Welcome to POLITICO’s West Wing Playbook, your guide to the people and power centers in the Biden administration. With help from Allie Bice.
Send tips | Subscribe here | Email Alex | Email Max
The Biden administration has made it clear: they really don’t like China.
And the China hawk hub inside the administration is the White House’s National Security Council led by JAKE SULLIVAN, according to several officials across the administration. Sullivan has stockpiled the NSC with so-called “China hawks” who have consistently advocated for a confrontational approach.
One of the NSC’s directors for China, RUSH DOSHI, published a book last year entitled “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order” that warns the Chinese Communist Party wants to reshape the global order so that it will be less liberal, more coercive and more friendly to the ambitions of autocratic regimes.
Another one of the council’s China directors, JULIAN GEWIRTZ, has a book coming out this year called “Never Turn Back: China and the Forbidden History of the 1980s” that the publisher says will look at the “foundations of strongman rule under Xi Jinping, who has intensified the policing of history to bolster his own authority.”
TARUN CHHABRA, the Senior Director for Technology and National Security, wrote in 2019 that “Beijing’s ‘flexible’ authoritarianism abroad, digital tools of surveillance and control, unique brand of authoritarian capitalism, and ‘weaponization’ of interdependence may in fact render China a more formidable threat to democracy and liberal values than the Soviet Union was during the Cold War.”
And there’s more! The NSC’s Senior Director for International Economics & Labor JEN HARRIS wrote in 2017 that “years of continually subjugating our economic interests to geopolitical ones, especially where China is concerned, has done real harm to American workers.”
Senior NSC China director LAURA ROSENBERGER said in 2020 that China had gone “full Russian” with its disclosures—or lack thereof—about Covid-19 and wrote a piece about how online information is the latest front in the “Great Power” competition.
And Rosenberger’s boss, U.S. Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs KURT CAMPBELL, may be the biggest China hawk of them all. Last Spring, he declared that when it came to China, “the period that was broadly described as engagement has come to an end,” and that “the dominant paradigm is going to be competition.”
NSC’s unambiguous hostility towards China’s ruling Communist Party has caused internal tensions. Some Biden administration officials, such as climate envoy JOHN KERRY and Commerce Secretary GINA RAIMONDO, believe collaboration with China is important to address both climate change and improve global economic conditions.
And, on occasion, the conflicts produced by those differing views have leaked out. The Washington Post reported last fall that Kerry was at odds with Sullivan and other White House aides who were “more skeptical that the United States alone can coax China into reducing emissions.”
The NSC is one of the most influential offices inside the Biden White House. Sullivan has argued that foreign policy must be intertwined with domestic policy — “foreign policy for the middle class” is the tagline — which gives the office a lot of turf. As a result, other parts of the White House and the administration sometimes try to frame proposals as pushing back against China so that they can get them through the NSC more quickly, according to several administration officials.
It’s a stark departure from the Obama administration which took a more collaborative approach to China, even as it sought to isolate them on trade deals like the failed Trans-Pacific Partnership. Some administration officials argue they’ve shifted because the Obama approach didn’t work in prompting China to change its behavior. Others argue that China in 2016 is different than China in 2022 given the rise of “wolf warrior” diplomacy (basically, Chinese diplomats yell at foreign counterparts who challenge Beijing, in addition to being very aggressive on Twitter), increased control of Hong Kong, and other moves.
Often left unsaid is that the politics around China have also changed since the Obama administration. Beginning with DONALD TRUMP’s election in 2016 and ramping up further after Covid-19 originated from China, both parties have become more openly combative toward the country. Democratic Senate candidate TIM RYAN in Ohio debuted a China-bashing ad last month called “One Word,” in which he says “China” eight times in 60 seconds. He declined requests from some Asian-American groups to take it down.
Some administration officials say that Capitol Hill is just as hawkish, if not more, than the NSC team and are adding pressure to the administration.
Even so, some Obama White House veterans have argued that a tough approach will be counterproductive.
RYAN HASS, the NSC’s director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia for Obama’s second term, wrote in a 2021 book that “America’s efforts to weaken China are harming itself.”
“Exaggerating China’s strengths creates anxiety. Anxiety generates insecurity, insecurity leads to overreaction, and overreaction produces bad decisions that undermine America’s own competitiveness,” he wrote.
The book — “Stronger: Adapting America’s China Strategy in an Age of Competitive Interdependence” — was blurbed by, among others, SUSAN RICE, now the head of Biden’s Domestic Policy Council.
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Alexander Ward contributed to this newsletter top
TEXT US — Are you NICHOLAS BURNS, Biden’s ambassador to China? We want to hear from you (we’ll keep you anonymous).
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/WhatsApp Alex at 8183240098 or Max at 7143455427.
It’s reader submitted trivia-Wednesday! This one is courtesy of SEAN DOOCEY — who was the only sitting president to have flown on a commercial airline flight?
(Answer at the bottom.)
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE WANTS YOU TO READ: Speaking of China, Axios reported on Wednesday that Biden was set to pressure Congress to pass an innovation and competition bill aimed at boosting the domestic semiconductor industry.
White House Rapid Response Director MIKE GWIN tweeted several stories on Wednesday about the Biden effort to reduce the U.S.’s reliance on semiconductor chips coming from China and other countries, which experts say contributed to ongoing supply chain frustrations.
