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Exasperation and dysfunction: Inside Kamala Harris' frustrating start as vice president

(CNN) Worn out by what they see as entrenched dysfunction and lack of focus, key West Wing aides have largely thrown up their hands at Vice President Kamala Harris and her staff -- deciding there simply isn't time to deal with them right now, especially at a moment when President Joe Biden faces quickly multiplying legislative and political concerns.

The exasperation runs both ways. Interviews with nearly three dozen former and current Harris aides, administration officials, Democratic operatives, donors and outside advisers -- who spoke extensively to CNN -- reveal a complex reality inside the White House. Many in the vice president's circle fume that she's not being adequately prepared or positioned, and instead is being sidelined. The vice president herself has told several confidants she feels constrained in what she's able to do politically. And those around her remain wary of even hinting at future political ambitions, with Biden's team highly attuned to signs of disloyalty, particularly from the vice president.

She's a heartbeat away from the presidency now. She could be just a year away from launching a presidential campaign of her own, given doubts throughout the political world that Biden will actually go through with a reelection bid in 2024, something he's pledged to do publicly and privately. Or she'll be a critical validator in three years for a President trying to get the country to reelect him to serve until he's 86.

Few of the insiders who spoke with CNN think she's being well-prepared for whichever role it will be. Harris is struggling with a rocky relationship with some parts of the White House, while long-time supporters feel abandoned and see no coherent public sense of what she's done or been trying to do as vice president. Being the first woman, and first woman of color, in national elected office is historic but has also come with outsized scrutiny and no forgiveness for even small errors, as she'll often point out.

Defenders and people who care for Harris are getting frantic. When they're annoyed, some pass around a recent Onion story mocking her lack of more substantive work, one with the headline, "White House Urges Kamala Harris To Sit At Computer All Day In Case Emails Come Through." When they're depressed, they bat down the Aaron Sorkin-style rumor that Biden might try to replace her by nominating her to a Supreme Court vacancy. That chatter has already reached top levels of the Biden orbit, according to one person who's heard it.

She's perceived to be in such a weak position that top Democrats in and outside of Washington have begun to speculate privately, asking each other why the White House has allowed her to become so hobbled in the public consciousness, at least as they see it.

"She's very honored and very proud to be vice president of the United States. Her job as the No. 2 is to be helpful and supportive to the President and to take on work that he asks her to take on," said Eleni Kounalakis, the lieutenant governor of California and a longtime friend. Kounalakis spoke with the vice president last Monday morning before Harris departed for a diplomatic mission to France.

"It is natural that those of us who know her know how much more helpful she can be than she is currently being asked to be," Kounalakis said. "That's where the frustration is coming from."

An incumbent vice president should be a shoo-in the next time the party's presidential nomination is open. But guessing who might launch a theoretical primary challenge to Harris has become an ongoing insider parlor game. Other politicians with their own presidential ambitions have started privately acknowledging that they are trying to figure out how to quietly lay the groundwork to run if and when Harris falters, as they think she might.

The reality is more complex and looks different to people more familiar with how any White House actually works. Harris is the first vice president in decades to come into office with less Washington experience than the president, and finding her footing was always going to be hard. Presidents and vice presidents and their staffs often clash. Barack Obama's West Wing tended to be dismissive of Biden's staffers (a number of whom are now with him in the West Wing), and Biden himself had a number of stumbles early in that job. Republicans and right-wing media turned Harris into a political target from the moment she was picked for the ticket. And implicit racism and sexism have been constant.

It's a conundrum unique to her. People are expecting their historic vice president to make history every day when in fact she's trying to carry the duties of a secondary role. Harris is being judged not just by how she's doing in the traditional duties of a vice president, said Minyon Moore, a longtime Democratic operative who has become Harris' most important outside adviser. "It's a little more subliminal, but it's real," Moore said. "'What is her playbook in history?'"

Harris has emerged as a "quiet force" in the administration, Moore said, and she focuses attention on different issues sometimes just by her very presence in the room.

Moore said Harris' approach is to be constantly asking, "Should we be doing more on an issue? Are we communicating with the people whose lives are impacted? Are we missing any key constituency groups?"

But, with many sources speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the situation more frankly, they all tell roughly the same story: Harris' staff has repeatedly failed her and left her exposed, and family members have often had an informal say within her office. Even some who have been asked for advice lament Harris' overly cautious tendencies and staff problems, which have been a feature of every office she's held, from San Francisco district attorney to US Senate.

