key mistake not what their priorities were, or even how they went about them, but how much credit they took for them along the way,” said John Gruber, the technology and design writer at Daring Fireball, who counts himself as a devoted follower of Klain’s tweets. “Not even credit like ‘Hey look at us, we’re awesome,’ but sort of a ‘look at what we’re accomplishing.’ And that’s what I see with Klain’s tweets. They form a sort of blog. And it’s ‘here’s what we did today.’”

While much of the original content feeds off of the work of Biden’s press operation, Klain’s greatest accomplishment on Twitter may be managing to sound like a real person rather than a collection of dry White House talking points.

“He’s got a really good gut for how to authentically use the platform,” said Alex Witt, the audience development director of the Center for American Progress think tank, who’s been in touch with the White House about the progressive social media landscape. “He’s not just putting out press releases.”

Klain’s own colleagues offered positive, if mostly on-message assessments for why he puts so much effort into Twitter: 1) He enjoys it. 2) He’s good at it and can multitask. 3) It’s where reporters congregate. 4) He’s the boss. 5) and “why the f— not?” as one put it.

His is not the only account to push out news. The Biden White House created other Twitter handles for Cabinet secretaries and staffers on the idea that more voices on the platform is better than fewer. But, as another aide put it, “He’s the hype man for the administration.”

It’s a medium that suits his frenetic personality, observed Laurence Tribe, Klain’s former teacher and the Harvard constitutional law scholar.

“Ever since he was my student, he was very adept at thinking through the political, ethical and legal limits of everything and I’m sure he’s figured out an algorithm for himself,” said Tribe, who employs a bit more of a let-er-rip Twitter personality.

Klain follows 311 accounts: Biden administration officials, lawmakers, news outlets, progressive activists and more than 100 reporters, editors, columnists and cable news hosts (including 19 who work at NBC News or MSNBC, to which Klain gave his first interview after being named chief of staff and where he was a frequent guest during the Trump era).

The accounts he follows give a sense of his political sensibility: They include early stars of the progressive blogosphere — Markos Moulitsas, Josh Marshall — as well as the younger “Juicebox Mafia” writers who rose to prominence in Washington a decade ago: Dave Weigel, Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein.

He’s less enmeshed in conservative Twitter, following just a handful of the accounts (Meadows among them), though he once shared work from the Bulwark, the news outlet of the never-Trump cognoscenti.

“Bidenworld sees never-Trumpers/former Republicans as part of the coalition and [cultivates] that audience,” said Tim Miller, a former GOP operative who writes for the site and supported Biden’s campaign. “At least I hope so, maybe he just thinks our material is brilliant hot fire.”

While he follows party leaders such House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, he also tracks the activity of lesser-known backbenchers like Reps. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) and Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa).

What about Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), whose folksy tweets about dead animals and the Windsor Heights Dairy Queen being a “good place for u kno what,” have gone viral? Klain’s not on his radar.

“Sen. Grassley uses Twitter primarily as a megaphone and doesn’t spend much time on what others say on the platform,” a spokesperson deadpanned. “So, he doesn’t have any comment on Mr. Klain’s Twitter usage.”

For others on the Hill, the feed has become a must watch — not just to see if one’s boss is being mentioned, but to get a somewhat less varnished glimpse of the thinking inside the White House. “Honestly, he’s my news feed,” said a Klain admirer on Capitol Hill. “If I want to know what’s happening in the White House or White Houseland, I go to his feed.”

“I wish I was able to manage my time in such a way that could be both one of the most powerful people in the country and be as online as he is,” the Democratic aide added.

A Washington lobbyist confessed that Klain’s tweets have become required reading downtown, as well. “You have to pay attention,” the lobbyist said.

Chris Whipple, whose book “The Gatekeepers” is the definitive work on chief of staffs, said the tweets served to reveal Klain’s “whirling dervish” personality. Besides Nixon’s chief, H.R. Haldeman, no other official in that position has had the time to keep a diary, Whipple said.

