Obama’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Scandals He Faces

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In the Magazine
McDonough on the front lines. William B. Plowman/NBC/Getty

“ONE TEAM, one fight!”

It’s hardly surprising that White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough likes to repeat this battle cry in his pep talks to colleagues: an aging athlete, like his boss President Obama, the 43-year-old McDonough played safety for the St. John’s University “Fighting Johnnies” in his home state of Minnesota. And on Monday and Tuesday of this week, it was surely “one team, one fight” as McDonough and his staff orchestrated the White House response to the devastation in Oklahoma. But a week ago, as they coped with one political flap after another, McDonough’s inspirational slogan was the stuff of gallows humor.

At the end of last Wednesday’s 7:45 a.m. senior staff meeting in the chief of staff’s roomy West Wing office, a dozen scandal-fatigued loyalists surveyed the trifecta of embarrassments that threatened to derail the president’s second-term agenda. The ongoing controversy over Benghazi, the IRS admission that it had improperly targeted Tea Party groups, and the Justice Department’s subpoena of Associated Press phone records were all driving the media narrative and forcing the administration onto the defensive. Political strategist Dan Pfeiffer got a laugh as he called out mordantly, “One team, one fight ...”

McDonough got a bigger laugh with his feisty response: “One team, a shitload of fights!”

grove-fe0319-mcdonough-embed6 McDonough is fiercely protective of Obama, and quick to reprimand anyone he feels has undermined his boss. Pete Souza/The White House

At a time of presidential scandal, there is no more important behind-the-scenes figure in Washington than the White House chief of staff. And by all accounts, McDonough—just four months into the job—has acquitted himself well during the past few weeks. It was McDonough, say White House aides, who on May 15 advocated declassifying and publicly releasing previously confidential interagency emails about the controversial Benghazi talking points. Those emails helped turn the conventional wisdom on Benghazi from “White House cover-up” to “Republican overreach”—with news reports suggesting that a GOP source had misrepresented a key communication from Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes to make the White House and the State Department look far worse than was justified. Meanwhile, after Obama’s initially passive response to the IRS scandal, McDonough was central in the decision to fire the acting commissioner and send the president in front of television cameras to express his anger at the tax collection agency’s alleged misdeeds.

But as the scandals wear on, accentuating Washington’s already-stark partisan divide, it remains to be seen how McDonough’s style will translate into his new role. Those who know him describe something of a paradox: a man who, on the one hand, can be hard on others but who also has a talent for personal outreach. “One of Denis’s strengths is his enormous ability to be empathic and to find the right chemistry with people even though they have different personalities and different agendas,” says former South Dakota senator Tom Daschle, for whom McDonough toiled as a foreign-policy aide when Daschle was Senate majority leader. “He also can be tough. He knows how to crack the whip.”

I would definitely not want to undercut the president in some way and then have a sit-down with Denis McDonough,’ says a senior White House staffer.

HISTORICALLY, THERE have been two types of chiefs of staff in the White House: principals and staff guys. The principals—people like James Baker and Leon Panetta—brought strong worldviews and public personas to the job. The staff guys, by contrast, are known mainly for their managerial abilities and their fierce loyalty to the president. McDonough is the quintessential staff guy: the living embodiment of “one team, one fight.”

Nobody doubts McDonough’s closeness to Obama. On January 25, as the president announced McDonough’s promotion from deputy national security adviser to chief of staff, he called his aide “one of my closest friends.” First-family intimate and presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett—who enjoyed a less than trusting relationship with Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff—sings an aria of McDonough’s praises. “I’m incredibly fond of him,” she says, noting that she would be happy if he stayed in the job until January 20, 2017.

“Denis and the president are close,” says Bill Daley, who lasted a mere 12 months as Obama’s third chief of staff and who observed McDonough’s rapport with Obama during morning national-security briefings. “I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a big brother–little brother relationship, but there was a little bit of the jock, a little bit of competition, and the president really admired how Denis was organized and drove a process and was on top of stuff.”

McDonough is fiercely protective of Obama, and quick to reprimand anyone he feels has undermined his boss. He once savagely dressed down the late Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan and three decades McDonough’s senior, for cooperating with a splashy New Yorker profile. “I would definitely not want to undercut the president in some way and then have a sit-down with Denis McDonough,” says a senior White House staffer.

grove-fe0319-mcdonough-embed3 From Benghazi to the IRS, it is unclear that McDonough’s outreach has helped stop Republicans from relentlessly hyping recent scandals. Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Yet it is the other side of McDonough that may—at a time of scandal, partisanship, and increased tensions between the administration and Capitol Hill—prove to be most valuable to Obama. Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike give McDonough credit for a new White House effort to reach out to members of Congress—notably a series of informal meals hosted by the president, and the chief of staff’s recent forays to restaurants for beers with House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan and dinner with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. It all amounts to a conspicuous departure from the past, when Obama and his minions were often criticized as insular and aloof.

First-term Democratic Sen. Al Franken, who represents McDonough’s home state of Minnesota, recalls that confusion over Minnesota’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act was quickly resolved in February after the chief of staff arranged for Franken and Minnesota’s senior senator, Amy Klobuchar, to ask the president for help during a flight to Minneapolis aboard Air Force One. “Denis made it clear that he was accessible,” Franken tells Newsweek. “He gave me his direct phone number—he wrote it down. I felt like it isn’t just because I’m from Minnesota. I feel like he’s that way with other members.”

Pat Roberts of Kansas, who was among 11 Republican senators who dined with the president at the White House last month, says that he has been talking to McDonough about dialing back “regulatory overkill” at various federal agencies. “That’s a good thing,” Roberts says. “Nobody ever called me before.”

