Joe Biden

Kamala Harris' Chief of Staff, Criticized for Tough Tactics, Built Reputation While Working for Bill Clinton

Lawrence Jackson | Official White House Photo
  • Tina Flournoy, the chief of staff for Vice President Kamala Harris, has established a reputation as a tough gatekeeper, using similar tactics to those she used while overseeing former President Bill Clinton's post-White House office.
  • Flournoy's tight approach, which includes blocking longtime allies from contacting Harris, has led to both praise and criticism.
  • Clinton himself lauded Flournoy: "She's an extraordinary person, and I'm so fortunate and forever grateful to have had her as my chief of staff."

Tina Flournoy, the chief of staff for Vice President Kamala Harris, has established a reputation as a tough gatekeeper, using similar tactics to those she used while overseeing former President Bill Clinton's post-White House office.

Flournoy's tight approach, which includes blocking longtime allies from contacting Harris, has led to both praise and criticism.

It also has created tension within the vice president's team and among her outside confidants and donors. Politico reported on Wednesday that there is dysfunction in Harris' office and that much of the frustration stems from Flournoy. She oversaw about 10 employees in Clinton's office, while the vice president's office typically has a staff of up to 100 people.

Several people who say they were close to Clinton before Flournoy became his chief of staff in 2013 spoke to CNBC after a story published earlier this week described her management of access to Harris.

Several questioned her methods while she worked for Clinton. Some said Flournoy screamed at Clinton allies, while others said she limited staff access to the former president and ignored their ideas. 

Others praised Flournoy, saying her approach was necessary given Harris' busy slate. She has many defenders in Washington, including the former president himself, allies of his and even a former chief of staff to Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

"Tina Flournoy ran my office for more than eight years, making it more efficient, effective, and transparent. She made it easier, not harder, for me to advance my philanthropic work and my post-presidential activities, and keep in touch with my friends," Clinton said in a statement first given to CNBC on Thursday. "She has a unique ability to focus on the big picture and adapt to changing conditions. And she does it all with a great sense of humor and an unwavering belief that we all have an ability and an obligation to make a difference. She's an extraordinary person, and I'm so fortunate and forever grateful to have had her as my chief of staff."

Matt McKenna, who was Clinton's spokesman during a part of Flournoy's tenure, lauded her for helping create a much-needed structure for Clinton's office.

"I think Tina put some much needed structure and guardrails around that operation and I'm grateful for it," McKenna told CNBC on Wednesday.

Minyon Moore, who worked in the Clinton White House and helped introduce Flournoy to Harris, defended her friend in a tweet: "Tina Flournoy is focused, disciplined, & the person I would want by my side." Moore did not return CNBC's request for comment for the previous story on Flournoy.

Several allies of Biden and Harris took to Twitter to defend Flournoy after CNBC published its story.

"Chiefs of staff gotta run interference. Doesn't always make you popular. But it's part of the job. Protect the boss' time," Jennifer Palmieri, who used to work in President Barack Obama's White House and later Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, tweeted.

Steven Law, who was once the chief of staff to McConnell, tweeted in support of Flournoy's work for Harris. He said the people complaining about lack of access are "whiners" who "need to get a life."

"Welcome to the White House," he added.

A spokeswoman for Harris did not answer questions seeking comment.

For others, recent reports about Flournoy's tactics reminded them of their interactions with her while she worked for Clinton.

Some of the people who discussed their experience with Flournoy declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak about their time around Clinton, while others didn't want to risk retribution from Flournoy.

There were times Flournoy yelled at longtime Clinton allies who would seek personal favors from Bill and Hillary Clinton, said people familiar with the matter.

An example of how Flournoy wielded her power was when she yelled at longtime Clinton allies after they tried to get personal favors from Bill and Hillary Clinton, people familiar with the matter explained.

"It was shocking," said a person who said Flournoy yelled at them. "It was shocking because I said to myself, 'I'm an adult. I've known these people for a really long time, and I don't work for you.' You can't call up and yell at me."

On multiple occasions, people who worked under Flournoy in Clinton's office felt they were boxed out as she favored only certain ideas.

After Flournoy was hired in 2013, multiple senior advisors who continued to work under her leadership stopped gaining as much access as they did to Clinton prior to her arrival, said people briefed on the matter.

Campaign Chairman John Podesta hugs Tina Flournoy, chief of staff to former U.S. President Bill Clinton, as they attend an event being held by Hillary Clinton to address her staff and supporters about the results of the U.S. election at a hotel in the Manhattan borough of New York, November 9, 2016.
Brian Snyder | Reuters
Campaign Chairman John Podesta hugs Tina Flournoy, chief of staff to former U.S. President Bill Clinton, as they attend an event being held by Hillary Clinton to address her staff and supporters about the results of the U.S. election at a hotel in the Manhattan borough of New York, November 9, 2016.

"Before people went into scheduling meetings, they had to meet with her before hand and run everything by her," a former longtime Clinton associate said. "People would prepare a memo and she would have to see it first. Sometimes she would change it, sometimes she would just throw it away."

"When you start trying to control his other senior advisors who also have his best interest in mind, it kind of becomes an information vacuum," this person said.

An example of Flournoy's management style is evident in a set of 2014 emails reviewed by CNBC.

The first email says an Associated Press reporter based out of Clinton's hometown of Little Rock, Ark., was preparing to write a story on the Clinton Foundation's finances. The email includes text from a previously published AP article to serve as an example of the Clinton Foundation story, which was expected in a few days. The email sought thoughts from the Clinton office and foundation leaders on the upcoming piece.

Flournoy, appearing not to know that the text was from an old AP article, then wrote back with edits for the story.

"I would change the paragraph below to 'after Hillary Clinton stepped down as Secretary of State,'" one of Flournoy's suggestions reads.

Almost two hours after she sent that email, McKenna, the former Clinton spokesman, made light of the suggestions in a response.

"I'm not 100% sure, except I'm 100% sure, that you're editing a year-old story from the Associated
Press' Little Rock bureau," he wrote. "As for the below, I'm happy to pass along to the Bureau Chief in Little Rock."

Flournoy was among the dozen-plus people cc'd on that email.

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