That may work for Klain, but “if everybody else in the White House starts doing it, then you’ve got chaos,” Whipple said.

Policing, guns, voting rights: Historic Democratic goals hit Senate skids

House Democrats late Wednesday approved a momentous overhaul of American policing, responding to decades of frustration over racial injustice in law enforcement. But their plan is headed for a roadblock: the U.S. Senate.

Even as Democrats control all of Washington for the first time in a decade, a series of priorities that are hugely important to their liberal base — and to making good on President Joe Biden’s campaign promises — have begun piling up in the Senate. That backlog will grow over the next two weeks as Speaker Nancy Pelosi tees up votes on bills to expand voting rights, enact universal background checks for gun purchases and protect so-called Dreamers.

The prospect of those historic measures sliding into Senate stasis after House passage is infuriating to progressives — particularly on issues like the party’s signature policing bill, which has overwhelming grassroots energy behind it. But with the upper chamber’s legislative filibuster remaining intact, Democrats have no way to get much of their agenda to Biden’s desk without winning at least 10 GOP votes while keeping their 50-member caucus united.

That political reality in the Senate is likely to spur negotiations with the GOP about concessions that would be tough to stomach for many progressive Democrats, including longtime civil rights advocates who invested significant energy in the House’s policing bill. And as a result, pressure is sure to mount on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to nuke the filibuster once and for all.

“To get any other good bills passed, such as police reform, we’re going to need to — in my view — talk about filibuster reform,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who described the previous GOP offer on the issue as “not acceptable.”

The Democrats’ policing measure passed entirely along party lines in the House, though it contains key provisions that both parties rallied behind in the wake of last summer’s racial reckoning.

Schumer told reporters Wednesday that getting the bill to the Senate floor was a “very, very high priority” for Democrats.

“We are not going to settle for some bill that does nothing and is symbolic,” he said. “We will work very, very hard to get it passed. We will have a vote on the floor on it.”

But whatever can pass the Senate on policing is bound to look different from the House’s hard-won legislation. Senators in both parties said this week that they could make a renewed attempt at compromise on the bill’s most prominent — and most popular — measures, such as banning chokeholds or “no-knock” warrants.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who led his chamber’s GOP police reform effort during the last Congress, predicted that the House bill would go nowhere in the Senate, noting “it’s the same one that they passed before.” However, Scott said he’d spoken to his Democratic counterpart, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, in policing talks as recently as last weekend.

“It just depends on their definition of bipartisan,” Scott said, when asked if a compromise was possible. “It depends on whether or not their bill includes demonizing police officers or not.”

Following the House’s passage of the bill, Booker said that he was encouraged by conversations with senators on both sides of the aisle and vowed “to advance policing reform through the Senate.”

Resolving differences between the parties could prove particularly troublesome when it comes to eliminating qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that shields police officers from lawsuits and makes it harder to hold them accountable when a crime is committed on the job.

Underscoring the trouble ahead for the House-passed bill, Senate Republicans this week accused Democrats of blocking reform efforts last year by filibustering the GOP version of the bill. Democrats counter that the previous proposal was inadequate.

And any compromise that amounts to less than the House-passed bill would be a disappointment to the cadre of civil rights groups that have spent years, or even decades, fighting for many of the policy changes in the House policing bill.

Democrats say they’ve seen unparalleled clamor for policing reform from their base, perhaps more than any other single issue in recent years. Groups such as the NAACP, National Urban League and National Action Network are stepping up their pressure on lawmakers, calling for the passage of the House-approved bill and working with allies in Congress.

“We need to center the concerns of people who live every day with the tragic contradictions of our criminal justice system. We need to keep in mind the victims and their families,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock, elected this year as Georgia’s first Black senator. “I think too often in the process of legislation, the urgency and the human side of what’s at stake gets lost. And so I hope to amplify that.”

Several leaders of prominent civil rights organizations said they have been in contact with Congressional Black Caucus members over the last week to reinforce their desire to see this legislation make it to Biden’s desk.