McDonough has been especially solicitous of Sen. John McCain, who is perhaps Obama’s most ferocious critic on foreign policy. During the same week that McCain was mercilessly pummeling Obama over alleged obfuscation on Benghazi and timidity on Syria, he got a private meeting with the president to discuss the state of play on immigration and budget negotiations, two areas where McCain has tried to be helpful. “Listen, the president sets the agenda; he calls the tune. But there’s no doubt that Denis McDonough has been responsible for significant outreach to Republicans,” says McCain, who has known the chief of staff since his days with Daschle. “The president is worried about his second term. All presidents are. But I think that Denis has played a very significant role ... because people here have known him for years and trust him.”

grove-fe0319-mcdonough-embed4 After a senior staff meeting to deal with the trifecta of embarrassments (one of which is Benghazi, seen here), McDonough got a laugh: “One team, a shitload of fights!” AFP/Getty

The second-term White House is “a big improvement now that they’re actually talking to us,” says Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who, in an oft-repeated phrase, calls McDonough “a straight shooter.” “It doesn’t matter what they say ... Communication is always good.”

BUT FOR all the cordial feelings McDonough’s outreach has engendered with individual members, it’s not clear what the payoff has been for the White House. None of the outreach has stopped Hill Republicans from relentlessly hyping the recent scandals surrounding Obama. Meanwhile, despite a feverish White House campaign and vast public support, broad background checks for gun buyers failed in the face of hard-nosed calculation by the National Rifle Association; a grand bargain on the federal budget and comprehensive immigration reform remain iffy at best; and other Obama priorities will be a tough sell in a divided government in which Republicans control the House and a 60-vote supermajority is often required in the Senate.

Indeed, some Democrats dismiss the McDonough charm offensive as little more than window dressing. “It’s not a helluva lot better now,” complains a Democratic senator who asked not to be identified for fear of White House retribution. “Denis McDonough is very good at returning phone calls—I don’t know when he finds the time to sleep—but I’m not certain that anything is happening other than that. In terms of things actually getting done in the White House, it’s still not any better than it was before. It’s still the feeling of a lot of us here that the White House doesn’t consult with us. Instead, it tells us what they’ve done. You know, there are instances where they might have talked to us beforehand, and maybe we would have had some input into that, and it would come out better if we just had some upfront idea about this or that before it happened.”

Rep. George Miller of California, a senior Democrat and diehard loyalist of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, is still smarting over being blindsided by the White House on the minimum wage. In February, Miller and his allies were ready with legislation to raise the hourly minimum to $10.10. Miller says he didn’t learn until 10 minutes before the February 13 State of the Union address—in a minute-and-a-half-long phone call from McDonough—that the president was going to propose a rate hike to only $9.

grove-fe0319-mcdonough-embed5jpg U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder. Brendan Smialowski--AFP-Getty Images

“I was dumbfounded,” Miller says. “I said, ‘Have you talked to Senator [Tom] Harkin?’ ”—the Senate sponsor of the legislation. “ ‘Have you talked to anybody in the leadership about how to proceed between the House and the Senate Democrats?’ ” Miller adds that, from his perspective, “there hasn’t been any congressional relations [with the White House] for a long time. That tells you all you need to know.”

WHILE CONGRESS presents an ultimately unpredictable challenge, McDonough by most accounts is running a crisp process in the West Wing. During the daily half-hour senior staff meeting at 7:45 a.m., and then at a larger meeting attended by 30-odd senior and midlevel staffers in the Roosevelt Room, McDonough ticks off “due-outs”—that is, tasks to be accomplished—and relentlessly checks back to see that they’re done.

His leadership style is blunt but broadminded; he gives clear direction but regularly invites colleagues to “tell me where I’m wrong.” He is personally attentive to colleagues who might be going through a life crisis, and works to defuse injured feelings before they fester, sometimes scheduling a 6 a.m. kiss-and-make-up session with an aggrieved colleague at a nearby Starbucks.

McDonough has regular contact with key reporters and is known as a talented communicator, but he rarely speaks on the record and didn’t grant an interview for this story. “That would be unseemly; you don’t talk about yourself. That’s not how they do things in Minnesota,” explains a senior presidential adviser.

grove-fe0319-mcdonough-embed2 McDonough once savagely dressed down the late Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Erik de Castro / Reuters

The married father of three young children, he spends nearly every waking hour at the White House or traveling with the president, and is notorious for riding a bicycle to and from work, leaving his house in the Washington suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland, before the sun rises and returning long after it sets. He has been known to run conference calls while pedaling through heavy traffic.

At his wife Kari’s insistence, McDonough briefly gave up the bike after a traffic accident. “He was pedaling along one day and he ran into a car and kind of flipped over the car,” Daley recalls. “He got knocked around and bruised, but he still came in to work. He had the doctors look at him, clean him up, and give him stitches, and he had a pretty good bump on his head.” But it wasn’t long before McDonough was at it again. “It’s the only way I’m going to keep my blood pressure from going up,” he told a White House colleague.

At the White House ceremony announcing his promotion in January, Obama said that McDonough’s elevated new job would probably require him to “stop riding his bike to work. As chief of staff, I don’t think that’s allowed.” And yet, according to colleagues, the president’s top aide has recently reverted to form, rejecting a commute by government sedan in favor of his two-wheeled transport—with a Secret Service chase car and agents pedaling alongside him in heavy traffic. It’s a good thing McDonough wears his helmet. He’ll need it.

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