Kamala Harris' chief of staff on how Joe Biden can "change the direction of this country"

Salon talks to Karine Jean-Pierre about the Biden campaign's strategy to win, and what comes after for the left

Published October 24, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

Karine Jean-Pierre and Kamala Harris speak onstage at the MoveOn Big Ideas Forum at The Warfield Theatre on June 01, 2019 in San Francisco, California. (Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images for MoveOn)
Karine Jean-Pierre and Kamala Harris speak onstage at the MoveOn Big Ideas Forum at The Warfield Theatre on June 01, 2019 in San Francisco, California. (Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images for MoveOn)

It's history squared. Karine Jean-Pierre, Senator Kamala Harris' chief of staff, is making history while working on a campaign that is also making history. Jean-Pierre, a former Obama administration member, made history as the first Black woman to ever be named as chief of staff for a vice presidential campaign when she was tapped by Harris to serve in the position. And of course, Harris herself is the first Black woman to be the running mate on a major party's presidential ticket. 

Jean-Pierre's job as chief of staff is to manage Harris' staff and help the senator navigate her campaign. But when I talked to Pierre on "Salon Talks" this week, one other part of her job comes through clearly: Getting people to vote for the Biden/Harris ticket. And for someone working non-stop on the campaign, she has a lot of energy, especially as she pushes back on Donald Trump's recent smear of Joe Biden, noting Trump has chosen this tactic because he is "desperate."

Jean-Pierre gleefully added that if Trump and his BFF Rudy Giuliani "want a conversation on corruption, then they need to talk about Donald Trump who is the most corrupt, lawless and unstable president in American history," pointing out that six of people in Trump's inner circle went to jail or were convicted of a crime. 

However, as Jean-Pierre, who served as an MSNBC political analyst and chief public affairs officer at before she took the position with Harris' campaign, explained this election will not be won or lost with discussions on "corruption," but rather on issues affecting Americans on a daily basis: COVID-19 and the economy. As she laid out, Americans want leadership on these issues, not Trump's buffet of lies. Watch my conversation with Jean-Pierre here or read a Q&A of our chat below.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity

Today I'm very happy to welcome Karine Jean-Pierre. She was an MSNBC contributor. We interviewed her on Salon for her book. But right now she's serving as chief of staff for Senator Kamala Harris' campaign for vice president of the United States of America. Karine, welcome back to Salon.

Hey, Dean. So good to see you. Last time we did this, we were in person and so much has changed, but it's good to see you, my friend. Virtually.

But can you imagine, we're just a few days away from the most crucial, consequential election of our lifetime.

I agree. And so, first of all, though, it's not often I get to speak to the chief of staff for the vice presidential candidate for the presidency of the United States. People probably have an idea what the chief of staff in our White House does, but what does the chief of staff for a candidate to vice president do?

I want to start for a moment to acknowledge the historical nature of a Kamala Harris on this ticket. Right? If you think about it, Joe Biden selected her to be his running mate, helping her make history. And so that, to me, that was just so amazing. A Black woman with Indian heritage, and it plays into [how] representation matters. It plays into having someone like her at the table who will have the ear of the president and be part of the decision making once they get into the administration. So you have that historic nature of her being announced. And then you have the other historical component where she accepts the nomination at the convention — amazing night, amazing moment. And then the debate, it's like the trifecta, right? Then the debate happens and she wins that debate against Mike Pence, and seeing her on the debate stage and speaking directly to the American people, making the case for a Joe Biden/Kamala Harris administration, I think for me, and for so many women, was so inspiring.

I always want to start with that because it is such an historical moment, and an historical ticket, even though this is the most consequential election of our lifetime. Look, in my work for Senator Harris, I'm helping her speak directly to the American people. We're traveling both virtually and in person, earning every vote. Election day is actually every day, right? Because people are voting right now — tens of millions of people have voted. And so that is my job: make sure she's out there, make sure she's on the trail, making sure that it's being done in a strategic way and a smart way, alongside with the broader campaign, and managing her staff.

Senator Harris is out on the campaign trail, connecting with diverse voters from around the country in key states that we're going to need to win. And so that's my job, and I have been proud and honored to be given this responsibility. And we're going to win because folks who are watching are going to go out there and they're going to vote, and they're going to get their communities to vote, they're going to get their household to vote, and we're going to win this thing.

It's like you're willing it through the screen there. I can tell it's just in your mind: Karine Jean-Pierre says you will vote. Come vote by November third.

