- 27 октября 2016, 12:07
- POLITICO. Top Stories
Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta is emerging as the top choice to serve as White House chief of staff — if only for a year — with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, former Joe Biden chief of staff Ron Klain and policy adviser Jake Sullivan pegged as likely alternatives.
As the Democratic nominee heads into the final 12 days of the presidential race with a sizable lead, she has begun to shift her focus beyond Election Day. And one of the first orders of post-election business is convincing Podesta, the seasoned veteran of two White House administrations, to serve once again in the brutally demanding post.
The choice of a chief of staff — considered the second-most-demanding job in Washington — is perhaps the most critical personnel decision a president-elect faces. The chief sets the tone of the president’s relationship with Congress, runs the day-to-day operations at the White House and spends more time with the president than any other staffer.
Podesta is seen as a steady hand and obvious choice for the job, someone who would offer Clinton continuity from her campaign to the transition to the White House.
On the campaign, Podesta has served as part of a small group of advisers the candidate “can already shorthand with,” according to a close Clinton ally. “The question is can she convince him to do it for a year. He could get the administration stabilized, and get hiring done.”
But in private conversations, Podesta, 67, has told friends he has no interest in going back to the 12-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week younger man’s gig he already performed for Bill Clinton almost two decades ago. Last July, Podesta told POLITICO that even if Hillary Clinton wanted him to serve in a senior staff post, she “might not have a choice” to keep him, and he does not appear to have budged since.
"He makes the most sense, but he has made clear he does not want the job,” said a close Podesta ally. But some insiders are holding out hope that the power of a president leaning on him will sway the wiry operative, who kept a tight grip on every part of Clinton's campaign, from her vice presidential vetting process, to her fundraising operation, to running point as the top campaign liaison to elected officials.
Podesta, the architect of President Barack Obama’s climate initiatives, is also rumored to be interested in a potential Cabinet post, such as energy secretary. But that road would require Senate confirmation, which could be an opening for hearings on the WikiLeaks release of his hacked email — in total, the site plans to release 50,000 emails revealing behind-the-scenes dealmaking going back 10 years.
But assuming Podesta sticks to his guns and declines the chief of staff job, there are others who appear open to the grueling but powerful position.
Vilsack, a longtime ally, is widely discussed for the post, according to more than half a dozen Clinton insiders interviewed. Campaigning for Clinton across the country, he has made it clear he feels committed to another chapter of government service and would consider any opportunity in a Clinton administration.
Vilsack — who Clinton still calls regularly to discuss issues affecting rural America and generally to pick his brain — would be a principal player in the mold of Howard Baker, the former Senate majority leader from Tennessee who served as chief of staff under President Ronald Reagan. A well-known face who could do the Sunday show circuit Clinton has always hated, Vilsack would bring to the post some operational understanding on the domestic side, as well as experience overseeing a federal agency of 97,000 employees.
His downfall in the vice presidential vetting process, insiders said, was a perceived lack of foreign policy experience. But Clinton is expected to look for a chief of staff to be more focused on maintaining good relationships on the Hill than with foreign allies.
It is not clear, though, that Clinton would want a former Cabinet secretary to serve as her day-to-day gatekeeper and organization-runner. (People close to Vilsack also said he might struggle with a staff job after being a principal.)
Klain, who helped run Clinton's successful debate prep sessions in the primary and the general election, is seen as a capable hand — a workhorse who knows the inside track of Washington and has done the chief of staff job for two vice presidents, Al Gore and Biden. Clinton, however, has been wary about bringing Klain into the upper echelons of her campaign team, viewing him more as a talented hired gun than a trusted Clinton loyalist like many of her top aides.
But the debate prep sessions he helped lead over the past 18 months helped Klain forge a deeper relationship with Clinton; he's now seen as a highly skilled and organized operator who successfully ran difficult prep sessions that included a roomful of headstrong advisers. His mantra that "demeanor" was key to winning the debates against Donald Trump proved to be the right approach. And he became comfortable enough with her circle to cast off his loafers and pad around in his socks during the hours-long debate briefings. Tapping Klain, who is said to be interested in the post and is known to have wanted the job when it opened in Obama's White House, would show Clinton reaching outside the cast of usual suspects she most often relies on — although he has gained the support of some of Clinton's transition team leaders.