But they also acknowledged that reaching their goal won’t be easy.

“We’re full speed ahead,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and former mayor of New Orleans. Even so, he added, “we’re going to have some work to do” in the Senate.

Morial said he and other civil rights leaders plan to talk with senators who are on the fence about the House policing legislation.

Now that the House has passed a measure “that’s reflective of what we have been advocating for,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, “we will recalibrate and start over” with active outreach to senators.

House-Senate conversations already are unfolding behind the scenes. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), a lead author of the bill, has been privately speaking with Booker and Scott as they attempt to find a path forward this year. (Booker’s office did not provide comment for this story.)

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), a freshman who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester County and made policing a major part of his campaign, said House Democrats will need to keep squeezing their counterparts across the Capitol to finally end policies like qualified immunity.

“We have to work behind the scenes with our colleagues in the Senate, to help them understand how this is better for, not just communities of color and poor communities, but it’s better for the country,” Bowman said. He stressed there’s more to do: “This is the floor, not the ceiling.”

A bipartisan group that included Bass, Scott and Booker made progress toward a compromise last year, though things fell apart as the election neared. Police reform advocates also took hope last year as Republicans like Sens. Mike Braun of Indiana and Rand Paul of Kentucky publicly expressed interest in holding police officers accountable — even endorsing some changes to qualified immunity. But it’s unclear how much that dynamic has changed in a Democratic-controlled Washington.

One thing that’s already shifted is the political spotlight on Schumer, who’s up for reelection next year and has vowed that the Senate will not be a “legislative graveyard” under his leadership. He’s hearing increasingly vocal calls from House Democrats to nix the Senate’s 60-vote threshold — including from two of Pelosi’s top deputies.

Both House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) this week called for changes to the legislative filibuster, citing the fate of the House-passed policing bill as well as its sweeping voting rights bill — both issues that disproportionately affect Black Americans.

The Senate’s tough odds for progressive legislation sparked an emotional recollection from Clyburn Tuesday. Telling reporters of his arrest 60 years ago this week for sitting at a whites-only lunch counter, he vowed that “we are not going to give up on this.”

“Nobody thought that day that one of those little 20-year-olds arrested on that day would be standing here today,” Clyburn said moments after railing against the Senate’s filibuster, which was used in the past to block civil rights legislation.

“We’re not going to just give in to these arcane methods of denying progress,” Clyburn said.

Neera Tanden’s OMB nomination failed. Her fallback plan remains a mystery.

Neera Tanden will play a role in the Biden administration. Exactly what is TBD.

Sources close to Tanden say she is inclined to take a job in the administration — one that doesn’t require Senate confirmation — after her nomination to head the Office of Management and Budget was pulled on Tuesday night after it became clear she didn’t have enough votes. They expect that some sort of announcement will come in the near term. But there is a hurdle: The most logical landing spots for Tanden are occupied and the West Wing is already quite crowded.

Having run the Democratic Party’s top think tank for years, Tanden would be an obvious fit to helm the Domestic Policy Council in the White House. But Susan Rice is in that role. As one White House adviser put it, Rice is “not someone who gives up turf easily.”

A Democrat close to the process also noted: “The irony is [Rice] was put in that role because she probably couldn’t get [Senate] confirmed.”

Health care is where Tanden has made the strongest mark in her career, having served as an adviser to the Health and Human Services secretary during the Obama years. But there’s no expectation that she will go in as a deputy at an agency, and the Covid task force is already stacked with big names far along in their work.

Instead, the expectation among top Democrats is that Tanden will take on a senior adviser role, even though the White House is brimming with such folks: from Steve Ricchetti to Bruce Reed to Anita Dunn. As one Democratic official put it “you make up some job. The question is, does she wanna take it?”

Both Tanden’s allies and those close to the White House believe she will, though neither thought that this was the gig she’d get.

Her failed nomination has drawn questions about the White House’s confirmation strategy. Individuals inside the administration were concerned early on that it would be a difficult fight, owing to Tanden’s partisan reputation.

