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Arab staff feel WH neglect

The power players, latest policy developments, and intriguing whispers percolating inside the West Wing.
Oct 18, 2023 View in browser

By Lauren Egan, Myah Ward and Lawrence Ukenye

Welcome to POLITICO’s West Wing Playbook, your guide to the people and power centers in the Biden administration. With help from producer Raymond Rapada

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In the aftermath of Hamas’ bloody attack on Israel, senior White House officials quickly began checking in on Jewish staffers to make sure that they were doing OK. People dropped off lunch for their Jewish colleagues, made calls and sent texts to those who were trying to process the death of over a thousand people in Israel.

But as the conflict expanded — with Israel launching airstrikes on Gaza and a potential ground invasion looming — some Muslim, Arab and Palestinian Americans who work in the Biden administration are feeling like their grief is not being taken into similar consideration.

“People are scared,” said an Arab American Administration official, pointing to the killing of a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy in the Chicago area over the weekend, which authorities have called a hate crime. “We’re being asked to plow through our own grief without it getting recognized.”

Other staffers said they’d grown dismayed with rhetoric coming out of the briefing room and from President JOE BIDEN. They feel as if their bosses have not sufficiently accounted for the loss of Palestinian lives, even as the president has announced humanitarian aid to civilians in Gaza and the West Bank, stressed the dangers of Islamophobia and cautioned Israel not to become “consumed” by its “rage.”

“I feel like there’s a muzzle on any criticism of Israel,” said another Arab American administration official. “It’s personally frustrating to me to see Biden go to Israel and give weapons which are basically being used to slaughter Gazans.”

HuffPost’s AKBAR SHAHID AHMED also reported Wednesday that Biden administration staffers working on national security issues across multiple agencies “worry about retaliation at work for questioning Israel’s conduct.”

The frustration is not universally shared among staff. A White House official argued that a lot of effort was going into making sure the administration’s messaging was inclusive of Jewish, Muslim, Arab and Palestinian Americans. Senior adviser ANITA DUNN is leading daily calls with senior leadership to talk about inclusive messaging, and chief of staff JEFF ZIENTS is scheduled to meet later tonight with Cabinet officials to discuss the situation and to encourage secretaries to reach out to their own staffers who are impacted by the conflict.

The White House also sent out invitations to staffers for two listening sessions this week — one for Jewish staffers, and another for Muslim, Arab and Palestinian American staffers. Zients and Dunn will participate, as well as principal deputy national security adviser JON FINER, director of the Office of Public Engagement STEVE BENJAMIN and national climate adviser ALI ZAIDI.

After the killing of the 6-year-old Palestinian American boy, Zients also sent an email to staff acknowledging “how difficult it has been for our Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim American colleagues — in addition to our Jewish colleagues,” according to a copy shared with West Wing Playbook. Biden, for his part, also issued a statement condemning the killing.

“President Biden and Vice President Harris have been unequivocal: there is no place for hate in America — not against Muslims, not against Arab Americans, not against Jews — not against anyone,” White House spokesperson ROBYN PATTERSON said in a statement. Patterson pointed out that Biden reversed former President DONALD TRUMP’s Muslim travel ban, established a task force to address discrimination against Muslims, and prioritized building a diverse staff.

A former Muslim White House staffer said that disagreeing with the president’s policy positions is part of the job — no staffer is going to personally align with 100 percent of the decision he makes. The issue is whether they feel support from above when there are disagreements. Relatedly, senior staff may not always recognize the best way to communicate that support.

Still, the division among Biden staffers on the issue highlights larger dynamics at play in the Democratic Party — ones that could cause political issues for the president if the conflict drags into a reelection year. Some progressive lawmakers have called out Biden for standing firmly with Israel even as it launches a war, while other influential advocacy groups have privately expressed concern with the administration that its rhetoric could provoke anti-Arab sentiments.

“Getting this right is not as important to some colleagues as others,” said the second Arab American administration official. “I’ve voiced this internally and colleagues just defend Israel.”

TO BE CLEAR: In yesterday’s newsletter we said that former FTC Commissioner NOAH PHILLIPS resigned from his position over disagreements with agency Chair LINA KHAN. While that played a role in his departure, he cited family reasons as the primary factor in his decision.

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Thanks to the White House Historical Association for this question!

Which president was interested in Civil War history and took the time to visit Civil War sites in Antietam, Md. and Gettysburg, Pa.?

(Answer at bottom.)

The Oval

SENSING HIS MOMENT: Biden will deliver a prime-time Oval Office speech Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on the administration’s “response to Hamas’ terrorist attacks against Israel and Russia’s ongoing brutal war against Ukraine,” press secretary KARINE JEAN-PIERRE announced in a statement.