And if you don't know how to vote, make a plan. I haven't done it yet, or don't know how it works in your state. Go to Please, please make a plan, make a plan to vote. It's so critical. Vote early if you can, in your state.

And nobody can plan for the issues that are going to come up that are unexpected in a campaign for president and VP. Right now, though, we're seeing what is not unexpected, just worse than I had hoped: this spike in COVID. You know, Donald Trump began his rallies on September 8th after taking the summer off, which was actually responsible. He took the summer off from rallies. We were averaging 36,000 new cases a day. Today, as we sit here and chat, we're averaging over 60,000 new cases. Is it more irresponsible than ever that Donald Trump is out there doing these rallies where we've seen — he actually got people sick who have attended it — but also he's signaling to his base that there's no need for social distancing. There's no need for masks. Live your life. And now we're seeing an explosion across much of the Midwest in COVID, and the death toll is now creeping up as well.

You know, Dean, it's so incredibly irresponsible. He's literally going around the country holding super-spreader events. I mean, this is the president of the United States, and the American people are watching at home. They know it, they know it.

And so, if President Trump hasn't taken necessary precautions to protect himself, how can we trust him to protect us, to protect others? It's really sad and disturbing because this is real. More than 210,000 people ... have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. alone. More than eight million people have cases of COVID, and it could become a preexisting condition. And what is happening, this administration right now is in the courts trying to take away [the Affordable Care Act], which means taking away health care from 20 million people. You should be expanding health care right now. You should be making sure it's affordable, making sure that there's options, which is what Joe Biden wants to do when he's president. And this president wants to take away your health care. This is what he's doing.

Our campaign is getting out to meet people where it matters. I talked to you about what Kamala Harris is doing. And so, our campaign — Joe Biden, Dr. Biden, Doug Emhoff — they are out there, they're doing it in a very safe way. They're meeting people where they are, but they're wearing masks, we're socially distancing, we're making sure we're washing our hands. And we're having really safe, as safe as we can make it, interaction with voters. And it's irresponsible [to hold] rallies staged for TV to boost egos. That's what he's doing; he's boosting his ego. And these are real communities. These are local businesses, and these are their lives. And, like I said, people are dying.

And another thing — Biden, throughout this crisis, he's demonstrated leadership. And that's what voters at home are looking for. They want leadership. This campaign has taken COVID extremely seriously from the beginning, back in March, when we started seeing cities and states shutting down. And since the start of COVID-19, the campaign's top priority has been the health of voters first. That's what we do. Listening to experts, and listening to health experts. Yes, Joe Biden believes in science, and listens to health experts. And that's what we're going to continue to do on our campaign, and definitely, when Joe Biden is president and Kamala Harris is vice president.

You know, I think the fact is that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have empathy and compassion, bucketloads of that. And Donald Trump is just a celebration of selfishness, and cruelty often as well. But if you are very selfish, you don't even care if your own supporters get sick from a virus, and might even die from it. That just typifies Trumpism to me. Trumpism, so much, as Donald Trump has shown us, is his abject selfishness that I've never seen in any person. I've never seen someone this selfish. So again, to your point, he's having rallies for his own ego, and for optics. He thinks it helps. And he will literally sacrifice the lives of his own supporters, and anyone else, to do that. This is where we are. Are you stunned by that? This is where we are in 2020 in the United States of America.

This is where we are. And the thing is, we knew it in 2016. We did, we knew it in 2016. And now, after four years of terrible policies, and him in the White House, right? Debasing the White House and showing his lack of leadership. Now it's hurting us. Now it's killing us. And that's the fear. I mean, this is the president. Again, the president of the United States has mismanaged COVID-19 so poorly that now we are in an economic crisis and he does not care. We know that. We know that from Bob Woodward's book, where we heard the tapes ourselves, we heard his voice, and he understood how deadly this virus was. He understood that this was worse than the flu. He understood that this was airborne. He understood everything that you needed to know, a leader needed to know, to stop this, to manage this.

And he didn't care. He didn't care. And that's what's so scary. You know, Joe Biden in his speech, he tends to say look at the table and see that missing person who was supposed to be sitting at the chair at your dinner table. That's what real people are going through, everyday people are going through. They have lost someone in their family because there has been no care. No care by the leader at the top.

