Jill Biden’s Former Spokesman Reflects on First Lady’s Role in the President’s 2024 Decision

As president Joe Biden’s campaign team continues its post-debate damage-control tour, all eyes are on First Lady Jill Biden and how she is counseling her husband behind close doors. To understand how the first lady may be approaching these conversations, National Review spoke with one of her former staffers.

Few Democrats have been more willing to criticize President Joe Biden's campaign and media strategy than Michael LaRosa, a former special assistant to the president and a former campaign and White House spokesman for Jill Biden. (He resigned from his White House post in summer 2022 and has taken a beating in the press from Biden world as a result of his candid criticisms of the president’s campaign operation.) LaRosa spoke with National Review on Monday about how and why Biden's closest advisers failed to prepare the country — and their candidate — for last week's debate.

"Their biggest mistake, from the beginning, was to alienate reporters by treating them as the enemy and losing all goodwill and trust through various small-ball tactics that really poison the relationship between the reporter and the spokesperson," LaRosa tells National Review. "Had he been more exposed to the public and the media, nights like Thursday night would have been less jarring for everybody. And they might have been given the benefit of the doubt that it was a bad night."

Below you'll find a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

So clearly, you know the first lady well, having worked as her spokesman both in the administration and on the campaign side. Tell me how you think she’s probably thinking about Thursday’s debate and the media criticism that’s followed. 

It makes her probably want to double down.

Can you elaborate? 

Look, I think she learned a long time ago, probably from 1987 when he first dropped out, that this is his choice and his decision, and she will support that. When it comes to either of their aspirations, they don’t stand in each other’s way. They try to be supportive spouses, and whether she was getting three advanced degrees over the course of her life with him, or whether it was his 15 or so campaigns, she supported him as he supported her decisions and to teach while she was second lady and first lady. Her spouse didn’t stand in the way of her, and so she has always felt like it’s her duty to be supportive of his aspirations as well. What makes their marriage work is that they don’t live in each other’s shadows, and they've always had their own goals and dreams and aspirations, and their marriage complemented their success in both their careers.

And so she’s not going to be the one. She does not like politics. She doesn’t like lobbying politicians. She doesn’t like politicians lobbying her, and she doesn’t use her office the way other first ladies traditionally have to advocate for initiatives or independent policy agendas separate from the president. That office has always been integrated and partnered with the West Wing, similar to a campaign surrogate operation, because she sees her role as championing him and his accomplishments and his agenda.

Relatedly, earlier today, I saw that you quote-tweeted a background quote from a news story suggesting that the first lady is "the one person who could end this train wreck." You wrote: "No, Jill Biden is not going to save the Democrats. Anyone who thinks she will urge him to step aside needs to have their head examined. Btw, it's also kinda unfair to put this on her shoulders — she's not a political adviser, a lawmaker, or a party official — she's his wife. That is not how she rolls."

Can you elaborate a little bit on this? She's not a paid adviser, but she is his wife. We saw this with Florida governor Ron DeSantis and his wife, Casey, during his presidential campaign. Clearly, Biden leans on his wife to make decisions. What do you say to the media narrative and the Democratic lawmakers who are eager to get a meeting with her or get her on the phone to pressure her into getting the president to step aside?

Not worth your time. My advice to any politician or party official who is trying to talk to her would be to just stop, because they will be dead to her. That is not the way to get either of their attention. Jill Biden would never make a decision that’s not on the same page as Valerie and Ted, Mark Gitenstein, Mike Donilon, and Steve Ricchetti. If they came to her collectively, she might do it, but, but it would be really hard for her. She’d almost feel disloyal. I think it’d be really hard for her to do that.

But she might do it, if all those voices were saying "He has to" for his legacy. But it’s very unlikely that they would all do that, knowing that the Biden family doesn’t want to give up. I know that sounds convoluted and more complicated than it is, but that’s based on how I’ve observed these people. In order to get to that group, it’s got to be Pelosi and Schumer. They’re the only ones that could ever influence that particular group. And they would have to make an argument that Democrats can still win, but not with your guy on the top of the ticket.

It’s what Barry Goldwater and John Rhodes and Hugh Scott did in 1974, right? They went to Nixon and said, "We don’t have support for you anymore." It doesn’t seem like anybody of influence will publicly do that.

For now, at least. 

Right. A dam would break, but people have to start doing it publicly, and nobody wants to be first.

Oftentimes when big gaffes happen, major politicians will do wall-to-wall interviews with major outlets trying to drown out negative media coverage. Why aren’t you seeing that with President Joe Biden?

