The Ascension of Ron Klain
President Biden’s chief of staff worked his whole career to reach the corner office of the West Wing. He says he’s just a “staff person,” but Republicans call him “Prime Minister Klain.”,
WASHINGTON — Ron Klain, who after a few near misses finally achieved his career-long goal of becoming the White House chief of staff, will turn 60 this summer. This is, as his boss might say, a big deal.
Mr. Klain has previously hosted blowouts to celebrate his round-numbered birthdays, notably his 50th in 2011, when hundreds of friends and Obama administration luminaries descended on a Maryland farm for a state fair-themed extravaganza, complete with deep-fried Oreos and tributes to the honoree.
Plans for his 60th have become such a source of Beltway status anxiety that a small universe of Washington strivers is angling for details: Some have asked White House contacts whether a celebration is in the works and if invitations have gone out.
The commotion makes clear that Mr. Klain is an unquestioned man to see in the current White House, the most influential chief of staff of recent vintage and a marked departure from the four battered and marginalized short-timers who held the position under President Donald J. Trump. Mr. Klain, who was the chief of staff for Vice Presidents Biden and Al Gore, is viewed in and out of the West Wing as the essential conductor of administration business, a surrogate for the president and — in the mischievous portrayal of opponents — an all-powerful, unelected orchestrator of an ultraliberal agenda.
Republicans have taken to calling him Prime Minister Klain.
“He’s kind of the guy behind the curtain,” Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, said recently of the chief of staff. It is an oft-repeated Republican line of attack and a characterization the White House is determined to quash.
“I’m a staff person, not prime minister,” Mr. Klain, who declined to be interviewed for this article, told Kara Swisher last month on her podcast “Sway.”
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, a longtime colleague of Mr. Klain’s, reaffirmed this message in an interview, referring to him as “the premier staff person, certainly of my generation.”
In fact, the chief of staff holds an outsize authority in the constellation of Biden insiders, many of whom, like him, go back decades with the president. People in and around the White House describe Mr. Klain as the essential nerve center of an over-circuited administration whose day-to-day doings reflect how this White House works and what it aspires to.
Mr. Klain rarely travels anywhere with the boss, including local hops like President Biden’s visit to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to push the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion infrastructure plan. Instead, the chief of staff stayed behind to work the phones and strategize with lawmakers and White House negotiators and, essentially, deal with a simultaneous array of meetings, triage decisions and crises.
“I probably talk to him every day, and we can finish each other’s sentences,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader. “If there’s a thorny problem, I’ll call him.”
Wednesday, for instance, included Mr. Biden’s visit to the Hill, a White House decision to evacuate thousands of Afghan interpreters and other allies from the 20-year war in Afghanistan and an uptick in Covid-19 cases across the country. The pop star Olivia Rodrigo also dropped by to help promote coronavirus vaccines, the prevailing buzz in the West Wing that day.
“Today was Olivia Rodrigo Day at the White House,” Mr. Klain declared at his 6:30 p.m. wrap-up meeting with senior staff, long after the singer had departed. He synthesized the day’s infrastructure developments and prepared to brief the president the next morning.
Mr. Klain has also taken a special emissary’s role with select members of the Senate, where the evenly divided chamber has raised certain relationships to the highest-priority “chief of staff portfolio.”
One is Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the moderate Democrat whose swing-voting tendencies have earned him special care and feeding. “I’ve never had a problem calling him, day or night,” Mr. Manchin said of Mr. Klain. “He’s always up.”
Shortly after Mr. Biden’s inauguration, Mr. Manchin became irate that he had not been given advance notice that Vice President Kamala Harris would be making news media appearances in West Virginia to promote the administration’s Covid relief package.
Mr. Klain soon paid a visit to Mr. Manchin’s houseboat on the Potomac River, where he lives when he is in Washington. The senator ordered in a pasta dinner from Nostra Cucina, his favorite Italian restaurant. “We had a glass of wine and really got to know each other,” Mr. Manchin said.
Focusing the president
Mr. Klain, who resembles a grown-up Model U.N. prodigy with a round, boyish face and a burdened, workaholic demeanor, determinedly addresses Mr. Biden with the deference of a professional humble servant: always “sir” or “Mr. President,” despite having worked for him on and off for 35 years. White House officials who have seen their dynamic say Mr. Klain is expert at keeping discussions with Mr. Biden focused on specific actions, which is not always easy, given the president’s habit of verbal meanderings.
A typical exchange, White House officials say, is for Mr. Klain to suggest something along the lines of, “Sir, we’re recommending that you make these three calls” — unless Mr. Biden pre-empts him by declaring his own intent to make the same calls.
In other settings, Mr. Klain can rub some as dismissive and distracted. After the president hosted a meeting with a group of Republican senators in March, Senator Susan Collins of Maine called it a “great discussion” but added that the vibe was disturbed by Mr. Klain shaking his head from the back of the room. “Not exactly an encouraging sign,” she said. Mr. Klain eventually called Ms. Collins to smooth things over. She declined to comment.