But a person closely involved with the OMB director deliberations said Klain also recommended many others who have been confirmed or are on track to be confirmed including Rep. Deb Haaland (nominated as Interior secretary), Jennifer Granholm (now confirmed as Energy secretary), and Cecilia Rouse (now confirmed as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers).

Tanden had broad support from Biden’s top advisers including from Biden himself, the person said. She had deep policy experience and had been helpful to the campaign by providing policy support. Her Rolodex included many top Democrats’ personal cell phone numbers which she used to shore up support from the party, including the left-wing, early on.

Transition officials say that she plunged into the outreach strategy, trying to line up the backing of not just senators but a number of outside groups and validators that ranged from AAPI groups, to unions, to former Republican Sen. Jeff Flake. While those groups supported her nomination, officials at some of the groups felt that the effort was disorganized and lacked a real “war room.”

The White House believed that the votes would be there for Tanden to be confirmed, up until Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced his opposition to her nomination. A scramble ensued to not just find a Republican vote, but to ensure that no other caucusing Democrat followed Manchin’s example.

Two such Senators — Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — signaled privately that they would support the nomination. Sanders’ own aides thought their boss was voting “yes” after the confirmation hearings.

According to three sources familiar with the discussions, Sanders let the White House know that he would likely be a “yes” on Tanden. Two of those sources said Sinema had made clear that she would vote yes on Tanden if a Republican senator could be found to support her too. In other words, Sinema would not be the deciding vote.

Sinema’s office declined to comment. Sanders’ office did not return a request for comment. But their public silence during the heat of the confirmation fight did not go unnoticed.

“If they had come out and said we’re with her, they would have put more muscle in trying to get [Sen. Lisa] Murkowski to confirm or maybe another TBD Republican,” said a person close to the White House.

For the White House, the big unknown was Murkowski. The Alaska Republican was the one Republican who had not stated where she stood on Tanden’s nomination to head OMB. She and Tanden met on Monday. And though the two talked about Biden administration policy vis-a-vis Murkowski’s home state of Alaska, Democratic officials stressed that there was never talk of a quid pro quo.

“There was no hint of if you do this, I will do that,” said the aforementioned White House adviser. “She was not in that space. But she had been clear in the White House that there were some things she was looking for with respect to Alaska.”

The conversation did not produce a breakthrough. Murkowski has not said whether she ever made up her mind on Tanden’s nomination. But at the White House, it became evident that there was no path forward. On Tuesday evening, Tanden, fearful that Republicans were — in the words of one confidant — “bleeding [her nomination] slowly,” asked to have her name withdrawn. The president complied.

On Wednesday, Murkowski was asked about her thinking.

“Did I ever make up my mind? I’m only pausing because I’m like: did you read the news? She’s withdrawn,” she replied. “I don’t know why there’s still interest in this story. I think Neera Tanden has been through a lot for several months now and we’re going to move on. In fairness, I’m glad I had an opportunity to talk to her”

Burgess Everett and Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

White House weighs minimum wage negotiations with Republicans

The White House is weighing whether to engage in talks with Republicans on a minimum wage hike once Congress passes its Covid relief bill, two sources with knowledge of their strategic thinking say.

White House aides said they believe there’s room to bring Republicans into the fold because raising the minimum wage is popular across ideological grounds. They pointed to the recent $15-an-hour wage increase passed in Florida, a state that voted for Donald Trump, as evidence that the issue has widespread support.

In a sign that the White House is looking to broaden the coalition behind a wage hike, administration officials reached out to trade groups last week to gauge their willingness to support legislation, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Negotiations with Republicans would be another step entirely. And it would likely frustrate progressives and raise alarms among labor and advocacy groups who are looking to Biden to make good on his promise to deliver a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Progressives argue that a phased-in $15 floor over five years is already a compromise and would likely oppose any deal that would go significantly lower.