It's a great question. It’s one that I’ve often asked myself about — this allergy to engaging the media. I don’t know exactly what the roots are for doing so. I mean, this was a guy who became as successful as he was over decades because he was so engaging and charming, and he valued his relationships with the media and was extremely accessible. So it’s really hard to understand why their impulse is to climb into a bunker.

This seems to be a problem with the institutional bloodstream of Democrats, where speaking against authority is just very difficult. Could you speak of that dynamic a little bit? With Republicans and Democrats — there’s just a different philosophy animating both parties. Republicans don’t waste any breath dunking on other Republicans publicly with reporters, even the president. Can you speak to how that is creating a lot of challenges at this moment for Democrats?

The problem we face as a party is that we’ve spent several years shaming Republicans like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and others who we’ve accused of joining a cult of personality with Trump. Parties are not supposed to be cults of personality. They’re not families, they’re not siblings, they're transactional by nature, because their only purpose is to win elections. That’s why they are transactional. It’s not meant to be sentimental. And frankly, the point some Democrats are making, not in public, is that we are now becoming very similar to Republicans, actually, because even though there is a real danger in Donald Trump becoming president, we are not going to step aside and leave our guy. That’s what they’re saying, that our guy, standing by our guy, is more important than winning, and we have now kind of conceded the case to Republicans. We’ve now given them quite an upper hand.

And I want to be also really clear, I’m not calling for Joe Biden to step aside. I’m trying to speak clearly and openly and candidly about what is being discussed.

Regarding the Biden team's media strategy — Biden has done far fewer press conferences and tough sit-downs than any of his recent predecessors. His team regularly attacks the New York Times — whom they of course refused to grant a sit-down interview — for being too tough on Biden. They dragged the Wall Street Journal‘s news team for reporting on Republicans on record concerns about Biden’s mental acuity and fitness, they knocked conservatives for circulating what they call "cheap fakes." 

You’ve been publicly critical of their media strategy for a while now. What have been their biggest mistakes? And is it too late to change course?

Their biggest mistake, from the beginning, was to alienate reporters by treating them as the enemy and losing all goodwill and trust through various small-ball tactics that really poison the relationship between the reporter and the spokesperson.

Instead of living out of a bunker, this should have been a very easy relationship to build, because we had all the goodwill going into the White House. So I think that the first step was how they’ve approached their relationship with reporters, which was always as a hazard instead of an opportunity. And that philosophy has only hardened over time, and made them much more antagonistic and hostile towards the press. And I think that’s really done a disservice to the president. Because his press has never really gotten very good. It has never really improved.

The other thing I’ve been critical of is the very infrequent engagement with reporters and media writ large, because had he been more exposed to the public and the media, nights like Thursday night would have been less jarring for everybody. And they might have been given the benefit of the doubt that it was a bad night.

Talk to me about the expectations-setting leading up to the debate, which you just alluded to. What really struck me was how the Trump team kept telling reporters that Trump was hardly preparing. He was doing casual, informal policy discussions. Meanwhile, the Biden team was telling reporters that they have an entire mock-debate stage at Camp David, where he took an entire week away from the White House to prepare. Were you really struck by how they had prepared reporters and the American public for this onstage moment?

Yeah, I think rightfully so they won the news coverage dictating the debate and the debate terms and they probably felt really good about it, and probably collectively felt like it was an effective strategy. And I think they walked into the debate with many of these advantages that you think you have, but in the end, debates are just a performance, and there’s only one person that can perform.

I wasn't paying a ton of attention to the expectations, I just saw that he was doing all this prep. So the contrast between the two campaigns was very apparent. I just didn’t know what that would translate to. The contrast in terms of how they were spending their time was striking. But again, I just didn’t know how that would manifest itself.

There’s been some reporting that the president's family has been frustrated with how Biden was prepared — they gave him too many statistics, his complexion was too pale, he wasn’t prepared for which cameras he should have been looking at. Blaming staff seems to be a trend in this White House. Could you speak to that dynamic and whether you think it’s right for the president’s family to blame his staff for this moment?

I actually am conflicted about it. I think there’s a lot of blame that should be placed on some of the staff that has gotten us to this point, for sure. In terms of the prep, it’s hard to make those judgments. When I was giving pre-debate analysis to reporters or on TV, I said a lot of what Joe Biden needs to do is rehearse and train, how he’s going to say things, not so much what he’s going to say. So he can run circles around anybody on domestic and foreign policy, and contrasting each other’s records, all those things. He didn’t need to be prepped for stuff like that. What he needed to be prepped for was simulating what a debate looks, feels, and sounds like with Donald Trump. Not an opponent — with Donald Trump. And so part of that would include like, okay, did they take pictures of how he looked in the monitors? Did they train him on where his eyes can be focused when his opponent is speaking? Did they rewatch the tape of him in debate prep? Did they make him watch himself?

