Welcome to POLITICO’s West Wing Playbook, your guide to the people and power centers in the Biden administration.
JOE BIDEN’s communications team isn’t just duking it out with anchors on the Fox News airwaves. They’re also trying to make the network’s website a little more administration-friendly, at least marginally.
Any given day on foxnews.com, millions of readers see negative stories about the Biden administration’s handling of the economy, crime, immigration, and Covid-19, among many other topics. But over the past year, the White House has worked behind the scenes to get more of its perspective on Fox’s website.
Before she left the White House last month, former White House press secretary JEN PSAKI met privately with Fox News digital chief PORTER BERRY to discuss the website’s portrayal of the administration, two people with knowledge told POLITICO. When he was the chief spokesperson for the Pentagon, JOHN KIRBY also regularly corresponded with Fox News’ D.C. bureau chief over items on the site.
But the White House has also dangled various carrots for the network, including exclusives for its digital reporters.
Earlier this year, JILL BIDENco-authored an op-ed on the Fox News website advocating for better government support for military families. She also called for “greater respite, relief, and emergency financial support to struggling families” and children who often help take care of American service members returning from combat overseas.
On Thursday, the site also published an opinion piece by former Alabama senator DOUG JONES advocating for the confirmation of STEVE DETTLEBACH, the administration’s nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
The White House has also tried to fill the site’s reported (or non-opinion) articles with the administration’s perspective. The Biden administration often turns to digital reporter BROOKE SINGMAN with exclusive policies it hopes Fox News readers will see, particularly around issues like crime, law enforcement, and veterans issues, areas where the White House feels it can tweak the narratives that often become cemented among the Fox News audience. In the last several months alone, she’s gotten the exclusive on the Department of Education’s launch of a National Parents and Families Engagement Council, the National Sheriff’s Association endorsement of Dettlebach, and the White House’s allocation of $275 million to law enforcement agencies to fight the opioid epidemic.
It’s an effort to push back on the site’s tone and editorial news judgment, which is molded in the style of a right-leaning tabloid. As the Daily Beast noted, following Biden’s election, the site hired a number of former Republican staffers and former Trump administration officials.
But it also is recognition from White House officials that the network’s website has enormous reach.
Digital media metrics are murky, but Fox regularly blasts out data from the online news and data measurement service comscore suggesting that it has nearly 80 million multiplatform visitors per month, and it garners billions of video views (for what it’s worth, the network has autoplay on its site’s videos).
“It’s a valuable audience. They’re reaching a lot of eyeballs online,” said one administration official, explaining its effort to West Wing Playbook.
In a statement, a White House official told POLITICO: “we engage with Fox to make sure we’re reaching Fox viewers.”
Democrats have long been split over whether to appear on Fox News, with one camp arguing that it’s important to reach conservatives and the other warning that it will legitimize an inherently political entity as a news outlet. Increasingly, however, there’s been a push by center-left Democrats to insert some variety into the Fox News digital opinion page, which is often dominated by clips from conservative on air personalities like TUCKER CARLSON, GREG GUTFELD, and JOE CONCHA.
In the last two weeks alone, moderate Democrats like Reps. ABIGAIL SPANBERGER of Virginia and SCOTT PETERS of California have also published opinion columns on the site touting the party’s plans to fight inflation, while Sen. CHRIS MURPHY (D-Conn.) published an op-ed calling for measures to stop gun violence.
TEXT US — Are you ROBBIE DORNBUSH, the new chief of staff to the press office and senior adviser to the press secretary? We want to hear from you. And we’ll keep you anonymous if you’d like. Or if you think we missed something in today’s edition, let us know and we may include it tomorrow. Email us at [email protected] or you can text/Signal/Wickr Alex at 8183240098.
This one is from Alex. The White House may be America’s presidential palace but it also has a long history of disrepair.
At one point, its structure was so weak that the leg of a piano fell through a floor and punctured the ceiling of the dining room below. Who was the president at the time?
Hint: The piano belonged to the president’s daughter.
