Kamala Harris cements her place in Biden's inner circle during a consequential week
(CNN) -- Vice President Kamala Harris was huddled with other White House officials in President Joe Biden's private dining room last week when the room let out a "collective exhale." A Minnesota jury had found Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd.
As the large flat-screen television mounted on the north wall flashed three "guilty" counts, the room was overcome with a "sweeping sense of relief," an aide said. Harris joined Biden and the first lady moments later in the Oval Office, where Floyd's family was patched in by speakerphone.
"She wants to say something," Biden told the group, gathered in a hallway at the courthouse in Minneapolis, before ceding the line to his vice president.
"I'm just so thankful to the entire family. Your courage, your commitment, your strength has been a strength. This is a day for justice in America," Harris told the group. "In George's name and memory, we are going to make sure his legacy is intact and that history will look back at this moment and know that it is an inflection moment."
For Harris, it was also a moment that underscored her history-making presence within the young administration. She has often said she didn't know a Black man growing up in Oakland that hadn't faced a level of profiling and discrimination. Speaking to the Floyd family, Harris was presented an opportunity to tap into their collective grief in a way no vice president before her could.
Nearly 100 days into their tenure, Biden and Harris have worked to deepen their relationship, spending five hours or more together per day in meetings at the White House, according to aides. Both Biden and Harris shunned work travel in the early days to set an example during the pandemic -- forcing them into closer proximity than their predecessors.
She began her tenure attending nearly every one of Biden's events, provided her own speaking slot and always in-frame as the President delivered remarks, an unmissable -- and intentional -- level of visibility.
Her position as the country's highest-ranking woman of color, she said in an interview last week, brings with it a heavy weight.
"I carry a great sense of responsibility, if not the seriousness of the responsibility, to be in this position and be a voice for those who have not traditionally been in the room," Harris told CNN's Dana Bash in an exclusive interview.
A deepening relationship
Her presence at Biden's side while the verdict was read, and later in the Grand Foyer as each delivered a statement, was the culmination of weeks of private conversations between Biden and Harris about the trial, which officials said had been a subject of increasing concern for the President as he weighed potential outcomes and the prospect of renewed unrest around the country.
More than at any previous point in Biden's presidency so far, the issues of race and policing that had galvanized his presidential campaign were emerging again. The President, his aides and even the first lady watched developments with intense interest, aware a leadership test awaited upon its conclusion.
Biden consulted a wide array of voices about how to respond to a verdict in the Chauvin trial and new incidents of police violence against Black Americans, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus and members of his senior staff, including senior adviser Cedric Richmond and Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice, according to people familiar with the conversations.
He also turned to Harris. Over the course of several group meetings and in their weekly private lunches -- held in the same dining room, which features a painting of President Abraham Lincoln meeting with Union generals during the Civil War -- the two discussed the situation at length, according to people familiar with the matter.
It was the type of moment Biden seemed to anticipate when, in the wake of Floyd's killing last summer and the protests that ensued, he selected Harris as his running mate. More than achieving any political objective, Biden appeared to recognize the imperative in having an authoritative voice on issues of systemic racism and law enforcement at the highest level inside the White House.
He selected Harris, a former California attorney general with whom he had sparred on issues of race when they were primary competitors, and declared she would act as his closest partner in an attempt to repair a country riven by racial and political divisions.
"You'll recall that when Joe Biden asked me to join him on the ticket, he did so with a sense of intentionality, of purpose, knowing that he and I may have very different life experiences but we also have the same values and operate from the same principles," Harris said in the interview. "It was something that I know he was very intentional about in terms of asking me to run with him and to serve him, which is that I will bring a perspective that will contribute to the overall decisions that we make."
Harris declined to say exactly what she'd discussed with Biden in the lead-up to the trial's conclusion -- "I'm not going to talk about private conversations, of course" -- but she did provide a glimpse into her rapport with a President she spends hours with every day.
"He and I are in almost every meeting together, have made almost every decision together," she said, adding later: "It is often the case that as I will ask his opinion about things, he will ask my opinion and through that process I think that we arrive at a good place. And ultimately, of course, he is the President and he makes the final decision."
She said she remains the last person in the room when big decisions are made -- including, she said, when Biden decided earlier this month to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
And while she shares few political traits with her immediate predecessor, Mike Pence, she too is quick to heap praise upon the man under whom she serves.
"This is a president who has an extraordinary amount of courage," she said, referring specifically to the Afghanistan decision. "I wish that the American public can see sometimes what I see, because ultimately -- and the decision always rests with him -- but I have seen him over and over again make decisions based exactly on what he believes is right. Regardless of what maybe the political people tell him is in his best self-interest."
A fraught assignment
So far, Biden has assigned her one major portfolio: Attempting to stem the flow of migrants from Central America arriving at the southern border through diplomatic engagement with leaders in the region. It was a task some of her advisers appeared wary of taking on, people familiar with the matter said, given its political pitfalls. One source close to Harris' staff said some aides felt that the assignment "wasn't ideal."
But Harris made clear the assignment was a request from Biden, not a dictate: "He asked me to do it. Just as he was asked to do it," she told Bash.
And two sources familiar with the matter said she did not pause or push back before accepting the role.
"When President Joe Biden asked her, she did not hesitate," said one of those sources, who requested anonymity to discuss internal conversations.