'A central component' sometimes forgotten

Biden aimed to model his relationship with Harris on his own vice presidency and directed aides early in his presidency to employ her in a similar fashion. He arranged weekly lunches, just as he'd held with Obama, and invited Harris to join him for his morning classified intelligence briefing. Harris, meanwhile, threw herself into proving her commitment to the President and the administration, using his relationship with Obama as her guide.

Even then, some White House aides questioned whether Biden's experience as vice president would easily translate to someone with far different qualifications and skills -- and to a much different moment.

After Harris became known in the first few months for often standing by Biden's side in the frame as he made big speeches, even after she'd introduced him herself, the West Wing appears to have overcorrected so she has been with the President noticeably less.

Not just in public. A week and a half ago, as Biden and his aides and multiple outside allies rattled through calls all day trying to lock down wavering lawmakers ahead of the House infrastructure vote, Harris spent the afternoon touring a NASA space flight center in suburban Maryland. "We weren't going to cancel her schedule just because of the House's foolishness," a Harris aide explained.

That night, Harris was part of the small group Biden invited upstairs to the White House residence for the war room making the last hours of calls. The next morning, celebrating the bill's passage, Biden singled her out, saying, "A lot of this has to do with this lady right here, the vice president."

But that's not exactly how things had played out. While she had attended some meetings Biden hosted with key lawmakers, there were many more that she didn't attend -- to the point that it was noteworthy that she made an unscheduled drop-by one session in the final stretch. Harris had only been in Washington four years, and to the White House just one time before being sworn in as vice president. Missing out on those main meetings deprived her of an important aspect of presidential apprenticeship from a self-styled master of how to actually get deals through Congress.

Aides to the vice president point to 150 "engagements" with members of the House and Senate since March, accounting for every conversation she had with lawmakers about the subject of infrastructure. They call this "quiet Hill diplomacy," and it includes inviting lawmakers to join her when she's visiting their home states or holding events in Washington, many of which have touted actual elements of the infrastructure bill beyond the price tag. Harris has helped to detect concerns from outside the Beltway and has attempted to give political cover to members worried about losing their seats after voting for the legislation.

"It's never just a roundtable. There's always a larger strategic purpose," Harris spokeswoman Symone Sanders said.

One of those roundtables was in late September, when Harris invited Rep. Nanette Barragán, a California Democrat, to co-host a discussion with Latina business leaders in the vice president's ceremonial office. The congresswoman was hesitant to support all of the compromises on progressive initiatives in the infrastructure bill. The West Wing asked Harris to stress to Barragán how much her vote was needed, and she did.

Several aides to the vice president highlighted this as a key example of her under-the-radar influence. Barragán ultimately voted yes -- but a person who discussed the decision with the congresswoman said that, while she appreciated hearing from the vice president, what really swayed her was the Congressional Progressive Caucus deciding to support the bill.

Harris' aides cite how much of what's in the infrastructure bill connects back to legislation she worked on while in the Senate, including accessible broadband, wildfire defense, water clean-up and clean energy school buses. And in 30 events over seven months touting the bill in local media markets, they believe she's played an integral role in selling the administration's efforts.

Perhaps, one Harris aide offered, the issue is that some in the West Wing don't have constant knowledge of what the vice president's team is doing. "We feel like a central component of the overall effort," another said.

A leader 'not being put in positions to lead'

Harris has also complained to confidants about not being a greater part of the President's approach to the Afghanistan withdrawal -- despite telling CNN at the time she was the last one in the room when he made the decision -- leaving her without more to draw on when she defended him publicly.

When Biden picked Harris as his running mate, he was essentially anointing her as the future of the Democratic Party. Now many of those close to her feel like he's shirking his political duties to promote her, and essentially setting her up to fail. Her fans are panicked, watching her poll numbers sink even lower than Biden's, worrying that even the base Democratic vote is starting to give up on her.

"Kamala Harris is a leader but is not being put in positions to lead. That doesn't make sense. We need to be thinking long term, and we need to be doing what's best for the party," said a top donor to Biden and other Democrats, imagining how to make the case directly to the President. "You should be putting her in positions to succeed, as opposed to putting weights on her. If you did give her the ability to step up and help her lead, it would strengthen you and strengthen the party."

On the one issue Harris actually asked to be assigned -- voting rights -- progress has been slow in part because Biden is focused on passing his own domestic agenda, even though Harris has said privately the filibuster must be scaled back if real progress can be achieved. Biden has said as much publicly now too.