FRIENDLY FIRE: It didn’t go well when senior White House officials MIKE DONILON, JEN O’MALLEY DILLON, and KATE BEDINGFIELD went to the Hill today to brief lawmakers about the economy, several sources told ADAM CANCRYN, CHRIS CADELAGO, and SARAH FERRIS.
Some Democratic members were peeved that the White House crew arrived late (the White House team stayed for a while afterward to make up for that, according to several people).
But members were most dismayed that they didn’t get any sense of the White House’s plan or new messaging on an economy frustrating many voters.
The Q-and-A afterward reflected that frustration. Questions about inflation yielded little new from the White House, according to people present. Donilon took all the questions at once and then delivered one long answer in which he reiterated how important battling inflation was to the White House. Rep. DEAN PHILLIPS (D-Minn.) pointedly reminded the White House that they won’t be able to do anything if Democrats lose the majority.
Said one person: “People are frustrated. There was nothing new. It was their same talking points.”
The feeling wasn’t universal, however. Rep. DAVID CICILLINE (D-R.I.) told Alex, “I really appreciated having Jen, Mike, and Kate brief the Caucus today, and I know many of my colleagues feel the same.”
SPEAKING OF FRUSTRATIONS: Biden finally sat down with one of the print outlets covering him, talking with the AP’s JOSH BOAK for 30 minutes. He was, shall we say, not sugar coating it.
Assessing the overall American mindset, Biden said, “People are really, really down.”
How down? “They’re really down,” he said. “The need for mental health in America, it has skyrocketed, because people have seen everything upset. Everything they’ve counted on upset. But most of it’s the consequence of what’s happened, what happened as a consequence of the COVID crisis.”
It was the first time Biden has done an interview with any reporters at the AP, Reuters, Bloomberg, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or the Washington Post.
OOPS: Democratic Party Chair JAMIE HARRISON admitted this week that he didn’t vote in this week’s primary in South Carolina. “I was supposed to get back to South Carolina today to vote,” he said on The KATE HUNTER Show, but couldn’t because he had Covid and was quarantined in Utah with his in-laws.
Hunter noted that he could have voted early. DNC spokesperson DANIEL WESSEL told West Wing Playbook that “Chair Harrison had planned to vote in person in South Carolina on the day of the primary – as has always been a tradition in his family – but was not able to after testing positive for COVID.”
And with that, we give you the news that the DNC chairman has Covid.
Mason: Have you been subpoenaed, though, [in the federal investigation into Hunter’s finances]?
Buhle: I have not been subpoenaed. I’ve talked to certain investigators but I have not been subpoenaed. I mean, I guess I haven’t been subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury but I was questioned because obviously I was married to him for 24 years.
Mason pressed Buhle on if she ever spoke with HALLIE BIDEN after discovering her affair with Hunter. Buhle’s long response prompted Mason to ultimately add a voiceover: “Buhle wouldn’t answer that question and never used [Hallie’s] name in our interview.”
FIRST IN WEST WING PLAYBOOK — VANESSA MILLONES has been promoted to special assistant to the president for Presidential Personnel, DANIEL LIPPMAN has learned. She most recently was its director for leadership and training.
RECESSION? NEVER HEARD OF HER: The National Economic Council’s JESSE LEE, citing low unemployment, tweeted that “I understand the desire for press to do chyrons about ‘recession,’ but this is not what a recession looks like by any reasonable conception.”
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE WANTS YOU TO WATCH: Vice President KAMALA HARRIS announcing the launch of a “White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse.” The White House science office’s JAMIE GREEN wrote that the “Administration is not standing by as millions of marginalized Americans are harassed online.”
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ: The Atlantic’s MARK LEIBOVICH piece today that begins: “Let me put this bluntly: Joe Biden should not run for reelection in 2024. He is too old.”
He says a senior admin official told him at a “social function” a few weeks back that Biden “just seems old.” Leibovich writes: “Biden is fit to faithfully execute his duties, the White House physician said in his most recent health summary. The question is: Should he? The answer: Sure, for now. But not a day after January 20, 2025.”