Comfort level, however, is no small factor for the post. “This is a person who controls the schedule, runs the staff, but most importantly, you want somebody who is not going to try to persuade you to do what they want — but is going to give you all the options so you can choose to do what you want,” said Democratic strategist Robert Shrum, a former top aide to Gore and John Kerry. "It's a gatekeeper who knows when to open the gate, who knows who the president needs to hear from."
That level of trust and comfort currently belongs to Clinton’s longtime policy adviser Sullivan, the sleeper candidate for the post. Sullivan, who served as one of Clinton’s top policy advisers at the State Department, has grown in power internally at her Brooklyn headquarters, where he oversaw her policy shop and debate prep operation. He maintains an extremely close relationship with the former secretary of state and is one of only a handful of campaign aides who appear to communicate directly and regularly with Clinton herself.
“Jake -- i told you yesterday, but it bears repeating--you're doing a wonderful job,” Clinton wrote to her aide in July 2009, in one of the emails released earlier this year recovered by the FBI and released by the State Department. “I'm very grateful.”
"It's an honor to work for you," he responded.
Sullivan, who lists Harry Truman as his political hero, would be a choice in the mold of Obama’s current chief of staff, Denis McDonough — a staff pick, as opposed to a Cabinet pick, whose power is derived almost completely from Clinton’s own.
And on some level, he would represent the most Clinton-like choice — someone she has consistently tasked with her most important missions, who doesn't widen the circle of trust. It's how Clinton has long operated; when it came to finding a Donald Trump stand-in for debate prep, for instance, she turned to one of her own in former press secretary Phillipe Reines, rather than broadening her circle to allow an outsider in.
But Sullivan’s main skill set — foreign policy expertise — is not where Clinton necessarily needs her chief of staff to focus. And Sullivan is also young for the post — at 39, he would be the youngest chief of staff since Dick Cheney served under President Gerald Ford in 1975.
The power center of Clinton’s universe, Cheryl Mills, automatically belongs on any list for a top administration job that reports directly to Clinton, insiders said. But Mills, who served as Clinton’s chief of staff in the State Department and was one of Bill Clinton’s attorneys during impeachment, is viewed by Democrats on the Hill as the worst possible choice — someone who represents the inward-looking Hillaryland that indulges Clinton’s worst habits of protection and secrecy and would serve more as a gate closer than a door opener. Insiders also predicted that Mills has a better position as she is — all the influence in the world from the outside, running her own company, without the confines and responsibilities of being within.
Another loyal Clinton soldier, Neera Tanden, is also talked about as someone who rounds out the top-tier list, although she is considered a less likely choice than the top three candidates. Tanden, currently president and CEO of the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, has emerged in Podesta's hacked emails as one of his closest confidantes and someone willing to deliver her honest assessment of Clinton's flaws and blind spots. A former top policy adviser to Clinton in her Senate office and her 2008 presidential bid, Tanden is considered part of the former secretary of state's go-to brain trust on domestic policy issues. Clinton has also stated a commitment to placing women in top jobs and could choose to appoint the first female chief of staff to the first female president. Tom Nides, a former deputy secretary of state for management under Clinton who now works at Morgan Stanley, is considered a top-tier manager with whom Clinton likes spending time. But so far, he has expressed no interest in taking the job in a Clinton White House and is also seen as a less likely candidate.
Ultimately, the choice will be one of the earliest smoke signals of how Clinton will function as president. “The chief of staff is the person most responsible for executing the president’s agenda and pulling together the various pieces, from policy, to politics, to communications, to legislation,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former top aide to President Obama. “Anyone who has this job has to be very good at many of those things. You can start to interpret how she will approach her first few years based on where that individual is strongest.”
A Clinton campaign spokesman declined to comment.
Edward-Isaac Dovere contributed to this report.