Harris, governors dish on abortion, immigration, special counsel— but not dumping Biden

Washington — A weekend meeting hosted by Vice President Kamala Harris with battleground state governors included no conversation about removing President Biden from the Democratic Party ticket, but plenty of talk about how to discredit special counsel Robert Hur’s report and campaign more aggressively on issues like abortion rights and immigration. 

The first-of-its-kind gathering, at least for this administration, unfolded over three hours around the dining room table at the Vice President’s Residence in Northwest Washington, where she served coffee and lights snacks, and later, cocktails, according to multiple people familiar with the meeting. She shared forthcoming campaign plans and told the governors she considers them critical to winning their battleground states and the key constituencies they represent.

It was described by people familiar with the exchange as an intimate listening session, where governors who have overseen their large states during the COVID-19 pandemic, won tough reelection fights and could one day face off against the vice president in future bids for the White House unloaded their concerns to Harris and close aides.

The biggest concern? “The lack of creativity and agility that comes from the West Wing,” according to one person familiar with the exchange.

The president “needs to be more aggressive,” this person added. “He needs to call out the GOP on immigration more. And Biden’s language on abortion needs to change.”

There appeared to be no disagreement around the table, according to sources.

The concerns were raised just days after Republicans successfully blocked a bipartisan proposal to overhaul southern border security and immigration policy that had been crafted over several months with the encouragement of the president, who was responding to Republican demands he address the record number of crossings at the U.S.-Mexico span.

And the meeting occurred as the president’s language on abortion rights has changed slightly. At a private fundraiser last week, he said, “I’m a practicing Catholic. I don’t want abortion on demand, but I thought Roe v. Wade was right.” 

That’s a more succinct acknowledgment of his devout Roman Catholic faith, but fellow Democrats have demanded that he strongly defend abortion rights. The president spent most of his public life opposed to federal funding for abortion services, but reversed course during his 2020 campaign. He has struggled since Roe v. Wade was overturned in 2022 to convey the urgent concerns of members of his party over the future of abortion access, rarely discussing the issue and allowing it become instead a major focus for Harris, who’s traveled the country in recent months discussing the issue with college students especially.

In a recent interview on “Face the Nation,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer suggested more “blunt language” from the president on abortion rights “would be helpful.”

Gretchen Whitmer says it “would be good” if Biden was more vocal on abortion 01:07

Whitmer was among the governors in attendance Saturday. Also there: Govs. Tim Walz of Minnesota; JB Pritzker of Illinois; Tony Evers of Wisconsin; Roy Cooper of North Carolina; Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania; and Wes Moore of Maryland, all of whom were invited to bring along their chiefs of staff.

Walz is chairman of the Democratic Governors’ Association. All except Shapiro and Moore were elected in 2018 and reelected in 2022 and have served with the same chief of staff their entire terms. The Midwestern governors frequently collaborated on a regional level during the pandemic amid concerns the Trump administration mishandled the response and punished Democratic-controlled states.

“It’s a group of battle-tested governors who came in during COVID, knew how to do the right thing and have the expertise to help and want to,” one person familiar with the meeting told CBS News.

Another person described it as “a group of governors that know how to win. They know how to be administrators and win. That’s something that’s really unique.”

Shapiro and Moore won key races in 2022 and have campaigned frequently with the president. They are also seen as future presidential aspirants.

The vice president was joined by her vice presidential chief of staff, Lorraine Voles; Sheila Nix, her campaign chief of staff; and Louisa Terrell, a former White House official now serving at the Democratic National Committee as a liaison to governors. 

In a sign of how detailed-oriented the vice president was with the governors, she told them Terrell is assigned as their liaison to the campaign and should be contacted for anything from questions about campaign travel, potential campaign staff hires or ensuring key supporters get a photo taken with the president or vice president at fundraisers or rallies.

Despite ongoing chatter in the broader party and polls showing a sustained desire for other candidates to run instead, there was no conversation about removing the president from the party ticket, according to those familiar with the meeting. 

“People around that table understand he isn’t going anywhere,” one person said.

But the vice president once again strongly criticized Hur’s conclusions in his investigation into Mr. Biden’s alleged mishandling of classified materials. In one of her most forceful defenses ever of the president, on Friday she called the report “clearly politically motivated” and cited her own career as a prosecutor to blast it as “gratuitous, inaccurate and inappropriate.”

She did it again on Saturday and credited Pritzker, who on Friday told Illinois reporters, “It was extremely unfair for a Trump appointee, originally to the Department of Justice, to offer his own opinions about the mental acuity or age of the president of the United States.”

Harris and the governors agreed that’s the strategy to adopt: Question the partisan motivations of Hur and keep focused instead on raising concerns about Donald Trump possibly returning to the White House. 

Harris also laid out plans for a big campaign-style push after the State of the Union address on March 7. She said she and the president would be traveling to highlight “issues they still want to accomplish that they won’t have cooperation on this year,” said one person familiar with the meeting who declined to specify the issues.

If the governors have their way, that’ll mean a big focus on abortion rights and immigration, especially.

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