“They don’t want to blow up the world politically and pay a huge political cost, but if the politics aligned for a smaller increase, Joe Biden generally wants to get deals done,” said a source with knowledge of the administration’s thinking. The White House is “not doctrinaire on policy grounds about what it is they sign” the source added.

Cedric Richmond, a White House senior adviser, would only say that the administration is “exploring all options,” and that internal deliberations were still in the preliminary stages.

“It’s still early in the game,” Richmond said. “This is not the point where you lay your whole strategy out for the world to see.”

The search for a path to passing a wage hike took on renewed importance this week after the Senate parliamentarian ruled that Democrats and the White House could not do so in the Covid relief bill being considered under reconciliation rules. Democrats are considering trying to pass the measure through reconciliation again, when Congress considers its second such bill in the months ahead. But that would face similar hurdles, not least of which is that several Senate Democrats have said they won’t support an $15-an-hour hike.

Moving a bill through regular order would not involve the parliamentarian. But it would require 60 Senate votes to pass — meaning every Democrat and at least 10 Republicans would have to sign on. And that, said former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a key Biden ally, is where a deal may have to be struck.

“The minimum wage will be raised, it’s just a question of how much,” Reid said. “The House may come up with $15 an hour, but I think when it comes to the Senate one way or another it will be cut back.”

The White House has repeatedly insisted that Biden remains committed to a $15-an-hour minimum wage. And in a meeting with Senate Democrats on Tuesday, the president reiterated his position: “We need to get to $15,” he said. “I fully support $15.”

But the White House has, in the past, telegraphed that a final negotiation could mean they don’t hit that mark. And within Biden’s orbit, there is not a strong desire to use the issue as a battering ram against the opposition.

“There is zero percent chance the White House is going to shove the minimum wage down Republicans’ throats,” a source close to the White House said.

On Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki repeated Biden’s commitment to a $15-an-hour wage. But when asked if the president would negotiate with Republicans, she said, “he’s happy to hear any ideas but I’m not going to negotiate from here obviously.”

Aides insist that talks with Republicans don’t necessarily mean moving off of $15. There are other dimensions that could be negotiated, including extending the period of time over which the wage is raised, redefining which companies are impacted, and including other provisions to help out small businesses that may have to raise wages for their employees.

Republicans have shown some comfort with wage hikes, though not nearly to the same degree as Democrats. Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) proposed a phased-in minimum wage increase to $10-an-hour coupled with an e-verify mandate, requiring proof that employees are legally able to work in the country.

There so far has been no contact between Romney or Cotton and the White House on minimum wage, according to two sources familiar with the matter. A Senate GOP aide said there are Republicans who are willing to have conversations about the wage floor, but that the e-verify mandate is likely a sticking point.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, argued that Biden could use the support he’s built around the Covid relief package to push lawmakers to support a $15 wage floor: He has “got all this support back in their home districts and states.” Nelson expected a $15 wage hike to be part of discussions around a jobs and infrastructure package that the White House is expected to focus on in the coming months. And she argued that Biden should pressure Republicans by building support for a wage hike with governors and mayors.

“This is something that Biden understands,” said Nelson, “that you can’t write people off because when you write people off, you are excusing them and you’re not holding them accountable.”

Caitlin Oprysko,Theodoric Meyer and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

Cuomo harassment scandal poses fresh #MeToo test for Democrats

“Disturbing.” “Serious.” “Troubling.” Senate Democrats use those words to describe the three allegations of sexual harassment against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

But calling for his resignation is another matter entirely.

Cuomo’s own party, outside of New York politicos, is largely staying out of the controversy as Democrats say that they are waiting for the New York attorney general to complete her investigation into his actions. While Cuomo is a prominent Democratic official, senators see little reason to weigh in on a scandal that doesn’t touch one of their own.

Of any Democratic senator asked about the issue, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) went the furthest. Although she put trust in the attorney general’s investigation, she suggested that “there may come a tipping point with regard to Gov. Cuomo where he should resign.”