When I started off talking to you, I talked about how this is the most consequential election of our lifetime. It is, because so much is on the ballot, right? Our lives are on the ballot, justices on the ballot. Our health care is on the ballot. The economy is on the ballot. You know, everything that we care about is on the ballot. And so that's what matters. That's what matters in the last few days, as people are voting right now,

I agree with you. And for people who have known someone who died from COVID, I knew three people. One was a childhood friend, who leaves behind two teenage sons, now without a dad. It is very real and it's very painful, this virus. For some Trump supporters, I guess they are fortunate enough, they don't know anyone who was impacted by this virus or died, but I wish they would have an orbit of compassion and empathy that would go beyond who they know, and understand there are people in pain in this country.

Donald Trump's closing arguments talk about Joe Biden's family. Joe Biden's closing arguments tell about how to help your family. And is that because...

And everything Hunter Biden, which even Mike Huckabee and Frank Luntz stopped talking about Hunter Biden. No poll shows anyone cares about that. They care about a deadly virus, and they care about the economics of it.

Trump is talking about Hunter Biden — a story that's not just alleged, it's fabricated in my view — because he's got nothing else. He literally has, he didn't even get Mexico to pay for the wall. I mean, COVID was bad. The economy — we have 11 million people out of work that had a job in March. I've not seen a jobs plan. Is this because he really literally has nothing else to talk about for the last week and a half of the campaign?

Yes. He's desperate, right? This is a thoroughly discredited attack that Trump and Rudy Giuliani had been trying to pin on Joe Biden for over a year, right? This is not old. This is something that they've been trying to do over here. And it's false. It's misinformation. It's lies. And he's doing it because he is desperate. They are so desperate right now because they want a conversation on corruption. But here's the thing. If they want a conversation with corruption, Dean, they need to talk about Donald Trump, who is the most corrupt, lawless and unstable president in American history. Six of his campaign managers and senior staff have been charged with major crimes. Let's not forget, Donald Trump, himself, was impeached by the House because he was so afraid of Joe Biden, because he wanted to stop Joe Biden, because he did not want to take on Joe Biden in the general election.

And so, now we have a person, Donald Trump, who is trying to distract, who is trying to just put anything that he can on Joe Biden. And it hasn't stopped, if you think about it. It's been a year and a half. All of these lies do not stick on Joe Biden because, I think because the American people are aware of what is truly going on. And the American people want change. They want leadership, going back to our last conversation about leadership, about people dying. Enough is enough. And so now you have an incredibly desperate man who is lying, and just continues to debase the office that he holds.

I know that Vice President Biden will not speak about Ivanka Trump. And I know why, because the real issue that Americans want to hear about is how to keep your family safe and how to put food on their table and get a job. I understand that. But from a campaign strategy point of view, does it make sense for surrogates? I mean, I just wrote about it for The Daily Beast, and you've got Ivanka Trump, who literally got trademarks approved from China the day her father lifted sanctions on ZTE, the Chinese telecommunications company. They're not even trying to hide the comp, and there's so many crude, nonpartisan ethics have been documented. They even filed a complaint with the DOJ in January 2019, asking for an investigation where her and Jared were profiting over tax shelters they were working on for the federal government.

But I get that Joe Biden will not talk about that, and nor do I actually think he should. But should there be a place for surrogates on the campaign to talk about this? Or is that taking you off message?

I think, sure. I think there'll be surrogates talking about this. So I've been out there. I have traveled, I've been to North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania. I've been to many of the battleground states in the past couple of weeks, and traveling either with the senator or with the vice president for their respective trips.

And that's not what people want to hear. It really isn't. That's not what people want to hear. They want to hear about, hey, how are they going to get a job? What are we doing about the economy? How are you going to protect us from COVID-19? How about what are you going to do to keep us safe? What are you going to do to help us gain wealth?

You hear about education. You know, there are kids who cannot go back to school. That's affecting parents and everyday people. We have a six-year-old. We have to deal with that, but thank goodness we have the resources to deal with that in a way that we can help our child. She has peers, or kids her age, whose parents can't stay home. They've got to go to work. And sometimes they got to bring their kid to work. And how their kids learn? They learn in the car.

This is what everyday people are talking about and need to deal with. And that's what we're talking about. We're putting out plans: Talking about here, this is how we're going to deal with this issue. This is how we're going to move the country forward. And honestly, when Biden launched his campaign back in April of 2019, the thing I think that really resonated when he put out his launch ad, I should say, was we need to save the soul of our nation. And you saw that image of Charlottesville, and you saw neo-Nazis marching down those streets. And Dean, I know you wrote about it. You've talked about it. We've talked about it.

