President Joe Biden was at the wooded Camp David retreat in Maryland when he first heard Colonial Pipeline had been hacked.
Briefed in one of the mountainside lodges by senior advisers and aides from the National Security Council, Biden quickly realized the incident — and subsequent shutdown of the company’s pipeline supplying fuel to the Eastern Seaboard — could easily devolve into a major problem.
Long lines of cars at pumps and handwritten “no fuel” signs make for potent political imagery, a fact Biden experienced firsthand when as a young senator he saw an oil crisis help deprive President Jimmy Carter of a second term.
The pipeline shutdown was the first in a string of unexpected events in the past week that have tested the President and his aides. A day later, violence would begin rapidly escalating between Israelis and Palestinians, lighting up telephone lines between Washington and the Middle East and thrusting Biden back into a conflict riddled with failed US efforts at brokering peace.
Alarm bells for the still-recovering economy began ringing in new inflation numbers midweek, setting up fresh political hurdles just as Biden was entering a critical stretch of negotiations with Republicans over his $4 trillion in new spending. Before the pipeline shutdown, aides said the President had been planning to spend the weekend getting updates from advisers on the labor market — including on why the jobs report the previous Friday proved so disappointing.
Thursday brought a more welcome surprise, albeit one that still caused a scramble. The timing of new mask guidelines for vaccinated Americans from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention caught some aides off guard and have prompted a confusing rush in states to update their rules. White House officials had been anticipating the CDC would soon make changes, but many believed it would take the notoriously slow-moving agency until later this month to decide on the new recommendations.
Until now, Biden had mostly been spared the types of quickly spiraling foreign crises or surprise domestic emergencies that compose any presidency. His plate has instead been filled with longer-term issues — like recovering from the pandemic — or tenacious problems, like a surge of migrants at the Southwestern border.
But the past week amounted to a reality check for a President who has placed nearly all of his political capital in ending the pandemic and enacting a boldly progressive agenda, having spent months focused on getting shots in arms and stimulus checks in Americans’ bank accounts.
The simultaneous foreign and domestic crises would challenge even the most seasoned president, let alone one charged with navigating the country from its worst health crisis in a century. They serve as a reminder that any manner of crises can intervene to throw the trajectory off course.
‘You have to be prepared’
Publicly, the White House assumed a calm demeanor toward the developments, even as concerns about the potential political fallout pervaded. Aides said Biden is no stranger to surprises, having witnessed and responded to them for eight years as vice president.
“That’s what we’re made for here,” press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday.
“We certainly know that — and the President knew from having served as vice president for eight years — that when you walk in and you’re the leader of the free world and you’re overseeing a country that is still working its way through a pandemic and an economic recovery, that you have to be prepared to juggle multiple challenges, multiple crises at one time,” she said.
An energy crunch is near the top of that list. Aside from watching Carter struggle to contain a nationwide gas shortage in 1979, Biden saw firsthand how President Barack Obama strove to manage the political fallout from the BP oil spill in the early days of his presidency.
After his initial briefing on the hack last Saturday at Camp David, Biden asked for updates every day by members of his staff. The White House’s concern over the issue was plain as Cabinet secretaries came to cameras each afternoon with new measures they were taking to alleviate shortages.
Republicans seized the opportunity to compare Biden to Carter, even though the pipeline shutdown was prompted by Russia-based ransomware hackers who penetrated a weak private-sector network.
Biden himself chose to deliver an update Thursday once the pipeline was back online.
“This is a whole-of-government response to get more fuel more quickly to where it’s needed and to limit the pain being felt by American customers,” he said from the Roosevelt Room, taking credit for “extraordinary measures” that would provide enough gas to fill the tanks of 5 million vehicles.
Yet the question of the nation’s cybersecurity remained, and Biden suggested Thursday that he wasn’t ruling out a counterattack on the criminal syndicate responsible for the Colonial Pipeline hack, saying, “We’re also going to pursue a measure to disrupt their ability to operate.”
By Friday, the ransomware extortion website used by the group responsible for the cyberattack had gone offline, according to cybersecurity experts.
The President said he’d raise the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin at their upcoming summit, expected next month when Biden visits Europe on his first foreign trip.
