Essential Politics: For Biden and Harris, virtual diplomacy yields to foreign travel
This is the May 12, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.
When Vice President Kamala Harris met with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador last week, she and her advisors sat at a fancy table with name cards and water glasses and the American and Mexican flags behind them.
But the two leaders shared some warm words and friendly banter only virtually, over video connections. For Harris there were no ceremonial tequila shots or cultural tours as there might be on a trip to Mexico City, and certainly no encounters with ordinary Mexicans.
The world of White House diplomacy, like almost everything else, has been largely virtual for more than a year. But that’s about to change. Harris will take her first trip abroad, to Mexico and Guatemala, on June 7 and 8. President Biden will travel a few days later, June 11-13, to Cornwall on the English coast for a meeting of the Group of 7 industrialized nations, followed by a June 14 NATO meeting in Brussels.
Hello and bienvenidos, this is Essential Politics: Kamala Harris edition. This week, I will talk about the return of presidential and vice presidential travel and what may have been lost and gained in virtual diplomacy.
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Diplomacy with a mute button
First, a bit of background. Neither Harris nor Biden has traveled out of the country since taking office, a pandemic-related anomaly that also kept former President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence stateside during the final months of their administration.
Like the rest of us, they’ve been Zooming and calling.
Trump did have one notable face-to-face meeting with a foreign counterpart, early in the pandemic. He stayed home but invited Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to his Florida resort in March 2020. It was a disaster. Bolsonaro’s press secretary, Fabio Wajngarten, was the first of several Brazilian advisors to test positive for COVID-19 shortly after a dinner with Trump and senior leaders from both countries.
A Biden-Harris administration official said Harris’ itinerary in Mexico and Guatemala — where she will be pressing the leaders of both nations for more cooperation in dissuading migrants from heading north to the United States — has not been fully planned. An advance team traveled to the two countries last week to plot logistics, from what places Harris will go to where everyone will stand when the media are allowed in for photos.
The advisor pointed out that the already complex task of planning travel for a vice president — which is done down to the minute — is now even trickier because of COVID-19. Officials have to make sure rooms and outdoor spaces are big enough to accommodate delegations, allowing for distancing, and to avoid settings that may include unvaccinated people.
That’s on top of already stringent diplomatic protocols that govern every aspect of a foreign trip, including which aides are in a room and where they are seated, what beverages will be served and what gifts are given.
The advisor said face-to-face meetings have advantages that video calls can’t match. For example, lower-level staffers and officials can be included when leaders meet, making it easier for teams to work on follow-up projects and negotiations. In Guatemala, Harris perhaps can see some of the conditions — poverty, for instance — that have led to the surge in migrants at the southern U.S. border, though her security bubble will limit much of what she does.
“You can have more of an impactful conversation after you’ve been to the country and been able to speak with more people on the ground,” the advisor said.
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The presidential bubble, with an extra plane
The big advantage to meeting virtually is convenience. It’s hard to convey how many resources go into sending a top American official to another country.
This week I spoke about that with Glen Johnson, a former political reporter and now an editor at Axios, who traveled almost 1.5 million miles with former Secretary of State John F. Kerry as his deputy assistant secretary for strategic communications and wrote a book about his four years on the road called “Window Seat on the World: My Travels with the Secretary of State.” Johnson went on all but two or three of Kerry’s more than 100 trips and took a central role in planning events.
He talked about the armored limousines and helicopters that get shipped over for a president, the spare presidential aircraft that’s on hand should Air Force One break down, the hotels that get taken over, the communications teams that make sure phone lines are secure and available for every phase of a trip.
In other words, the entire White House apparatus has to be transported to another country.
“The whole motorcade will have D.C. plates no matter where you are in the world,” Johnson said. “It’s crazy.”
The exact number of people involved is murky, because the Secret Service does not advertise its presence for security reasons. But Johnson says it is easily in the hundreds. A vice president commands about 75% of those resources and a secretary of State about 35%, Johnson estimated.
There’s also an extensive effort in the host countries. While covering Trump, I saw large portions of Beijing, Tokyo and London cleared of vehicles and people to make way for presidential motorcades.