And it was disturbing, right? This was the direction of our country. And then he talks about we have 400 years to talk about too, right? There's a whole history of this country that we need to talk about, that's real systemic racism. But part of the problem is something that we can handle in just a few days on November 3, and what I mean by that is voting Donald Trump out, and sending a loud resounding message to Republicans that this is not OK, and this shouldn't be who we are and we have to change the direction of this country. And so those are the things that Joe Biden is talking about.

Interesting poll from Pennsylvania — and the top line was good to the Biden campaign, up by six — but I looked at the issues of concern for people. And there's one that jumped out that surprised me, but I think it speaks to Joe Biden. The top three almost tied: COVID, the economy, understood, expected. The third one was about uniting the country. There are voters in Pennsylvania, that tied with COVID and the economy about uniting the country. There are people desperate for this cold war to end between the left and the right, but can we honestly be hopeful that can change, or are we being naive that if Joe Biden wins, gets elected, that we can build some common ground and go beyond the idea of owning the libs and owning the conservatives, and actually find some common ground with the people we can? Because we're not going to meet people halfway on white supremacy. That's not happening. We understand that, but there's others out there that think maybe we can. What do you think?

I'm hopeful. We have to be hopeful. How can we move on if we're not hopeful? And here's the thing. I have known Joe Biden for more than a decade. I got to know him when I worked in the Obama/Biden campaign, and I know him and I got to travel with him when I was in the White House. I know him personally to be a decent, honest, true person. And I believe in him, or else I wouldn't be on this campaign, honestly. There's so many things that I can be doing. I believe that he will unite the country — at the least, try to, make an honest, true effort to try to make that happen. And we need this. We've been divided, at least for this current moment, for four years.

And we just can't go on like this. There's too much on the line, and I believe in him, I trust him. And I think that's why you see that in the polling, Dean, right? You see that over and over and over again. You see him as being a comfort, right? Someone who can comfort people, someone who can unite the country, someone you can trust, someone who has the leadership to get us out of this.

And it's not just domestically, right? It's internationally. How we're seen now as a country with our allies, just our allies, right? Who we have just kind of turned our backs to because of Donald Trump, who is doing this, as you know, Dean, all in our name, he's doing this on our behalf.

We have to be hopeful. We have to be hopeful.

[Trump] paid more money to China in taxes than he paid in the United States of America, we just learned from New York Times reporting. Flash forward: Joe Biden wins. It takes a lot of work, but he wins. And a lot of progressives are going to say, look, we want Medicare for All now. We want the Green New Deal or parts of it. What can you tell them about Joe Biden listening and being someone who will be responsive to those within his base who are pushing from the left?

As you know, Dean, I come from a progressive organization. I took a leave from Move On to do this work, to do this, I think, incredibly important job that myself and so many of my colleagues are doing, and it's trying to win this election in the next last several days. Look, as Joe Biden has said, there's more that unites us as a party than separates us. And he believes in addressing climate change, making health care a right, not a privilege, which is so important. Rewarding work, not wealth, which he talks about all the time. And I think it is right to say that we might disagree on tactics, but we share the same goals. He would say that, right? These are his words. We would share the same goals, and I think that's what makes the Democratic Party so unique.

And I think about this all the time. We all want the same thing. The tactics are different. And I think we will get there to a place where all the things I just laid out — rewarding work, not wealth; health care is a right, not a privilege — I think we will all get there. And so the thing that I was thinking about is Donald Trump does not share any of those same goals. He's reversing climate change. He's in the court, as I mentioned before, trying to repeal Obamacare. His tax cut rewarded the super wealthy and corporations. And I think Joe has been incredibly deliberate in how he is reaching out to the progressive wing of the party and Bernie supporters. I mean, Bernie has been on board with Joe Biden from practically day one, when the primary was done.

Elizabeth Warren has been amazing. She was just in Wisconsin for us a couple of days ago, over the weekend. So throughout this campaign, he's made clear he wants to build the broadest coalition to defeat Donald Trump. And we're going to need that coalition as well as we try to govern. We just have to all come together and achieve that common goal.

I'm confident about that. But Joe is running on the most progressive agenda of any president since Medicare was created, and I think we just have to continue to work together and push each other. I mean, right? That's the beauty of the Democratic Party.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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