Biden’s Power Broker: How Susan Rice Defied Critics and Created a White House Policy Fiefdom

People familiar with the dynamics at the time said she also perceived Harris as ducking responsibility for addressing the border surge.

“She didn’t have a lot of patience for that and felt like [Harris was] making distinctions that were cutting it too fine,” the same former official said.

An additional point of contention was over the number of unaccompanied children that could be transferred into HHS shelters. With limited shelters available, Rice pushed HHS to exceed its traditional capacity limits to get more migrant children out of the sparse border facilities at the center of the immigration crisis.

Matters again came to a head over the administration’s plan to lift Title 42, the Trump-era pandemic rule designed to slow the spread of Covid-19. Colleagues said Rice didn’t agree with lifting the order, warning it would be inconsistent to open up the border when the administration was telling Americans how dangerous the virus and being unvaccinated was.

The tensions simmered for months until a judge made the matter moot by saying the administration did not follow proper protocol in ending the order.

The White House has tried to downplay discord in its ranks. In an interview, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Rice brought objectivity to the issue because she remains “relatively new” to immigration.

He called her eager to dive into the work, noting she immersed herself in the operational challenges of setting up new HHS shelters and the need to speed up reunifying migrant children with their qualified US sponsors.

“She just asks questions, many ‘what ifs,’” said Mayorkas. “And really, quite frankly, strengthens not only the development of policy but the implementation of policy.”

Another senior administration official, however, was more frank in an assessment of Rice’s role when permitted to speak anonymously.

“If you asked me what the White House vision is for immigration and migration and the border, I couldn’t tell you,” the senior official said. For Rice, “it always comes back to punitive measures” to deter migrants.

A White House official pushed back on that sentiment in a statement, saying the president’s “robust affirmative immigration agenda — from expanding legal migration channels to speeding up the asylum process and providing more opportunities for temporary workers — speaks for itself.” Rice, the official said, has been “a great champion of all of it.”

For all the high-profile issues on which she’s involved, Rice’s biggest success to date may be in helping draft the long-sought executive order that takes a step in addressing racism and police accountability.

The process began after negotiations over police reform blew up in Congress. Rice authored the “decision memo” on the matter, which was no easy lift. She needed to craft something that would be amenable to law enforcement organizations, civil rights groups and the families of people killed or injured by police. It grew more complicated after an early draft leaked, making the process “10,000 times harder,” as Remus, Rice’s partner in putting the deal together, put it.

Jim Pasco, the executive director for the Fraternal Order of Police, said his group was “pretty upset” since the leak was at odds with his group’s understanding of what the executive orders would look like. But Rice called him on a Sunday and asked for a restart, with the promise of a tighter group of negotiators and a pledge they operate in the cone of silence.

“You can say whatever you want. You can spit on the document. You can throw up on the document,” she told him. To which Pasco replied: If they did their jobs, they’d both want to vomit on the damn order.

After Biden signed the order in late May, Rice made sure her staff got a photo with the president and Harris. Afterwards, she invited aides to a small happy hour she planned on the second gentleman’s balcony.

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