With help from Allie Bice
Welcome to POLITICO’s 2021 Transition Playbook, your guide to the first 100 days of the Biden administration.
MEENA HARRIS is ambitious.
The 36-year-old’s new book, “Ambitious Girl,” about how women are often smeared for their ambition, is the No. 1 New York Times bestseller this week among children’s picture books. Her other book, “Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea,” is No. 4.
She has her own clothing line, Phenomenal, that celebrities such as JANE FONDA and SOFÍA VERGARA have helped her promote. After the November election, she co-founded her own production company. She’s a paid speaker represented by Creative Artists Agency. She’s a Stanford and Harvard Law graduate.
But some on the Biden campaign and now the Biden White House think Meena is, well, too ambitious — at least when it comes to leveraging her relationship with her aunt, Vice President KAMALA HARRIS.
After President JOE BIDEN’s relatives appeared to profit off of his status as senator and vice president, the Biden White House is trying to avoid any repeats by establishing firm ethical standards for family members.
“It’s the White House’s policy that the president’s name should not be used in connection with any commercial activities to suggest or in any way, in any way they could reasonably be understood to imply his endorsement or support,” Press Secretary JEN PSAKI said Friday.
These standards apply to the vice president, too.
“The Vice President and her family will uphold the highest ethical standards and it’s the White House’s policy that the Vice President’s name should not be used in connection with any commercial activities that could reasonably be understood to imply an endorsement or support,” SABRINA SINGH, a spokesperson for the vice president, said in a statement.
But the policy has been trickier to enforce with Meena than some other family members, given how much Kamala’s image is intertwined with her business projects.
After Biden was officially declared the winner last November, transition ethics lawyers informed Meena that she could sell the rest of her Kamala-themed apparel but could not restock the items. Phenomenal’s “Kamala Harris Swimsuit,” “phenomenal Kamala Tank,” and “Kamala T-shirt,” that appeared on the site last fall are no longer sold.
“Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea,” which was published in June 2020 before Biden picked Kamala as vice president, poses further ethical knots. White House officials say that Meena would be prohibited from publishing that book now because it uses Kamala’s name in the title and her likeness on the cover, which is a drawing of a younger Kamala with MAYA HARRIS, Meena’s mother.
The book doesn’t violate the White House’s policies because she published it before Kamala became vice president, they say. It’s not clear if Meena continuing to accept royalties on the book is permitted, however. Asked if she is still accepting royalties, Meena did not comment.
In a statement, she said that “throughout the primary campaign, general election, and thus far in the administration, I have gone above and beyond to uphold legal and ethical standards.”
As Meena tries to follow the letter of the law, some Biden officials have long been worried about her following the spirit of the rules.
Last August, after Biden picked Kamala, Meena pushed the Biden team to sell a shirt in the campaign store that she designed with fellow influencer CLEO WADE. The shirt was emblazoned, “THE FIRST BUT NOT THE LAST,” alongside a picture of a young Kamala.
“For appearance sake, Meena’s name was removed because we didn’t want to make it seem or appear that she would be benefiting or profiting from the campaign,” a White House official told Transition Playbook. They said neither Meena nor Wade made any money from the shirt.
Since the election, Meena has continued to stoke anxiety in Bidenworld. When she traveled to the inauguration, she flew on a private plane and posted about the trip on her Instagram stories, the hawk-eyed TYLER PAGER noticed.
The White House acknowledged that Meena flew on a plane owned by a donor to Biden’s inaugural committee. The Biden team declined to say who the plane belonged to.
Meena’s latest venture — Phenomenal Productions — is raising more questions.
Meena announced she was starting the production company with BRAD JENKINS, a former Obama White House staffer, weeks after the election. One of her first projects was a two-minute video featuring clips of her aunt, which debuted the day before Inauguration Day.
“We celebrate Kamala Harris, the first woman and first Black American and Asian American to serve as vice president of the United States of America,” the video’s narrator says.
Meena’s company produced the video with the Supermajority Education Fund, a nonprofit devoted to women’s leadership. (An allied super PAC, Supermajority, spent more than $1 million running ads backing Biden and opposing President DONALD TRUMP last year; most of its funding came from a super PAC started by GEORGE SOROS). On YouTube, the ad lists Meena as a producer.
The White House said it did not know if Meena was paid for the ad, or whether her company volunteered its time. If the former, it might violate White House policy. Asked if she was paid by Supermajority, Meena didn’t respond.
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With Treasury Secretary JANET YELLEN, National Economic Council Director BRIAN DEESE, and JARED BERNSTEIN, who’s on his Council of Economic Advisers, in the Oval Office, where he discussed his push for a Covid relief bill. He later flew on Marine One to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., to visit wounded soldiers.