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ: According to Bloomberg, Biden was out front of official U.S. policy when he declared that Russia’s actions in Ukraine amounted to genocide. The statement prompted administration officials to scramble behind the scenes to contain the damage. As JUSTIN SINK reported, “It was the third time Biden appeared to get over his skis in describing the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin — or finding himself explaining that no matter what he said, U.S. policy wasn’t changing.”
BIDEN V. TEXAS — White House officials and Texas Gov. GREG ABBOTT have repeatedly butted heads throughout the first year-plus of the Biden administration. But the friction has truly ratcheted up in recent days.
On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary JEN PSAKI called Abbott’s new vehicle inspection policies at the U.S.-Mexico border “unnecessary and redundant,” noting that they’re “causing significant disruptions to the food and automobile supply chains, delaying manufacturing, impacting jobs, and raising prices for families in Texas and across the country.”
Abbott announced the inspection revamp last week in response to the Biden administration’s decision to rescind its Title 42 authority, a Trump-era initiative that allowed for the expulsion of migrants to stop the spread of Covid-19.
But that wasn’t all. On Wednesday, Abbot followed through on his promise to bus undocumented immigrants from Texas and drop them off in Washington, D.C. (A Fox News crew was on the scene to document the bus’ D.C. arrival in real time). In a tweet, Abbott posted: “First Texas bus drops off illegal immigrants blocks from US Capitol in Washington, DC. Biden refuses to come see the mess he’s made at the border. So Texas is bringing the border to him.” He linked to this piece.
THE NEXT NATALIE — The White House Wednesday picked LISA BARCLAY, deputy general counsel for the Department of Health and Human Services, to serve as the deputy coronavirus response coordinator, WaPo’s DAN DIAMOND reports.
Barclay, who has worked in three different administrations, is set to complement newly-tapped coronavirus coordinator ASHISH JHA, a medical professional and academic who hasn’t held a full-time government job.The pair replaces former Covid czar JEFF ZIENTS and his deputy NATALIE QUILLIAN, who left at the beginning of this month.
DOUG DEPARTURES — JULIE MASON, Second Gentleman DOUG EMHOFF’s chief of staff, is leaving the job, CBS News’ TIM PERRY first reported. Mason has held the role since Emhoff took office.
KATIE PETERS, Emhoff’s communications director, is set to fill in until the office finds a permanent replacement. RUKKU SINGLA, the former head of policy for Emhoff, is also going to the Labor Department. Emhof also brought on KENDALL KRUPKIN to be director of scheduling. And ZAINA JAVAID was promoted to serve as director of public engagement and policy.
Read the full internal email here.
STOCKING UP THE JUDICIARY — Biden announced five new judicial nominees Wednesday: JOHN Z. LEE, to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit; SALVADOR MENDOZA, JR. to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit; STEPHEN HENLEY LOCHER to serve on the district court for the Southern District of Iowa; NANCY L. MALDONADO to serve on the district court for the Northern District of Illinois; and GREGORY B. WILLIAMS to serve on the district court in Delaware.
‘All these men’: Jill Biden resented Joe’s advisers who pushed White House run (The Guardian’s Martin Pengelly)
U.S. Expands Flow of Intelligence to Ukraine as White House Sends More Arms (WSJ’s Michael R. Gordon, Warren P. Strobel and Vivian Salama)
Amtrak’s faster, higher-tech Acela trains are delayed again (WaPo’s Luz Lazo)
Vice President Kamala Harris on unions in Philly, inflation, and the midterm elections (Philadelphia Inquirer’s Anna Orso)
He received the President’s Daily Brief in the Oval Office. He also spoke via phone to Ukrainian President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY for nearly an hour in the afternoon “to update him on ongoing U.S. support for Ukraine,” according to a statement from the White House.
She joined the president for the daily brief.
Harris also led a meeting with Cabinet members to discuss the administration’s efforts to improve maternal health in the vice president’s ceremonial office.
In the evening, she will participate in a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee.
White House senior advisor GENE SPERLING is a huge NBA fan, something he had in common with his former boss, BARACK OBAMA. So West Wing Playbook reached out to him to ask if he had any predictions for the NBA playoffs, which are set to kick off this weekend.
In an email, Sperling said he believed the post season was wide open. But he felt that he didn’t want to bet against the team with the two time NBA MVP and reigning finals MVP.
“If I absolutely had to pick, I would (in partial deference to the large Milwaukee Sperling faction), say Giannis, Middleton and Holiday are still formidable and tested, so if I had to make a prediction — a Bucks repeat,” Sperling said.
But Sperling said he was less interested in offering a take on this year’s playoffs than one that’s more than a year away.
“As a life-long Detroit Pistons fan, the combo of Cade Cunningham and Saddiq Bey — and the numbers they have been putting up later in the regular season — are going to make the Pistons the surprise playoff contender in 2022-2023 season and for years to come,” he said.
RICHARD NIXON. After the Christmas holiday in 1973, Nixon flew from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles on a commercial flight — it was revealed after the fact and kept secret for “security reasons,” according to his press secretary at the time.
And since our readers love trivia, we wanted to note that JOHN F. KENNEDY also took a commercial flight on Thanksgiving Day of 1960 — but he was the president-elect at the time, making Nixon the first sitting president to do so. So save your “um, actually” emails. We did our homework!
A CALL OUT — Do 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 Sam Stein