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Lessons learned

Ron Klain’s post-White House outlook

The former White House chief of staff discussed Biden, Emhoff and his mother’s recent passing, at the Aspen Ideas Festival yesterday

Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Monday morning, former White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain reflected on his mother’s death, shortly after the end of his term in the White House, and the lessons he took from it.

The former top White House official choked up while speaking about caring for his mother, who died earlier this year.

“The worst place to be if you’re sick is in the hospital. In the end, my mom had liver problems but mostly died from being hospitalized,” Klain said, explaining that she had contracted pneumonia and became weakened in the hospital. “So try to stay out of the hospital if you can.”

“She had great care — the IU hospital in Indianapolis where she finally passed away did a great job of taking care of her, but she just got too sick,” he continued. “It’s a funny thing, I was home for Thanksgiving, my mom cooked dinner for all of us. And was so robust and so alive, and a few months later she was dead. And so these things happen quickly sometimes; you just have to cling to every moment you can.”

Klain, speaking with journalist Franklin Foer, who is writing a book about the Biden White House, also described Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff as a “great asset to the administration” for the work he has done in helping to combat antisemitism as a leader of the White House’s task force working on the issue.

The former chief of staff said that his successor, Jeff Zients, was one of several people he recommended for the role, describing him as “an excellent choice,” given his experience with the White House team as COVID czar and his service in the Obama administration.

“I thought we needed more continuity than change, and I thought Jeff offered that,” Klain explained.

Klain said he had taken a back seat in the administration on foreign policy issues, allowing National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan — whom Klain said he had urged Biden to hire — to take the lead. 

“I often would participate in those meetings because I think I know the president well and know how he thinks about things and what information he’s going to find helpful, what information is lacking in some meetings,” Klain said. “So my role was mostly becoming an alter ego for him to make sure things were prepared before they went to him and let Jake and his team do a great job.”

He described the fear that pervaded the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when concerns were high that Russia would knock out Ukraine’s power grid or quickly overtake Kiev or launch a false-flag nuclear attack.

“There are definitely costs for us at home from the sanctions [against Russia] and from the decoupling of our economy, but those costs are much more intense in Europe, they feel it much more, the politics are more difficult,” Klain continued. “The president spent a lot of time on the phone those days with leaders in the U.K. and France and Germany telling them they had to stay tough and stay the course, and they have, and a great credit to them for doing it.”

Klain also revealed that President Joe Biden had attended his son’s bar mitzvah, while Biden was vice president — although he wasn’t there for the hora.

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