There have also been rough patches. Mr. Klain was an early supporter of Neera Tanden, Mr. Biden’s pick to run the Office of Management and Budget, until her nomination was withdrawn over critical tweets about Republican senators that she wrote during the Trump years. The chief of staff’s colleagues said he had underestimated how negative Ms. Tanden’s reception would be on the Hill, a misstep that has kept a crucial office without a permanent director.
Mr. Klain, who appears to get his most vigorous daily exercise by striding through ornate corridors, has few diversions outside work, although he recently identified his prodigious Twitter habit as a “hobby.” His days typically begin at 6 a.m. or earlier., when he rises to consume volumes of overnight news and pre-dawn briefing papers before being ferried to the White House in a Suburban. By 7:30 a.m., Mr. Klain has settled into the chief of staff’s big corner office, a short walk from the Oval Office.
He presides over a series of morning meetings with top White House aides — one with the president’s senior advisers, another with the extended senior staff. He sends emails in bursts, with numbered bullet points and capitalization for emphasis. (Colleagues describe his email voice as “emphatic.”) He tries to be in the Oval Office at 9:30 a.m. or so, when the president receives his intelligence briefings.
Mr. Klain returns home, often after dark, to a verdant power enclave of Chevy Chase, Md., and a large home that he has referred to as “the house that O’Melveny Built,” after his previous lucrative years at the international law firm O’Melveny & Myers. His neighbors include Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, across Connecticut Avenue.
A Beltway resume
Mr. Klain is the oldest of three, the son of an Indianapolis building contractor and a travel agent. He is proud of his Hoosier roots: The 50th birthday invitation was superimposed over a red outline of Indiana, and he tries to make it home over Memorial Day for the Indianapolis 500.
But in fact, Mr. Klain comes off as a purebred swamp creature whose resume covers the full bingo card of a Beltway superachiever: president of his high school class (’79), active in student government and the Brain Game team, summa cum laude from Georgetown, legislative director for then-Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts. He followed up with Harvard Law School (magna cum laude, Law Review), then a clerkship for the Supreme Court justice Byron White.
Mr. Klain was associate counsel to President Bill Clinton, counselor to Attorney General Janet Reno and then chief of staff to Mr. Gore. His stint as Mr. Gore’s point man during the 2000 election dispute in Florida was immortalized in the 2008 HBO film “Recount.”
After Mr. Gore’s defeat, Mr. Klain salved his wounds in classic Washington fashion: by making tons of cash. He was a partner at O’Melveny, worked mostly as a litigator and also registered as a lobbyist for Fannie Mae, among other clients. In 2004, he became involved with Revolution LLC, a technology investment firm started by AOL’s billionaire co-founder Steve Case.
In 2015, Mr. Klain signed on to work for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and did not wait until Mr. Biden announced he was not running. This was taken as a breach of the Biden loyalty protocol and became a sore spot in the vice president’s ecosystem, especially with Jill Biden, at least temporarily, according to people familiar with the episode.
“It’s been a little hard for me to play such a role in the Biden demise — and I am definitely dead to them,” Mr. Klain wrote to John Podesta, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, in an October 2015 email revealed by WikiLeaks. Friends of Mr. Klain said he had been considered for at least two of the Obama chief of staff openings but was passed over each time. He was brought back to lead the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and was also viewed as a front-runner for the chief of staff job if Mrs. Clinton had prevailed in the 2016 election.
Mr. Klain spent the Trump years critiquing the White House on television, writing columns for The Washington Post and doing more work for Mr. Case at Revolution, where he received a $2 million salary in 2020, according to financial disclosure forms.
After Mr. Biden was elected, Mr. Klain was viewed as the obvious choice for the corner office. He often points out that he served under nine White House chiefs of staff during his time in the Clinton and Obama administrations. “I have worked for more White House chiefs of staff than any other White House chief of staff,” Mr. Klain boasted to Ms. Swisher.
He has three grown children with his wife, Monica Medina, a lawyer, whom Mr. Biden has nominated to be the assistant secretary in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs at the State Department.
Mr. Klain has grown increasingly sentimental and emotional about his work, friends say, especially after the Trump era, which he took hard and personally. He choked up during a Zoom meeting with the White House staff to commemorate the end of the first 100 days of Mr. Biden’s administration.
Party details for his 60th birthday on Aug. 8 remain elusive, although there has been talk that Mr. Klain might skip a big gala this summer and do a small family celebration instead on the big day. There was a major bash at the Klain house over July 4, with S.U.V.s parked in front and traffic snaked around the corner past Chief Justice Roberts’s house.
Guests in attendance said it was not a birthday celebration but an engagement party for Mr. Klain’s daughter Hannah Klain, which included a screening of “Father of the Bride” in the backyard.