The #MeToo movement that erupted into a nationwide confrontation of sexual harassment in 2017, fueled in part by Donald Trump’s election, ended the careers of members of Congress in both parties. Perhaps no one became a bigger symbol of the Democratic Party’s attempt to enact a political zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment than Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who resigned after seven women accused him of touching them inappropriately. But senators view the allegations against Cuomo differently than those against Franken, who was a colleague.

While Cuomo is well-known and could run for higher office, senators are largely leaving it up to New York state officials to decide the governor’s political fate.

“I’m glad there’s going to be a very rigorous investigation by the attorney general. The most important thing is that the women be heard and taken seriously,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). As to whether Cuomo should step down, she said: “At this point I think people in New York need to decide that.”

Democrats also decried allegations of sexual assault against Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation fight, but that situation was even more distinct: Kavanaugh was a nominee that they had an obligation to vet.

“One of the baselines is that claims like this should be investigated. You now have an investigation in New York by the attorney general, and I assume she will make recommendations,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “So the difference is — Al never got that.”

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) predicted Cuomo was a “goner,” but compared the governor’s situation to Franken’s this way: “The Senate polices its own.”

New York’s two Democratic senators, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, have strongly endorsed the attorney general’s investigation into Cuomo. Although Cuomo said he plans to cooperate with the investigation and apologized for making the women uncomfortable, the governor made clear Wednesday that he has no intention of resigning. In addition to sexual harassment allegations, Cuomo also faces an investigation into his handling of nursing home deaths during the pandemic.

So far, Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) is the only member of the state’s delegation to call for Cuomo’s resignation. Rice urged Franken to step down during his own #MeToo flap in 2017 days before Gillibrand became the first senator to call on her colleague to leave office.

Other members, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.), are waiting for the investigation to play out. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) told reporters that she is “a really big fan of due process,” while Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) described the issue as a “very, very serious thing.”

The allegations against Cuomo began last week, when his former aide, Lindsey Boylan, wrote an essay that accused the governor of asking her to play strip poker and of forcibly kissing her on the lips. Days later, a second former aide, Charlotte Bennett, said that Cuomo asked her about her sex life, including whether she’d consider having sex with older men. A third woman, Anna Ruch, came forward this week and said Cuomo asked her if he could kiss her at a wedding reception.

“Any public official has to realize that what they say in the workplace is subject to scrutiny,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who declined to weigh in on Cuomo’s future. “In these instances, these women are having a difficult time and are under a lot of pressure coming forward. And they’ve got to be heard. It’s more than just a review of actions. Things that you say are relevant.”

Some in the GOP see a double standard in Democrats’ treatment of Cuomo compared with other high-profile misconduct allegations, although Trump faced more than 20 allegations of sexual harassment and assault, which Republicans rarely addressed. The former president has denied any wrongdoing.

Even so, outside of Schumer and Gilibrand, several Senate Democrats said that they are not paying much attention to the Cuomo controversy and showed little eagerness to talk about it.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said he did not live in New York and has “zero thoughts.” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) said she is focused on President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief plan. When asked for comment, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he had the “the same one everyone else is making: complete the investigation.”

One senator, addressing the thorny topic on condition of anonymity, said that Democrats have been reluctant to publicly call on Cuomo to resign despite having no tolerance for sexual harassment allegations because it’s a controversy in another state. Constituents don’t want senators meddling in other states’ business, the senator added.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who berated Democrats for their treatment of Kavanaugh during his confirmation, said that his colleagues are “wrapped around the axle.”

“They were loud, vocal, ‘Kavanaugh needs to go’,” Graham said. “Now they got somebody, a prominent Democrat, and they’re figuring out how to handle it. Here’s my advice: Handle them all the same. That way you don’t have to worry about it.”

Anna Gronewold contributed to this report.

Cuomo: ‘I am not going to resign’

An emotional Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday that he would not step down in the face of multiple accusations of sexual harassment.