And though Harris has told confidants that she has been enjoying a good working dynamic directly with Biden, those who work for them describe their relationship in terms of settling into an exhausted stalemate.

Suspicion has sprouted out of the bitterness. Last month, White House aides leapt to the defense of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who was being hammered with outrage by Fox News host Tucker Carlson and like-minded online pundits for taking paternity leave after the adoption of his twins in September. Harris loyalists tell CNN they see in that yet another example of an unfair standard at play, wondering why she didn't get similar cover any of the times she's been attacked by the right.

"It's hard to miss the specific energy that the White House brings to defend a White man, knowing that Kamala Harris has spent almost a year taking a lot of the hits that the West Wing didn't want to take themselves," said a former Harris aide, reflecting conversations last month among several former aides and current allies.

Buttigieg, of course, isn't just a former 2020 Democratic primary rival; to many party insiders and suspicious Harris supporters, he is a likely challenger for the next open Democratic presidential nomination, whether that comes in 2024 or 2028.

White House aides say they weren't pitting one against the other. The difference in the responses, those aides think, was that Buttigieg hadn't done anything wrong by taking time to be with his new children. Buttigieg's leave was a conveniently timed reminder that Biden is pushing for a national paid leave law to be part of his social safety net package.

That's different from when Harris has created problems for herself, White House aides believe, such as when she didn't push back on a student who accused Israel of "ethnic genocide." West Wing aides weren't going to clean up after that. But even when Harris has faced her own manufactured outrage from the right, like when an innocuous tweet about enjoying the long Memorial Day weekend was said to be her insulting dead veterans, White House aides also remained virtually silent.

New tensions keep piling on old tensions

The list of complaints between the West Wing and the vice president's office keeps growing, even stemming from Harris' first assignment from Biden this spring. The situation has become a back and forth of irritations -- some real, some perceived.

Harris' team was mad Biden had assigned her to handle diplomatic relations with the Northern Triangle nations, in hopes of addressing the root causes of migration to the US, but gave her no role on the southern border itself. That become the most visible crisis in the early days of Biden's presidency as unaccompanied minors overwhelmed federal government resources. It seemed like an all-around politically losing assignment even though Biden had seen it as a sign of respect because it was the same job Obama had given him as vice president.

As CNN has previously reported, Harris herself has said she didn't want to be assigned to manage the border, aware that it was a no-win political situation that would only sandbag her in the future. But Biden's team was annoyed that Harris fumbled answers about the border, including when she gave an awkward, laughing response about not visiting it during a spring interview with NBC's Lester Holt.

As some around Harris see it, the White House failed to come to her defense. That was especially galling since they had given her the unpleasant task on her first foreign trip of carrying the administration's harsh "do not come" policy, according to one source familiar with the workings of the office.

A number of West Wing aides were mad when, a few weeks later, she made a sudden trip to the border after her staff gave only a few days warning to the White House, particularly after White House aides had taken time to knock down the idea that she should go as half-baked Republican spin. But this was in part a misunderstanding: White House chief of staff Ron Klain and a small circle of West Wing aides had known about the trip far in advance but had been careful not to spread the word to avoid leaks.

West Wing makes clear they aren't coming to the rescue

Biden aides have repeatedly told Harris aides that they'd love to have her doing more and asked the vice president's office to come up with plans for how to get her involved, according to people familiar with the conversations. Though the staffs are on multiple calls per week, West Wing aides are often left wondering why there's not more follow through.

Aware of her stumbles and the ticking political clock, Harris' chief of staff, Tina Flournoy, went to Klain over the summer: They were drowning; they needed more help.

Klain is known as a Harris defender in the West Wing and does a weekly one-on-one meeting with her in her West Wing office to help her strategize. As a former chief of staff to two vice presidents, Klain knows the dynamics well. Talking with Flournoy about the staff, Klain said the vice president's office budget was separate, and advised her to think creatively about drawing on other resources in the office and reassigning staff.

Klain, in a statement provided to CNN, downplayed any criticism of the vice president, saying Harris and her team "are off to the fastest and strongest start of any Vice President I have seen." Citing a range of work from stressing Covid-19 vaccine equity to meeting with many foreign leaders, Klain added, "Anyone who has the honor of working closely with the Vice President, knows how her talents and determination have made a big difference in this Administration."

