Welcome to POLITICO’s West Wing Playbook, your guide to the people and power centers in the Biden administration. With help from Allie Bice.
Few storylines are more navel-gazing than those centered on a politician’s handling of a press request. But there is something fundamentally notable to President JOE BIDEN not doing the traditional Super Bowl Sunday interview with Fox, regardless of who was at fault for the missed connection.
The saga (if we can call it that) gave us a window into how the administration generally perceives the merits of engagement with the country’s largest cable network. It offered a benchmark by which to judge that network’s place in the surrounding political ecosystem. And, most importantly, it provided insight into how Biden world views the path forward politically.
At a granular level, the story is about a standoff between a president and a powerful media network. Both sides agree that Biden was set to do an interview with Fox Sports host MIKE HALL and actress VIVICA A. FOX that would air on Fox Soul but could be cross-promoted. The disagreement was over whether conditions were attached. A White House official said Fox Corp. “would not allow them to interview the President unless the President agreed to do a second interview, which we had already declined.” But a representative for the network said that when Fox Corp. became aware of the Soul interview, it gave the go ahead to Soul and made clear it wasn’t contingent on a second interview.
Who killed the interview, however, is ultimately less interesting than how each side ended up at a place where it was easy to see it being killed off.
Biden once was on a different plane with Fox. Back in 2007, when Democratic candidates for president were bowing out of a presidential primary debate hosted by Fox News, he and Rep. DENNIS KUCINICH (D-Ohio) were the two candidates who said they intended to debate (until, ultimately, it was canceled). That might have been a byproduct of how desperate Biden was for some sort of boost at that stage of the race. But during the 2020 campaign, his advisers saw Fox News as a valuable component of their messaging strategy. And, to this day, his White House routinely calls on Fox News reporters during the briefings and puts its top officials on the network, though not during its more opinionated evening hours.
Aides inside the administration have privately expressed philosophical solidarity with the idea that shunning Fox is a mistake; that the best way to reach and persuade the network’s conservative audience is by appearing on it. It also is worth noting that data shows the network enjoys large Democratic audiences too. Picking up on those points, JEFF GREENFIELD made the case today in POLITICO that Biden missed an opportunity by not doing Fox on Sunday.
But this argument is not universally shared. DAN PFEIFFER, who helped arrange Super Bowl interviews on Fox for his old boss, BARACK OBAMA, argued that Biden was right to skip the interview. It defied logic, Pfeiffer wrote, that the president would sit down with a network “that employs people who smear him and his family on a nightly basis.”
For a certain group of progressives, however, this past weekend was seminal. Disengagement with Fox has been a longstanding priority for them. And, often, they’ve found it difficult to gain traction within the broader Democratic Party, save for those moments where the political circumstances align — like the 2008 primary colliding with a Fox News hosted debate. Biden’s non-interview, to a degree, represented a mainlining of their long-held worldview.
“Yes, I was,” said ROBERT GREENWALD, director of the anti-Fox News documentary, “Outfoxed,” when asked if Biden’s move surprised him. “And I was pleased. Whoever was making those decisions was a practical realist not getting caught up in some of the magical thinking and fantasy, ‘Oh, we’re gonna go on and say smart things and we’re going to convince all these people.’”
When he made his film all the way back in 2004, Greenwald recalled that the popular reaction among elected Democrats was “to get as far away from me as possible.”
The film, he said, “felt controversial back then.” But, more specifically, Democrats “wanted to keep going on Fox News.”
That is still true to a degree. While Biden didn’t appear on the Fox airwaves this weekend, Gov. KATIE HOBBS (D-Ariz.) and Sen. TIM KAINE (D-Va.) both did.
But Greenwald sees movement in his direction. As for whether that’s a smart move by the party, he has no equivocations.
“Years ago I stopped believing in Santa Claus and years ago I gave up magical thinking,” said Greenwald. “There is zero evidence of any kind that going into the lion’s den, being surrounded by the tribalism that exists today, is in any shape or form going to do anything other than to appeal to the ego of the official that goes on.”
Full disclosure: The author of this piece is an MSNBC contributor.
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This one is from Allie. Who sculpted the Mount Rushmore National Memorial?
(Answer at the bottom.)
LITTLE GREEN MEN ERASURE: Alas, those spy balloons are probably not aliens, according to White House press secretary KARINE JEAN-PIERRE. “I know there have been questions and concerns about this, but there is no — again, no indication — of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns,” Jean-Pierre said during Monday’s press briefing. “It was important for us to say that from here because we’ve been hearing a lot about it.”
Look, that’s not a complete denial. But our hats are not entirely made of tinfoil. So we will take KJP at her word this isn’t some intergalactic invasion that we’re just stomping the hell out of.
So what is going on? A large “fleet” of Chinese surveillance balloons has flown over the U.S. and 40 other countries in recent years, including the one shot down earlier this month off the East Coast, our LARA SELIGMAN and KELLY HOOPER report. National Security Council spokesperson ADRIENNE WATSON on Monday also took to Twitter to dispel claims that the U.S. has used the same tactic: “It is China that has a high-altitude surveillance balloon program for intelligence collection, that it has used to violate the sovereignty of the US and over 40 countries across 5 continents.”