Johnson believes the diplomatic world learned some of the same things the rest of us did: clicking a Zoom link is a lot easier than commuting to a meeting, especially when that commute means fueling up Air Force One, shutting down a center city and taking over an entire hotel. The convenience is critical in parts of the world that have yet to emerge from the worst of COVID-19.
But it does not mean American leaders will cut down significantly on their travel once the pandemic is behind us. “So much of a relationship, so much of a conversation and so much of the substance from a discussion can only come from that face-to-face meeting,” Johnson said. “That casual comment, that deviation from the expected that occurs when you’re sitting face-to-face with somebody.”
There’s also the symbolic importance. An American president’s visit is still coveted in much of the world, conveying prestige on a favored country and potentially enlarging U.S. influence immeasurably.
Significant events — such as outings to pay respect to another nation’s cultural heritage — cannot occur during a virtual summit. When I went with Trump to Japan, his trip to a sumo wrestling match was on every newscast and front page. And when rain prompted Trump to skip a ceremony in Paris to commemorate American soldiers who died in World War I, he engendered ill will and embarrassment.
Neither would have happened, for better or worse, with a virtual meeting.
The view from Washington
— Biden will meet with the “Big Four” today — the top two congressional leaders from each party. The White House has billed it as an opportunity to find “common ground,” but the early signs don’t look good, Chris Megerian and Eli Stokols write.
— House Republicans led by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy voted to oust Rep. Liz Cheney from her role as the No. 3 GOP leader in the House over her criticism of Trump, Jennifer Haberkorn writes. Cheney lashed out at leaders of her party late Tuesday, accusing Trump and his GOP supporters of following a path that would “undermine our democracy.”
— After Trump’s refusal to even mildly critique Israel, the Biden administration faces soaring Israeli-Palestinian violence equipped with fewer options to deescalate tensions than at any time in recent history, Tracy Wilkinson writes.
— Cybersecurity experts have been warning for years about the threat posed by a ransomware attack on U.S. infrastructure, writes Del Quentin Wilber. Then an attack shut down a major fuel pipeline supplying the East Coast.
— More than 80 DACA recipients who in August applied for permits to study abroad through a Long Beach organization are suing the Biden administration. But it’s not just about travel — a decision could have implications for their path to citizenship, writes Andrea Castillo.
— Stacey Abrams is best known for her 2018 run in Georgia governor’s race and voting rights activism. But she’s also a novelist, with eight romance novels under her belt and now, a legal thriller, writes Charles Finch.
The view from California
— Caught between legislative goals and partisan politics, Orange County Rep. Michelle Steel’s staff now says she was joking when she apologized to Republican supporters for working with Democratic Rep. Katie Porter on a resolution condemning hate-filled attacks against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, writes Sarah D. Wire.
— In a stark indication of California’s growing water crisis, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday declared a drought emergency in 41 counties, Faith E. Pinho reports.
— Newsom proposed a second round of $600 state stimulus checks, aimed at hastening California’s recovery from the pandemic, writes Patrick McGreevy and John Myers. It’s part of the $100-billion economic stimulus plan Myers wrote about on Monday.
— Among Newsom’s other proposals this week: $12 billion to address homelessness, the single biggest investment any state has ever made. He’s also set to unveil a proposal that would expand transitional kindergarten to all age-eligible students by 2024.
— From David Lauter and Eli Stokols: California is receiving more than $27 billion in federal aid, including $1.3 billion for Los Angeles, under the $1.9-trillion pandemic relief law Biden signed in March, the Treasury Department announced Monday.
— Almost four months into the new administration, Harris has held onto a strong base of support in her home state, Lauter reports. Voters say by more than 2 to 1 that she is “playing a significant role” in the administration and a majority seeing her as capable of stepping into the presidency if needed.
The latest on the recall
— Why is this famously liberal state so prone to conservative voter uprisings? Gustavo Arellano digs in on this edition of The Times’ new podcast “The Times.”
— Significantly more California voters favor keeping Newsom in office, according to a new UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll that was co-sponsored by the L.A. Times. Phil Willon writes that voters expressed only anemic support for the Republican candidates.
— Gubernatorial candidate Caitlyn Jenner, a longtime registered Republican, hedged on her party status during an interview with CNN, saying “I don’t like labels,” writes Julia Wick.
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