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New book 'The Fight of His Life' reveals the inner workings of the Biden White House


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: The White House has been plagued in recent days by the slow drip of developments related to classified documents from President Biden's days as vice president which were found in a D.C. office he wants used as well as in his Delaware home.

And it all comes as a new book out this week takes us inside the inner workings of the Biden administration.

Joining me now is Chris Whipple, the author of that new book, called "The Fight of His Life: Inside Joe Biden's White House."

Chris Whipple, welcome to the "NewsHour."

Let's talk about what's going on inside that Biden White House, those classified documents, and specifically the response from Biden's White House team, which some have called late or slow or fumbling in some cases.

I'm curious. You have talked to a lot of these folks. Did you expect a different response from the seasoned team around the president?

Chris Whipple, Author, "The Fight of His Life: Inside Joe Biden's White House": Well, it's a little bit surprising, given how well this White House is run normally.

But I spent two years talking with almost all of Joe Biden's inner circle. And there's more drama behind closed doors than you might expect. This was certainly true during the first year with the bungled exit from Afghanistan. Certainly, the second year has been much more successful for Joe Biden, with his rallying the West against Vladimir Putin in defense of Ukraine and passing a really impressive legislative agenda.

So I think he goes into his third year really with the wind at his back.

Amna Nawaz: Specifically, to these documents, though, now, among the people you have talked to is Bob Bauer, I believe, who is representing the president as his personal attorney on this issue.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for him? How does he do this?

Chris Whipple: Well, I think the real challenge is that you're seeing a really delicate balancing act.

The communications team would like to get out in front of this and be much more forthcoming. Bob Bauer, who is a very cautious lawyer, is telling them that — to be quiet, that you don't want to run the risk of saying things that will later be contradicted.

Amna Nawaz: You write quite a bit about Afghanistan and the chaotic withdrawal and the loss of life there, clearly a low point during Biden's tenure so far.

But, based on your reporting, I'm curious, did you find out, how did the U.S. get it so wrong, that the Taliban would advance as quickly as they did, that Kabul would fall so swiftly?

Chris Whipple: Well, what I discovered in talking to Biden's inner circle is that there was — there was just a lot of drama behind the scenes here.

Tony Blinken, the secretary of state, told me in no uncertain terms that everything they did was based on a fatally flawed intelligence assessment that the Afghan government would last for 18 months.

This was news to CIA Director Bill Burns when I went over and spoke with him at CIA headquarters. And he said, no, look, we were clear-eyed about the fragility of the Afghan government. And if you remove two legs of the stool, the military — U.S. military and contractors, we thought things could collapse very fast.

So, there was a lot of drama, a lot of finger-pointing in the immediate aftermath of that unfortunate event.

Amna Nawaz: What about the approach to Russia's war in Ukraine?

You write a great deal about the secret trip that CIA Director Bill Burns made to Kyiv before the war even started, a trip that Vice President Harris made weeks later, in which you had this chilling line in there as she left the meeting with Zelenskyy. You wrote: "As Zelenskyy departed, Harris had a chilling thought. There was a good chance she would never see him alive again."

You talked about drama in the White House. Were there disagreements within the White House about how to handle Ukraine?

Chris Whipple: Well, by contrast with the Afghanistan episode, I think that February 24, 2022, was really the turning point of the Biden presidency.

Joe Biden was uniquely prepared to deal with this crisis and to rally the Western world in defense of Ukraine against Putin. And he did so. But it was a lot closer than anybody really thought.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy didn't believe it was — that the invasion was coming. Neither did most of the European leaders. Thanks to Biden and his team, the West was ready in the end.

Amna Nawaz: You do focus quite a bit on the White House chief of staff, Ron Klain, as well.

I'm curious. If he leaves, as chiefs do, what does the Biden White House look like without him? Who do you think could step into that role?

Chris Whipple: Well, that's going to be a huge challenge for Joe Biden. He's poised to run for reelection. Almost certainly, that's going to happen.

Ron Klain has been an integral part of the first two years and of Biden's successes. It was Klain who really helped to engineer his remarkable performance in the midterms, against all odds, and those will be very big shoes to fill.

He's one of the most qualified people ever to have that job. And I think that it's going to be someone probably within the inner circle. It's hard to imagine someone coming in from outside, but also people with that rare combination of political savvy, knowledge of how governance works, ability to run the White House, to manage not only Joe Biden up, but to manage the staff down, that's a tough combination to find.

Amna Nawaz: Chris, I'm curious. Out of everyone you talked to, did anyone express any doubt about Mr. Biden running for reelection?

Chris Whipple: I haven't spoken to anyone who doesn't think that Joe Biden is running. And his inner circle really believes that that's the case.

Think about it. When was the last time a president voluntarily walked away from the Oval Office? It was 1968 with Lyndon Johnson. If you reach that point, it's very hard to surrender power. And I think Joe Biden has been dreaming about or running for president almost every four years of his of his career, right?

And he's got unfinished business. So I think he's running, and I think they are — they're prepared for Trump. But I think that, even if it's not Trump, it'll be Joe Biden running for the Democrats.

Amna Nawaz: The author is Chris Whipple. The book is "The Fight of His Life: Inside Joe Biden's White House."

Chris, thank you for your time. Good to talk to you.

Chris Whipple: Great to be with you. Thanks.

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