All these things are all performative aspects of prep, that I would have focused on more with him. I think everybody already knows he’s smart. Everybody for the most part knows that they feel comfortable with his command of the issues, that was never anything he had to prove. So without knowing what they did — if you’re practicing with monitors and lights, then you should know what kind of makeup he needs, and you should know how that looks through the monitors. But I have no idea if they did that or not. It’s hard to say. I'm sure the family’s angry, so I don’t want to blame them. And I don’t blame the staff without knowing what took place. So while there’s a lot I could lay at their feet for where we are right now, I don't know if debate prep should be one of them.

You left your post as the first lady’s spokesman in summer 2022. Did you see the president have these kinds of age-related gaffes when you were working for her? Are there specific age-related moments from your time working for the campaign on the official side that you’ve been reflecting on in recent days?

No, I’ve been pretty consistent about this for over a year since I’ve been asked about it. That just wasn’t my experience. Thursday night was just as jarring for me, because I had not seen him in that way ever before. And now granted, I haven’t been there in two years. So I have no idea what kind of toll everything has taken. But no, it was just as much of a gut punch to me as it was for others.

Was it your impression when you were on the team that top aides were keeping him hidden from other staffers? Or did you not see that during your time?

I did. They were always gatekeeping him — not just him but her, too. They’re very aggressive in safeguarding their privacy and their access to him and limiting access to him. But I didn’t think of it as anything to do with his age, to be honest.

We saw in the New York Times that Hunter Biden is one of the few people who has expressed to his father that he really should stay in the race. I’m curious about your thoughts on the politics of this reality and how it reflects the Biden family’s inner workings.

Oh, that’s pretty normal. I think he leans on Hunter for advice often. Also keep in mind, if you’re looking at it objectively — Hunter's a Yale-educated lawyer, he was appointed by a Republican president to sit on the board of our nation’s largest railroad transit. He’s been a successful business operative. Most importantly, Hunter has had a front-row seat and a witness to the evolution of American politics over the course — like very up close and personal for four or five decades.

I think he proved how savvy he was with how he handled the media and how he handled news coverage during the congressional politicization of his issues. He was out front, he was confrontational. He played the game very well. And he was very smart and very strategic about all of it. So I guess I give him a lot of credit. And so I don’t blame his father for leaning on him. He always has. I don’t think that's anything new.

You are not shy with your criticisms of the Biden team. I’m very curious what kind of texts and phone calls you’ve been getting from staffers, if any, over the past couple days, even though you’ve been critical for quite some time now.

If I was on TV or if reporters asked me what I thought and I saw it as my job to be an honest broker with the audience, only because I’m not a press secretary anymore. Nicolle Wallace sat me down in her office after I left the White House and warned me that anything other than talking points or toeing the line “will always feel like friendly fire to them,” but “all you have is your credibility,” and so I never felt like it was my job to say the sky is red when it’s actually blue. That’s what spinners get paid to do. If I was asked my opinion about a poll or a decision or a strategy, I gave my honest assessment based on my experience.

I adore the Bidens and I’ve never been critical of Joe or Jill Biden. I have enormous respect, admiration, and affection for them and their family. I love them dearly. But if I am asked about certain strategic decisions, whether it’s by print reporters or on TV asked for my advice, I was just, I try to be candid or clinical as I can and it’s not meant to be personal or injurious. I try to frame it more as, instead of doing ABC, they would be better served doing XYZ. Many of the press staffers take that very personally. Many more people are now speaking up, including many with very influential public profiles and followings, and saying the same things I’ve voiced or advised publicly for a long time.

I do hear, and have heard from people inside the White House and the West Wing for quite some time now, who agree with what I say but can’t say so publicly or even internally. Some of them call just to thank me for speaking out or delivering hard truths that they say the Bidens need to hear. I don’t think about all of this in a calculating way though. It’s not personal to me. I assess events and politics and then interpret what I think.

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Jill Biden’s Former Spokesman Reflects on First Lady’s Role in the President’s 2024 Decision

Michael LaRosa insists Jill Biden would never make a decision independently from Biden’s closest advisers. ... READ MORE

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