Harris' aides point out that Biden was never subjected to the kind of attacks she regularly endures -- or to a toxic social media culture. In one recent example, a Republican super PAC tweeted a video inventing a claim that Harris spoke with a "fake French accent" at a stop during her trip to Paris, which was then picked up in some news outlets.

There have been some changes in the vice president's office to address those concerns. Two new hires were made in September to help with long-term planning and communications. That has helped improve relations with the West Wing, while Flournoy was pointed to the Democratic National Committee for backup.

The DNC hired a contract consultant in part to help with the Harris portfolio. That has not been going well either, according to people familiar, with Harris' staff usually only reaching out to ask for buffering tweets after problems or negative stories arise, rather than being more proactive. Meanwhile, Flournoy has been turned down by several others who've been unwilling to work in the office, and several people currently on staff have started to reach out to contacts to say they're looking to leave, according to sources who've gotten the calls.

Paying a price for loyalty to Biden

The vice president's office is dismissive of many of these concerns. Sanders, in a statement provided to CNN, pointed to the successes of the recent trip to Paris -- a priority mission on which Biden dispatched Harris to smooth over bruised diplomatic relations.

"It is unfortunate that after a productive trip to France in which we reaffirmed our relationship with America's oldest ally and demonstrated U.S. leadership on the world stage, and following passage of a historic, bipartisan infrastructure bill that will create jobs and strengthen our communities, some in the media are focused on gossip - not on the results that the President and the Vice President have delivered."

But many friends and supporters of Harris, as well as some on staff and in the kitchen cabinet of experienced Democratic advisers, feel like she's caught in a sort of political mess-up merry-go-round. They blame reporters they see as chasing incessantly negative stories and playing into undeniable structural issues of race and gender.

The vice president is often on guard for those double standards herself, but the concern is high enough that an informal network of outside advisers, many of whom are veterans of Hillary Clinton's campaigns, has come together to both point out inadvertent bias in Harris coverage and attempt to better amplify the work Harris is doing.

"She's not only the first woman vice president, but the first woman of color. This is a moment that has to succeed, otherwise we are fearful that this could set us back as women for a long time," said one outside adviser.

Top aides say privately they have come to regret that Harris didn't ask for more well-defined assignments coming into the administration, which would have allowed her to distinguish herself, but the vice president herself has been reluctant to make demands for any at this point, feeling that would look disloyal to Biden.

"They're consistently sending her out there on losing issues in the wrong situations for her skill set," said a former high-level Harris aide.

Then there's the frequent complaint of a lack of follow through from the vice president's office, such as on the southern border.

When Fernando García, executive director of Border Network for Human Rights, met with Harris during her visit to El Paso, Texas, this summer, he was optimistic about her potential influence on immigration policy. But months later, García says she "disappeared."

"We haven't heard any substantive messaging push for better immigration policies," he told CNN. "We haven't seen her leadership."

Harris loyalists themselves worry that she'll pay the price for her own loyalty to the President and her willingness to take on what they view as thankless assignments.

A sole focus on the President

Biden's aides have made clear that they are focused on promoting and protecting him, especially since it's his approval rating that will likely define the 2022 midterms and his promised run for reelection in 2024.

Harris' team has argued over whether she is going too far in subsuming herself to Biden -- a back and forth that dates to the transition, when Harris was pushed to turn over the email list from her campaign and super PAC to the DNC.

This was a good idea, some argued, because it would show Harris being a team player and help raise tens of millions for the DNC. Others pushed back, saying turning over the list would mean losing control of and access to it, which could be debilitating if Harris ends up facing a primary fight for the presidential nomination, as many expect she would.

Flournoy ended the dispute in favor of turning it over. They were all on the same team, she said on a phone call with lawyers, explaining the decision.

But months later, that email list still hasn't arrived at the DNC. Harris aides have been told that the transfer has been held up by a complaint about the Biden campaign lodged with the Federal Election Commission.

As the vice president's chief of staff, Harris loyalist believe, Flournoy should be prioritizing Harris' interests over those of the White House.

"If someone is accusing me of being loyal to Joe Biden, I'll take that. If someone is accusing me of being disloyal to Kamala Harris, I won't take that," Flournoy said. "She doesn't believe there is a conflict between being loyal to her and being loyal to Joe Biden."