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE WANTS YOU TO READ: This column by WaPo’s JENNIFER RUBIN about how the president’s document drama compares to former Vice President MIKE PENCE’s — and how both make DONALD TRUMP’s case look even worse: “Biden now has company in the ‘sloppy but not criminal’ category. A decision to decline to prosecute Biden and Pence would convey to the public that similar cases get handled similarly no matter the political affiliation of the person being investigated.” Rubin also notes a recent report that Trump's lawyers turned over additional documents just this last month "underscores Trump’s utter disregard for keeping classified materials in secured locations."
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ: That people really want the White House to answer questions about China’s surveillance. CNN’s MJ LEE and KEVIN LIPTAK report that “Biden on Monday ordered a new government-wide effort to determine what precisely is happening. And in four separate locations, from the frozen waters off Alaska to the Carolina coast, work was underway to collect and analyze debris from the shot-down objects.
But answers about what the objects were, where they were from and what they were doing remained elusive.”
CAN’T STOP, WON’T STOP: The now former chief of staff RON KLAIN opened up about his tenure at the White House (including the origin story of his pet rock!) to USA Today’s MAUREEN GROPPE, and acknowledged that, no, he probably won’t be able to kick his Twitter habit. The step-back piece includes on-the-record comments from top Biden advisers BRIAN DEESE, ANITA DUNN and JEN O’MALLEY DILLON.
Klain also tweeted that he’s going to be on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” Monday night. Hope there’s a box of tissues behind the desk.
2024 WATCH: Our DANIEL LIPPMAN is out with a profile on a possible 2024 presidential longshot: VIVEK RAMASWAMY, a biotech entrepreneur, author, and founder of a new asset management firm, Strive. Lippman caught up with Ramaswamy, dubbed as the “CEO of Anti-Woke Inc.” by the New Yorker, during a dinner event in Iowa with state agricultural leaders.
“I believe that I’ve developed a vision for American national identity that I have deep conviction for and is the product of my own journey of having lived the gifts that this country has afforded me,” Ramaswamy said. “And the combination of both doing it intellectually and having personally experienced that vision of our nation makes me well suited to articulate that and deliver on it.”
AND ANOTHER ONE GONE: The White House dismissed Architect of the Capitol BRETT BLANTON on Monday, seven years before his term is up and after pressure from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Our KATHERINE TULLY-MCMANUS and CHRISTOPHER CADELAGO have more details.
PERSONNEL MOVES: ALEX PARETS has left the Treasury Department where he was the chief of staff to the department under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, Lippman has learned. He is now senior director and head of sanctions risk management at Capital One.
— LOREN DEJONGE SCHULMAN is starting at the Office of Management and Budget as the new associate director for performance and personnel management today. She comes from the Partnership for Public Service where she was vice president of research, evaluation and modernizing government for the last two-plus years, according to Federal News Network.
— ZACK BUTTERWORTH, the White House’s director of private engagement, announced on Twitter that Friday was his last day in the role. “I know the country is better off because @POTUS and this team have given their all for two years. Cheers!” he wrote.
A longtime aide to infrastructure czar MITCH LANDRIEU, Butterworth was the administration’s top liaison to the private sector. He helped build support for new laws including the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act. He also oversaw the administration’s response to last year’s infant formula shortage.
CELEBRATING TOO EARLY? While Biden has been touting the administration’s latest economic wins, Fed Reserve Chair JEROME POWELL is holding his breath. “If the economy keeps powering ahead, he says, the central bank will likely slam harder on the brakes to kill inflation,” our VICTORIA GUIDA reports. “How the economy reacts to the Fed’s highest interest rates in 15 years will shape the legacy of both men.” More details from Victoria here.
ABOUT THAT BABY FORMULA SHORTAGE… The 19th’s CHABELI CARRAZANA takes a deep dive into the baby formula shortage and how it's still sorely affecting households across the country: “By now, the shortage has been going on for so long that all types of formula are missing from stores, not just the sensitive brands that were initially — and are still — in short supply,” Carrazana writes.
Inflation Is Falling, and Where It Lands Depends on These Three Things (WSJ’s Gwynn Guilford)
Opinion: The story behind President Joe Biden not doing a Super Bowl interview with Fox (Poynter’s Tom Jones)
As we noted earlier, Zach Butterworth’s last day as the director of private engagement was Friday. Before he set his sights on public service, Butterworth started off as a man at sea. Yes, the sea.
After high school, he and his brother started a charter boat business, playing skipper and running boats for people. It made sense, he told The Hill in 2011, as he “grew up on the water. Since I was 6 or 7 years old [I had] my own little skiff.”
But, the Pass Christian, Miss., native added that manning boats wasn't a great “long-term career, unless you want to be a wrinkled-up, old, salty boat captain, but it’s definitely fun.”
Being a wrinkled-up, old, salty boat captain sounds fun to us, Zach.
GUTZON BORGLUM was the designer and creator of the Mount Rushmore monument, according to the National Park Service. His son, LINCOLN, helped complete the project, after Gutzon passed away in 1941 — the year the monument was finished.
A CALL OUT — Do you think you have a harder trivia question? Send us your best one about the presidents with a citation and we may feature it.
Edited by Eun Kyung Kim and Sam Stein.