HOT MIC: National Security Adviser JAKE SULLIVAN sat down with CNAS CEO RICHARD FONTAINE today for a conversation about national security. In a private moment between the two, a hot mic caught Sullivan talking about a curious detail that happens when the U.S. seizes Russian yachts.
“You know what the craziest thing is, when we seize one, we have to pay for upkeep. The federal government pays for upkeep, under the forfeiture rubric,” he said. Soon after Vox’s JONATHAN GUYER pointed this out, the video was made private and the interview was published without the audio. “Honest mistake and we fixed it,” communications director SHAI KORMAN said.
ROMNEY RAGE: The White House’s Covid funding campaign has officially lost Sen. MITT ROMNEY (R-Utah), Adam Cancryn tells us (follow him here!) The Republican senator from Utah, once seen as a partner in the push for more money, accused the administration of misrepresenting its financial situation after it reallocated $10 billion toward vaccine and therapeutic purchases earlier this month.
White House officials had previously maintained they couldn’t do that, Romney said in a Thursday hearing. “Imagine my surprise,” he said, suggesting the move “makes our ability to work together and have confidence in what we’re being told very much shaken to the core.”
A White House official reiterated to West Wing Playbook that it’s repeatedly given Congress a “full accounting” of its Covid budgeting, and that congressional inaction has forced damaging tradeoffs and undermined the Covid response.
WALENSKY TAKES ON LEONHARDT: Sen. SUSAN COLLINS (R-Maine) today pressed CDC Director ROCHELLE WALENSKY about DAVID LEONHARDT’s recent New York Times piece, “Why Masks Work, but Mandates Haven’t.”
Walensky was ready. “I actually believe that that is a piece that’s undergone substantial criticism for moving forward,” she said. “There are population aggregate anonymized data that have demonstrated decreased rates of disease when mask mandates have been put in place earlier in the pandemic.” But she acknowledged other studies “refute that data.”
BURN PITS UPDATE: As our colleague BURGESS EVERETTreported today, the Senate voted 84-14 for a bill extending health benefits to veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. In a statement, Biden said “I urge the House to swiftly pass this bill so I can sign it into law right away.”
As we reported previously, Biden privately has said he believes exposure to such pits caused Beau Biden’s cancer when he was deployed to Iraq.
Bracing for the End of Roe v. Wade, the White House Weighs Executive Actions (NYT’s Charlie Savage)
When the secretaries of Defense and State said publicly the U.S. wants Ukraine to win and weaken Russia, Biden said tone it down (NBC’s Carol E. Lee, Courtney Kube, Ken Dilanian and Abigail Williams)
Border Patrol investigating coin memorializing treatment of Haitian migrants in Del Rio (Miami Herald’s Michael Wilner and Jaqueline Charles)
NBC News correspondent TOM COSTELLO will speak with Transportation Secretary PETE BUTTIGIEG, following his meeting this afternoon with the CEOs of major airlines, on Nightly News at 6:30pm ET.
JORDAN FINKELSTEIN, chief of staff to ANITA DUNN, had some thoughts on Newsmax’s JAMES ROSEN’s tweet about Finkelstein’s boss:
HARRY TRUMAN was president in the summer of 1948 when the leg of his daughter’s piano fell through the floor of the White House.
According to the New England Historical Society, which investigated the subsequent heavy renovations: “Shortly after the Trumans moved in they began to notice the White House ghosts. The floors heaved like the deck of a schooner. Half-ton chandeliers swayed, stretched and danced above the heads of guests oblivious to the danger. Draperies moved and groans emanated from the old walls.
Harry Truman eventually realized it was the sound of the mansion slowly collapsing.
In 1948 Truman was taking a bath on the second floor when his valet walked in and the floor buckled. Truman envisioned the tub falling onto the [Daughters of the American Revolution] tea party below, ‘wearing nothing more than his reading glasses.’”
A CALL OUT — Do you think you have a more difficult trivia question? Send us your best question on the presidents with a citation and we may feature it.
Edited by Eun Kyung Kim and Sam Stein.
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