“I am not going to resign,” Cuomo said in his first public appearance since the accusations surfaced last week. His comments came at the end of a briefing in Albany devoted to an update on Covid-19 across the state.

While the governor repeatedly expressed contrition, he made it clear that he has no intention to step aside and expects an investigation by state Attorney General Tish James will ultimately vindicate him.

“I do not believe I have ever done anything in my public career that I am ashamed of,” he said.

Reporters called on to question him via Zoom did not ask if he still plans to run for a fourth term next year. The governor’s office controls who is selected in the virtual format, and none of the members of the Albany press corps who cover Cuomo daily was among the handful selected Wednesday.

Cuomo, a Democrat rounding out his third term, is facing growing calls for his resignation after former staffer Lindsey Boylan detailed allegations of sexual harassment against him last Wednesday. Two more women — former aide Charlotte Bennett and Anna Ruch, who met Cuomo for the first time at a wedding — have since accused the governor of making unwanted advances. The state Senate’s majority leader and a fellow Democrat, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, said later on Wednesday that “if the investigation shows something inappropriate did happen, I think he would have to resign.”

The governor said he fully supports “a woman’s right to come forward,” and apologized for acting “in a way that made people feel uncomfortable.” He said state Attorney General Tish James should complete her investigation into the allegations.

“This is what I want you to know and I want you to know this from me directly: I never touched anyone inappropriately,” he said “I never knew at the time that I was making anyone feel uncomfortable … And, I certainly never, ever meant to offend anyone or hurt anyone. Or cause anyone any pain.

“I ask the people of this state to wait for the facts from the attorney general’s report before forming an opinion.”

The most recent of the three women to come forward, Ruch, alleged that Cuomo, whom she did not know beforehand, made unwanted advances toward her at a wedding reception in 2019 and sought to kiss her after she removed his hand from her back. The New York Times published a photo of Cuomo with his hands around her face, capturing the episode.

At no point did Cuomo attempt to refute the specifics of any of the allegations against him, other than to deny any malign intent, and instead said his actions were out of step with evolving social norms. He promised to change his behavior in light of the women’s experiences.

“You can go find hundreds of pictures of me kissing people. Men, women; it is my usual and customary way of greeting,” he said. “However, what I also understand is it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter my intent. What matters is if it anybody was offended by it.”

Debra Katz, an attorney who is representing Cuomo’s second accuser, Bennett, blasted Cuomo’s comments as being “full of falsehoods and inaccurate information” contradicting their accounts. Bennett has said Cuomo repeatedly asked her intrusive personal questions, including whether she “had ever been with an older man.”

“We are confident that they made him aware of her complaint and we fully expect that the Attorney General’s investigation will demonstrate that Cuomo administration officials failed to act on Ms. Bennett’s serious allegations or to ensure that corrective measures were taken, in violation of their legal requirements,” Katz said in a statement.

Cuomo was out of the public eye for nearly a week before Wednesday’s appearance from the state Capitol, communicating through carefully prepared statements and issuing press releases on unrelated matters. His absence has put top Democrats in New York and Washington on the defensive during the intervening days. State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said on Wednesday afternoon that there is “just no place for some of the things he is apologizing for.”

“If we come to the point where the investigation shows that there was inappropriate touching and so on and so forth, I think it would be very clear that he would have to walk away,” Stewart-Cousins said on CNN. “He’s saying that nothing inappropriate happened. If the investigation shows that something inappropriate did happen, I think he would have to resign.”

In response to a reporter’s question, Cuomo also said he has taken the state-mandated sexual harassment prevention training but did not specify when.

At least a half-dozen staff members have begun to leave as Cuomo’s troubles mount, including several top aides. Gareth Rhodes, a senior adviser to the governor and a familiar face in his press briefings, confirmed to POLITICO that he has left for his previous position at the Department of Financial Services. First deputy press secretary Will Burns also told the governor’s office that he is leaving.

Asked about the troubles surrounding her boss, Cuomo’s highest-ranking aide, Melissa DeRosa, echoed the governor in asking the public to withhold judgment until the conclusion of the attorney general’s investigation.