THE TYLER PAGER EFFECT: Biden made an unexpected visit to the press cabin during a refuel stop at Ramstein Air Base while traveling back to Washington from Israel. It was just his second Air Force One gaggle with the press pool during his presidency. WaPo’s TYLER PAGER just happened to also be the pool reporter on that trip, too.

During the gaggle, Biden told reporters Egyptian President ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI agreed to open up the Rafah gate, the sole crossing point between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, to allow up to 20 trucks of humanitarian assistance into Gaza.

WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE WANTS YOU TO SEE: Any photos or videos of Biden being warmly received during his trip to Israel. Communications director BEN LABOLT reposted a video of Biden meeting with first responders, doctors and Kibbutz families. The president embraced RACHEL EDRI, a woman held captive at gunpoint by Hamas for 20 hours. Former chief of staff RON KLAIN also shared a photo of Biden with Prime Minister BENJAMIN NETANYAHU. “Some people talk tough,” he tweeted. “@JoeBiden is tough and strong and there when he is needed.”

WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ: This piece by our ALEX DAUGHERTY about how Florida Gov. RON DESANTIS is trying to outperform the administration’s efforts to fly Americans out of Israel. Desantis and Rep. CORY MILLS (R-Fla.) arranged free charter flights for Americans out of Israel while those who use flights provided by the administration will eventually be required to reimburse the federal government.

“There was a devoid [sic] of leadership, so we stepped up and led,” DeSantis on Sunday. Some Democratic lawmakers suggested they supported waiving the reimbursements.


LEW IN LIMBO: JACOB LEW, Biden’s pick to serve as U.S. ambassador to Israel, faced intense criticism on Wednesday from Republicans during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, our CONNOR O’BRIEN reports. GOP lawmakers took aim at Lew’s role in negotiating the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — which Republicans fiercely opposed — during his time in the Obama administration when he served as Treasury Secretary.

“This whole thing’s about Iran,” Sen. JIM RISCH (R-Idaho) said of Lew’s nomination. “And holding hands with Iran under the table doesn’t work for me.”

PERSONNEL MOVES: MALBERT SMITH is now adviser for the assistant secretary of the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Labor, our DANIEL LIPPMAN has learned. He most recently was senior legislative assistant at DOL.

— STEPHEN GOEPFERT has been promoted to be deputy director of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Implementation team at the Department of Transportation, taking on an expanded role in operations, policy and external affairs, Daniel also learned. He is a former special assistant and personal aide to Biden.

— GARPHIL JULIEN, who was previously policy adviser at the National Economic Council, has joined Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations faculty as a research and policy development associate, our MARCIA BROWN has learned.

Agenda Setting

A BRIEF SWING THROUGH THE HOLY LAND: Biden reaffirmed U.S. support for Israel Wednesday amid an increasingly dire backdrop of surging violence in the Middle East. The president also announced the U.S. would send $100 million in aid to civilians in Gaza and the West Bank affected by the crisis, our KELLY GARRITY reports. “This money will support more than 1 million displaced in conflict affected Palestinians, including emergency needs in Gaza,” Biden said, while warning Hamas against diverting the aid.

The president said he spoke with members of the Israeli cabinet about the need for humanitarian assistance, and Israel confirmed that food, water and medicine would begin to flow from Egypt through Gaza.

Biden’s trip came shortly after a rocket destroyed a hospital in Gaza, killing hundreds of civilians. The Biden administration has sided with Israel so far, citing Pentagon intelligence suggesting Hamas was behind the explosion.

WE’RE NOT READY: Mayors across the U.S. are warning the Biden administration that many of their cities don’t have the infrastructure necessary to support the president’s push for electric vehicles to replace gasoline-powered cars, our LIZ CRAMPTON reports.

While more than 75 percent of the mayors Liz spoke to support Biden’s EV agenda, many have expressed concerns about their state’s electric grids and the lack of charging stations in accessible locations.

“If everybody in the city tomorrow has an EV, we would have some serious infrastructure challenges,” said DAVID HOLT, mayor of Oklahoma City.

What We're Reading

Treasury hits Hamas, Iran with sanctions (POLITICO’s Sam Sutton)

American Household Wealth Jumped in the Pandemic (NYT's Jeanna Smialek and Ben Casselman)


President JOHN F. KENNEDY was interested in Civil War history and visited battle sites in Gettysburg and Antietam with family. While in Gettysburg, the Kennedy Family’s tour guide, JACOB M. SHEADS, noted the Kennedys’ were interested most in what he called “the human side” of the battle, according to the White House Historical Association.

A CALL OUT! Do you think you have a harder trivia question? Send us your best one about the presidents, with a citation or sourcing, and we may feature it!

Edited by Eun Kyung Kim and Sam Stein.


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Arab staff feel WH neglect


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