With Biden in the Oval Office.
With the Center for Presidential Transition
JANET YELLEN is the first female Treasury secretary in American history. But what Treasury position has been occupied by only women for more than seven decades, dating back to 1949 — Commissioner of Internal Revenue Service, Director of U.S. Mint, Comptroller of the currency, or Treasurer?
(Answer is at the bottom.)
WHITE HOUSE WILL NOT MEET WITH SENATORS OVER ENERGY MOVES — Biden will not immediately meet with a group of 26 Republican senators who object to his move to restrict Keystone XL pipeline construction and other oil and drilling projects, ANTHONY ADRAGNA reports. The group of Republicans, led by Sen. DAN SULLIVAN (R-Alaska), requested a meeting with the president to discuss the impact of Biden’s recent “job-killing actions,” as they wrote in a letter.
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‘WATCH YOURSELF’ — Psaki was asked at today’s White House press briefing about NATASHA KORECKI, Theo and Tyler’s story detailing the president’s behind-the-scenes efforts to steer his family clear of business conflicts.
The president, they report, took his brother FRANK BIDEN aside last year and warned him to play it safe with those dangling business interests in front of him. “For Christ’s sake, watch yourself,” Biden said.
The admonition didn’t stop Frank Biden from discussing a business opportunity with friend and major political donor JOHN MORGAN.
“I’m not going to get into private conversations between the president and his family members,” Psaki told reporters this morning. “We all have lots of conversations with different family members, I’m sure.”
She continued: “The president is committed to making sure we have the most ethically vigorous administration in history. That includes restrictions on how his image can be used. That is something he has conveyed publicly and privately as well.”
HOW PSAKI LEARNED THE ROPES: Before Psaki was Biden’s White House press secretary or President BARACK OBAMA’s White House communications director, she was the top spokesperson for the State Department — a role that helped shape her briefing style.
“I spent a lot of time with MIKE McCURRY, who is my predecessor in both jobs,” Psaki told SHIA KAPOS. “What was invaluable to me for my time in the State Department was that reporters there go deep into policy and substantive. They’re very collaborative. In that role, you’re rarely speaking about politics.”
She also got experience with, as she put it, “outlets that may have an agenda” — not One America News Network but actual state-run media outlets from China, Russia and other countries. “I treated them with an element of respect but also had fun with them from time to time,” she said. “On my best days, I didn’t allow propaganda to fill that briefing room.”
YELLEN’S STRESS TEST — The wild trading in GameStop stock this week has also put Biden’s Treasury secretary in a tough spot in her first week on the job. The mammoth hedge fund Citadel invested $2 billion to bail out a smaller fund that lost money shorting GameStop. Citadel also happens to have paid Yellen hundreds of thousands of dollars to give speeches over the last two years.
In her ethics agreement, Yellen pledged “to seek written authorization to participate personally and substantially in any particular matter involving specific parties” to whom she had provided services — like a speech to a firm — within the preceding year. Yellen’s last address to CItadel was a series of webinars in October.
So far, Yellen has deferred to the SEC rather than getting involved in the GameStop mess herself. A Yellen spokesperson told us that “Secretary Yellen of course will abide by her Ethics Agreement and ethics pledge in all instances.” Asked if Yellen had requested written authorization to participate in the matter, the spokesperson declined to comment.
JUST DON’T CALL IT A ‘PIVOT’: National security adviser JAKE SULLIVAN has restructured the National Security staff in the Middle East and Asia directorates — downsizing the team devoted to the Middle East and bulking up the unit that coordinates U.S. policy toward the vast region of the world stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.
It’s the latest sign, NATASHA BERTRAND and Tyler write, that the new administration will prioritize Asia in its foreign policy initiatives.
What Biden’s done on climate since taking office (Volts)
Pete Buttigieg will live as a train for a week to prepare for his new job (The Onion)
You already know that Director of National Intelligence AVRIL HAINES held popular erotica readings in the 1990s at Adrian’s Book Cafe, the Baltimore bookstore she co-owned. But how was the food?
“What an odd place Adrian’s is,” ELIZABETH LARGE, The Baltimore Sun’s dining critic, wrote in 1994. “Excellent food” — spanakopita, an “enchilada bake,” peanut butter pie, yogurt bread (?) — “but there doesn’t seem to be any interest in creating a meal. And no ice for your drinks, although they do have all sorts of fancy waters and fruit spritzers and real glass glasses.”
Adrian’s is gone now, and the storefront it once occupied in Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood appears to be vacant.
Since GEORGIA NEESE CLARK was appointed in 1949, every subsequent treasurer has been a woman. The treasurer’s duties include direct oversight over the U.S. Mint and Fort Knox and senior advisor to the Treasury secretary on community.