“I am incredibly proud of the work that this administration has done to further women’s rights, to expand protections for women in the workplace, out of the workplace, maternal health, reproductive health, the list goes on and on and on,” she said. “I don’t think this diminishes any of that.”

Legislative leaders announced a plan Tuesday to weaken enhanced emergency powers granted to Cuomo at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic last year. Republicans and even some Democrats have criticized the agreement, arguing that it doesn’t go far enough.

And although New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and others have questioned Cuomo’s ability to lead amid the scandals, Cuomo focused most of his briefing on the state’s pandemic response.

He touted the state’s reopening plans, travel restriction changes, new gathering limits and vaccination rollout, emphasizing positive developments in the year-long pandemic.

The governor even returned to the topic to close out Wednesday’s briefing after the round of questions focused primarily on the sexual harassment scandal.

“Have a good day. Covid numbers are good. Still be smart. Thank you,” Cuomo said.

Some key aides jump ship as Cuomo scandals spiral

ALBANY, N.Y. — At least two top aides to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo are leaving his office as the governor faces allegations of sexual harassment from former aides and a federal probe into his administration’s handling of nursing home deaths.

Gareth Rhodes, a senior adviser who became a familiar face at Cuomo’s briefings over the past year and has been a prominent figure in the state’s vaccination rollout, confirmed his departure in a statement to POLITICO.

“Last week as I approached one year since moving to Albany to join the NYS Covid task force, I decided it was time, given the progress of the vaccination program and continued decline of Covid numbers, to return to my previous role at the Department of Financial Services and I informed the Governor’s senior staff at the time,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes has been in the Cuomo administration in various capacities since 2011. Prior to joining Cuomo’s Covid-19 task force last year, he was special counsel to the superintendent of the New York State Department of Financial Services in New York and Albany.

First deputy press secretary Will Burns, who has been with the administration for about three years, also told the governor’s office on Tuesday he would leave the executive chamber.

Those departures are just two of at least six that have been submitted among executive chamber staff within the past week, some of which were in the works before the allegations against the governor emerged last week, according two people familiar the moves. Those resignations also foreshadow more staff who might jump ship as loyalists reconcile the behavior that has been reported by their colleagues and peers with the governor they thought they knew.

Rhodes’ wife, Alexa Kissinger, on Monday offered public support for Anna Ruch — a woman who detailed an uncomfortable interaction with Cuomo that was caught on camera — in a post on Twitter, and also shared criticism of the governor’s action. It’s a sharp turn; Cuomo officiated Kissinger and Rhodes’ wedding in 2019.

Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to the governor, said in a statement that Rhodes’ work on Covid-19 for the governor was always intended to have an end date.

“Gareth graciously agreed to temporarily put aside his duties at the Department of Financial Services and join the Task Force, in which he worked night and day for a year, and is now returning to his normal duties in the administration,” Azzopardi said. “Will informed us he intends to attend law school next year and is seeking another position in the administration while he prepares for the LSATs.”

Current and former aides privately say they are going through some form of personal crisis as the current scandals threaten to mar the legacy Cuomo has built over the past decade as governor.

“I’m furious with the man,” said one former Cuomo aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We’re afraid this is going to undo 12 years of really good work. Love him or hate him, New York is a different state under Andrew.”

Many say they justified 80-hour workweeks and a no-excuses office environment with legitimate achievements they saw from their boss. Cuomo’s legacy includes marriage equality, a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, strict gun control, expanding women’s reproductive health, building light-up bridges and updating airports. But that’s not what people will remember, said another former executive chamber employee.

“I know that there are so many people who just killed themselves for this office to get things done,” the former employee said. “It’s just like a slap in the face.”

“I gave my heart and soul to the chamber and the state, and I worked for pennies,” they added. “It was a very tough place to work and I went through it. I was proud of what I was able to accomplish in spite of all the circumstances. This is making me question people who were like family to me.”

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