Inside the White House, the immigration issue has caused deep anxiety as Biden's advisers worry the situation could worsen over the coming months, potentially torpedoing legislative momentum. A confusing back-and-forth this month over the number of refugees allowed into the United States underscored the perils on the issue, and showed the struggle the administration is facing finding its footing.
Already, Republicans have used the assignment to paint Harris as the face of the problem, questioning why she hasn't visited the border. Some of the backlash prompted the White House to make clear multiple times her role is limited to diplomatic efforts in curbing the migrant flow -- and not the entirety of the problem.
Those close to Harris acknowledge she wanted to own a foreign policy portfolio item. Despite any political perils it might carry, she sees it as an opportunity to beef up her foreign policy bona fides.
Harris does plan to travel to Central America in June, officials said, and will meet virtually with leaders from Guatemala this week. "I can't get there soon enough," Harris told Bash.
While details of the trip are still being configured, a source familiar with discussions said she's been urged to not only meet with government officials in the region, but to also engage with civil society organizations, anti-corruption organizations and women's groups, shining a light on Afro-descendants and indigenous people.
"There was a real sense that she knows when she goes that she will be curating these visits in ways that look very different than her predecessors," the source said.
Still, in the interview, even Harris acknowledged the problem was not something she'll be able to solve in the short term.
"We're making progress," she said, "but it's not going to evidence itself overnight. It will not. But it will be worth it."
Harris models herself after her boss
Still, for all the attention paid to Harris' assignment on immigration, it is her broader assignment as Biden's sounding board -- which, over the last weeks, has included racial issues -- that is emerging as her primary role inside the West Wing.
She's looked to Biden's own vice presidency as a model. Biden determined early in his own vice presidency that having regular access to President Barack Obama -- through their weekly lunches and entrance to whichever meetings he felt it necessary to attend -- would help define his role and strengthen their working relationship.
And Harris has worked to emulate their relationship at every step.
She regularly attends morning intelligence updates alongside Biden in the Oval Office, preferring to read the daily briefings on a secure iPad. In meetings with members of his Covid and economic teams, Harris has pressed senior advisers for progress reports on vaccinations and economic relief for vulnerable communities, a White House official said.
But she has also begun stepping out on her own, including a domestic travel schedule that brought her to New Hampshire on Friday, touting the administration's efforts to expand broadband internet in front of large grey fiber-optic cable spools and rows of electric transformers.
She's held rounds of solo telephone calls with foreign leaders, and met individually with Japan's Prime Minister when he visited the White House earlier this month. Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has briefed her separately in her office ahead of calls and meetings, in addition to joint briefings with Biden.
And earlier this month, she moved out of the presidential guest house across Pennsylvania Avenue and into the vice presidential residence at the Naval Observatory after a construction-prolonged delay -- meaning she and Biden are no longer neighbors.
On her trip to New Hampshire, she stopped at a local bookstore and bought two books: "Of Women and Salt," by Gabriela Garcia, whose themes of migration and family could inform her new policy role; and the "Complete Mediterranean Cookbook," which could inspire meals at her new, more private dwellings, where -- in theory -- she can reinstitute her well-known Sunday dinners.
Just as Biden and his speechwriters began drafting statements for the end of the Chauvin trial in the days ahead of the verdict, Harris' team set to work preparing her own statement, recognizing her voice would be a critical one no matter the result.
"Here's the truth about racial injustice," said Harris, speaking ahead of Biden from the same lectern after the verdict. "It is not just a Black America problem or a people of color problem. It is a problem for every American. It is keeping us from fulfilling the promise of liberty and justice for all. And it is holding our nation back from realizing our full potential."
As a senator, Harris co-sponsored policing reform legislation named for Floyd and has led calls from the White House to see it passed. Talks between Republicans and Democrats have intensified in the past week, though it wasn't clear how involved Harris has been in the discussions.
Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat who's a leading proponent of the bill, said last week the White House is being kept informed as things move forward. Officials from the Office of Legislative Affairs, along with Rice and Richmond, are keeping track of developments.
When Harris was asked whether she was open to compromise on the issue of qualified immunity for police officers -- a key sticking point in negotiations -- she demurred.
"I need to be fully briefed on it," she said when leaving the Senate floor on Wednesday after casting a tie-breaking vote. "I haven't made a decision about it. But as you know, I was part of the language -- I helped write the language."
Where the bill, which supplanted Biden's campaign promise to convene a policing commission at the White House, fits within the administration's overall legislative priorities isn't necessarily clear. The President is in the midst of advancing a major infrastructure package, and plans to introduce a secondary American Family Plan bill soon.
Biden will push for the George Floyd bill when he addresses a joint session of Congress this week, according to officials. If tradition holds, Harris will be seated directly behind him on the rostrum alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- the first time two women have filled the iconic television shot behind the President.
With the history, however, comes a burden.
"I carry a great, great weight of responsibility knowing that there are so many people -- the generations of women who fought for and imagined that there would be a woman vice president or a woman on the ticket -- I think of that all the time in terms of the responsibility I have to hopefully make them proud," Harris told CNN.
She's also acutely aware of the legacy she'll leave behind for Black and Brown kids.
"I carry a great sense of responsibility for all of the young girls and boys of color," she went on, "those who identify in some way because maybe no one expected something of them but they expect a lot of themselves, to do well and to do right and to do good."
The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.