Attention turns back to the Middle East
The episode seemed to confirm Biden’s belief that areas like cybersecurity, Russia and China present today’s most serious foreign threats. Yet an urgent foreign crisis in the Middle East has occupied much of the national security attention at the White House this week. As some of the worst violence in years broke out between Israelis and Palestinians, the region’s long-entrenched battles are dragging Biden back in.
A US official told CNN that the President on Saturday spoke with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — the first conversation between the two leaders since Biden assumed the presidency. Biden also spoke Saturday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the official said. Those conversations come amid the heightened concern about civilian causalities in Gaza.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also spoke with Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz Saturday, with Austin tweeting about the conversation, “I reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend itself and condemned Hamas’ deliberate targeting of Israeli civilians.”
A White House official told CNN earlier in the day that internal meetings would be held Saturday on the escalating violence, as well as on the administration’s infrastructure push.
The President had also spoken with Netanyahu on Wednesday. At the State Department, the Pentagon and the office suite of the National Security Council, a flurry of telephone calls had gone out to Israeli and Palestinian leaders, along with officials in Egypt and Qatar who the US hopes can help broker a ceasefire.
It’s not necessarily the foreign policy issue Biden wanted to be confronting in the early months of his presidency. Amid the chaos, he spoke publicly about the violence only when questioned by reporters. Officials said they believe the President can play a more productive role in private discussions, including with Netanyahu, than in making proactive public statements.
Officials are also mindful of the delicate — and somewhat new — political pressures Biden is facing on the matter. Though he has been versed on this issue for decades as a lawmaker leading the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later as vice president, a growing strain of Democratic politics has been harshly critical of Israel’s actions.
Even his boilerplate statement that Israel has a right to defend itself invited a rebuke from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who said “blanket statements” like Biden’s “dehumanize Palestinians & imply the US will look the other way at human rights violations.”
Biden and the White House have shown little willingness to bend to that pressure. Speaking the next day at the White House, the President said he did not detect a disproportionate response to Hamas’ rocket attacks from Israel, which has launched airstrikes in Gaza.
And over the course of the week, he focused far more public attention on domestic matters, including the still-fragile economy. After the badly disappointing jobs report last week and midweek numbers showing a spike in inflation, Biden and his aides have tried to explain that the economy is still in the unpredictable early stages of recovery.
“We are in the midst of restarting this economy in earnest, and we are making good progress in doing so. However, we must keep in mind that an economy will not heal instantaneously,” said Cecilia Rouse, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, on Friday.
The White House downplayed inflation concerns by saying the new data reflects pent-up consumer demand that some suppliers cannot immediately meet. But even leading Democratic economist Larry Summers used the troubling numbers to urge the White House to shift course from distributing Covid relief funds, which he blames for increased spending and inflation.
“Policymakers at the Fed and in the (White House) need to recognize that the risk of a Vietnam inflation scenario is now greater than the deflation risks on which they were originally focused,” Summers told CNN’s John Harwood.
Mask guidance catches White House off guard
Given the spate of unwelcome developments that had percolated in the days leading up to it, the CDC announcement Thursday made for a welcome — if still unplanned-for — development. Biden’s senior aides received word at 9 p.m. ET on Wednesday that the guidance was changing, and word did not spread widely in the West Wing until later the following day.
Biden himself was sitting in his office with a group of Republicans when the rules officially changed. When aides told the group the rules had changed, he didn’t waste a moment in peeling off his mask.
“We heard all about it,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, the West Virginian charged with negotiating a bipartisan infrastructure package with Biden, said afterward. “The President took his off.”
Outside the windows, aides were rushing to prepare the Rose Garden for a statement. A few hundred miles away, his wife saw the news aboard her airplane. “We feel naked!” she exclaimed at a school in West Virginia, where she emerged for one of the first times without her face covered.
Some White House officials said they had not anticipated how far-reaching the guidance would be, given the CDC’s cautious track record. And some state officials said they disagreed with it.
“I have concerns about pulling back on some of the recommendations at this time,” said Dr. Benjamin Chan, New Hampshire state epidemiologist. “To be honest, I’m a little bit unhappy with how CDC rolled out their guidance.”
Biden, meanwhile, used his hastily arranged Rose Garden remarks to reflect upon the larger trajectory of the pandemic: its sorrows, its politics and ultimately its conclusion.
“Better days are ahead,” he said. “I promise you.”
This story has been updated with additional reporting.