The Insiders: The 3 Men at the Core of Biden’s Brain Trust

Katie Rogers and Michael D. Shear
The New York Times
In tonight’s show, Ben Harvey explains why the British PM’s drenching could be one of the worst political press conferences of all time and asks why NOBODY brought Rishi Sunak an umbrella!

Multiple times each day, President Joe Biden dials up Mike Donilon, a close adviser since the 1980s, to chew on the latest polls and headlines.

“What’s your instinct? What do you think?” Biden will ask Donilon, who recently left the White House for the campaign’s Delaware headquarters.

Once a week, Biden summons Ron Klain, his former chief of staff, to workshop the best attacks to use against former President Donald Trump as the presidential debate draws closer.

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When he leaves for Delaware on weekends, Biden seeks out Ted Kaufman, a confidant who represents the president’s ties to the state that introduced him to the national stage more than a half-century ago. It was Kaufman who was brutally direct with Biden when a plagiarism scandal threatened his first campaign for president in 1987.

“There’s only one way to stop the sharks,” Kaufman told him at the time, “and that’s pull out.” Biden did.

Interviews with dozens of people close to the president reveal a truth at the heart of Biden’s political life: While he is surrounded by a diverse and multigenerational crowd of campaign operatives, policy experts and Cabinet secretaries, he reserves his full trust for a small circle of insiders who are the definition of old school.

The three are at the center of the Biden world, part of an echo chamber where dissent is rare. In important moments, each has told the president news he did not want to hear, although not one of them said no when the president was considering whether to run for a second term. They are also decades older than the young voters who could decide the election, which worries many of the president’s allies. Klain is the youngest at 62. Donilon is 65. Kaufman is 85, four years older than Biden.

“They not only have Biden’s trust, but they have the trust of everyone who matters most to him,” meaning the president’s family members and particularly Jill Biden, the first lady, said Michael LaRosa, a former East Wing press secretary and special assistant to the president.

Klain, the president’s whisperer with progressives and viewed as an expert at wielding the levers of government, managed the 2022 nomination of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. Donilon, said to channel Biden’s voice as well as the president himself, is the architect of the campaign’s theme that democracy is at stake if Trump wins. Kaufman is basically kin: In 1972, he was standing with Biden’s family at the Hotel du Pont on the night of his first Senate victory.

All three declined to comment for this article.

The Strategist

At the end of April, Klain confidently told a cable TV host, “I think there will be debates.” Two weeks later, the president formally challenged Trump to two debates, setting out conditions that precisely matched the ones Klain had outlined publicly on the MSNBC program. It was no coincidence.

Klain no longer occupies the big office down the hall from the Oval. But the two men continue to talk nearly every day. The calls and visits are, more often than not, instigated by the president, who leans on Klain for short-term tactical advice and longer-term strategy.

Last month, Klain said he would take time off from his job as chief legal officer at Airbnb to help prepare Biden for the two debates with Trump. Several Biden advisers said that Klain is able to redirect Biden when he meanders, a prized skill when the work involves cutting the loquacious president’s remarks into debate-size sound bites.

Ron Klain speaks to reporters on his last day as the White House chief of staffing 2023.
Ron Klain speaks to reporters on his last day as the White House chief of staffing 2023. Credit: Sarah Silbiger/NYT

In debate preparations, Klain is known to replay videotapes of Biden’s past debates, focusing on slip-ups or responses that ran on for too long. Biden, who is not used to taking blunt criticism from anyone, then incorporates Klain’s feedback into his next practice round, according to a longtime Democratic operative who has seen the pair work together.

Klain’s presence in the president’s orbit is a testament to their relationship — not quite son and father, but more than staffer and boss. Born and raised in Indianapolis, Klain was still a law student at Harvard when he first worked for Biden in the Senate 38 years ago, eventually rising to become chief counsel on Biden’s Judiciary Committee. Long hours in the West Wing, an ailing mother and too many greasy hamburgers from the Navy mess forced Klain to make a tearful exit from his chief of staff role in early 2023.

The Guru

It often falls to Donilon to deliver the news of polls that show the president struggling, or more recent ones that suggest some improvement. And it is Donilon — more than anyone else — who helps Biden frame his actions in a way that supports the long-standing Biden narrative.

In 2020, he devised the winning strategy for the president’s campaign against Trump: focus on the threat to democracy, he told Biden.

“In my view, every presidential campaign is won or lost with the very first decision you make, which is, what is it about?” Donilon said at a forum at the Harvard Kennedy School after the election. “Why are you doing it? And the problem that most campaigns have is they never reach, with any clarity, an answer to that question.”

The three longtime advisers may be of a generation long before social media, but Democrats say Biden’s campaign runs like a sophisticated presidential reelection machine should: Operatives pore over polling and voter micro-data, target crucial communities in the swing states and aggressively use social media to reintroduce Biden to younger Americans.

Yet Donilon is consulted on virtually every major decision and may be the closest thing that Biden has to an alter ego — someone who can divine what the president is thinking and translate it into a political message. It was Donilon who guided Biden through his public response after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in 2022. Donilon, aware that the Irish Catholic president was uncomfortable talking about abortion, framed the issue in Biden’s speeches as a matter of personal freedom and privacy.

His value, people who know Biden say, is understanding how the president would want to address an issue before it ever reaches the Oval Office.

The Confidant

Starting in the earliest days of Biden’s political career, Kaufman made appearances including a seemingly endless string of local Democratic fundraisers around the country. Kaufman, who was Biden’s longtime Senate chief of staff, is ever-present now.

When Biden took the Amtrak back and forth from Washington to his home in Wilmington, Delaware, every day, Kaufman was often in the seat next to him. And Kaufman filled in as Delaware’s senator when Biden became vice president.

He has been entrusted with some of the most sensitive decisions Biden has made over the course of his career. In 1986, it was Kaufman who helped him quietly construct the blueprint for his first run for the presidency.

“Joe has long since said that Ted Kaufman is the wisest man he’s ever known,” Valerie Biden Owens, the president’s sister, wrote in her memoir. “Ted is his true north.”

Sen. Ted Kaufman in his office at the Russell Senate Office Building in 2009.
Sen. Ted Kaufman in his office at the Russell Senate Office Building in 2009. Credit: LUKE SHARRETT/NYT

Kate Bedingfield, who was a top communications adviser for Biden for years and is now a political commentator on CNN, said the three men are uniquely able to keep “the essence of Joe Biden” at the center of everything.

“Everyone understands and appreciates that when they speak for the president, they are channeling his voice in full,” she said. “Because very few people without the last name Biden know him better than those three.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2024 The New York Times Company

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