Several Biden campaign aides spoke of putting "a blanket" around Harris after she was picked as the running mate last year, and advised against bringing on staff from her presidential campaign, though the final decisions around hires and structure were left at her discretion. That's left her with just a handful of current aides who knew her before she was vice president-elect, and they don't know her well. Feeding dissension internally, many suspect each other of putting their own career interests ahead of hers, or of performing to try to build their relationships with her on the fly.

Former aides have tried to offer advice to the current crew, urging them to get the vice president away from scripted events behind podiums. They say she often goes down her own rabbit holes preparing for those events, when more off-the-cuff interactions would better play to her strengths.

Harris' closest aides frustrate even her

In and around Harris' circle, they speculate that there must be someone getting in her way.

Some think it's the President himself leaving her out in the cold, prioritizing his own agenda. Some blame specific West Wing aides whom they feel sure are out to undercut her. Some fear the vice president is, as she has often done in her political life, leaning heavily on her sister Maya Harris, brother-in-law Tony West and niece Meena Harris, whom they sense exerting influence over everything from staff hires to political decisions -- a not uncommon situation historically among presidents and vice presidents.

Several people familiar with the operations of the vice president's office say that after a spike in involvement earlier in the year, the family has been pushed further out again recently. Few expect that to remain the case, especially with the vice president feeling isolated and unsure of whom she can trust on her staff.

Harris herself has complained about the lack of support, internally and externally. After appearing at a fundraising event in Virginia for former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in September ahead of the gubernatorial election, she asked why she'd been put in a situation that ran counter to the good modeling of Covid-19 protocols she has been trying to stick to, as she looked out at a sizable crowd gathered in a mini-mansion backyard, largely mask-less, dipping into an Indian food buffet.

She's not the only one who's noticed the operation falling short. When she appeared at an event in the Bronx in October to promote the administration's Build Back Better agenda, longtime supporters grumbled that not only were several politicians and donors left off the invitation list, but that she hasn't even been making calls to check in and do the basic political maintenance that many have come to expect. Instead of feeling connected to Harris in her historic first year in office, they feel cut off.

'The administration ought to be using her more'

The version of Harris that could be out in public -- the one reminiscent of her more charismatic moments on the campaign trail -- was on stage at Carnegie Hall last month. Harris was in New York for the 30th anniversary of Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network civil rights group.

Unlike the reined in, ultra-bland approach she has often taken in public, Harris let loose, especially on the fight for voting rights. She ripped Republican Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida for "undoing the legacy of our heroes." New state voting laws in those and others, she charged, were "an extension of the Big Lie," saying, "Well, here's the truth: There was not rampant fraud. The people voted and the results were certified state after state and reaffirmed by court after court. The Big Lie is not anything but a lie."

She was energetic and engaging, and the crowd was on its feet applauding. As she presented Sharpton with a birthday cake and gently danced to the music playing over the speakers as he prepared to cut it, she seemed -- as she rarely does at public events these days -- happy and relaxed.

The next afternoon, Sharpton told CNN he'd noticed that the event was one of her "better public appearances." Harris felt at home, he reasoned, with a crowd committed to voting rights and criminal justice reform, which are two of the main issues that have defined her career. "That brought her in a different headspace."

Sharpton said he'd like to see more of that. He and other allies view next year's midterm campaigns as the perfect opportunity for her to shine and maybe recapture some of her standing with the base -- if she's allowed to, and able to.

"The administration ought to be using her more as the face in the voting rights fight. Being Black and a woman, she literally is the physical manifestation of why we need to protect the right to vote," Sharpton said.

Sharpton said he assumed Harris had spent the year trying to follow the White House's more constrained lead on how to approach all issues, given that Biden has largely avoided politics and donors -- or even much of an aggressive public case for his agenda -- himself.

"The tone of the administration has been reach out, bipartisanship. She, as vice president, does not want to get out ahead of the administration," Sharpton said. "She did what vice presidents do."

But now, he added, "The whole tone of the administration has to change."

Donna Brazile, one of several prominent Black women who urged Biden advisers to put Harris on the ticket, agreed that it's time to retool after the rough first year. Brazile wants to see the vice president on the road almost constantly -- "keep Air Force 2 gassed up and ready to go," she joked -- whether talking about replacing lead pipes in Flint, Michigan, or expanding broadband in rural America or focusing on improving schools in the suburbs.

"She is a wonderful messenger. But it has to be clear, concise and consistent," said Brazile, still a frequent outside adviser to Harris. "Don't make her a creature of the Beltway. Let her out."

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to more clearly reflect how the vice president's budget is controlled.

Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this story.