Welcome to POLITICO’s West Wing Playbook, your guide to the people and power centers in the Biden administration. With help from producers Raymond Rapada and Ben Johansen.
For the first year of the JOE BIDEN presidency, reporters tried repeatedly to get answers to a question keeping the nation on edge: where was the White House cat?
JILL BIDEN had mentioned during the 2020 campaign that she wanted to bring a cat back to the White House for the first time since GEORGE W. BUSH was in office, and the internet and the press corps (apparently both full of cat lovers) were intent on holding her to it.
As time dragged on, the mystery surrounding the status of the cat grew, with the White House disclosing very little. Finally, buried in a September 2021 New York Times interview with the first lady, a hint on the cat’s status emerged. Jill Biden confirmed that a cat had been adopted but also said it was being fostered by “somebody who loves the cat.”
Still, it wasn’t until January 2022 when the White House announced that WILLOW, a gray shorthair tabby cat, had joined the first family. And while cat enthusiasts breathed a sigh of relief, some lingering questions remained: Where had Willow been all this time and who was the loving foster parent the first lady spoke of? More significantly, why had it taken so long to get the cat into the actual White House?
According to multiple former White House staffers familiar with the arrangement, Willow spent the first year of her life in Washington living with the first lady’s then-press secretary, MICHAEL LAROSA.
As it turns out, the president’s German shepherds were not the only pets having a difficult transition. After the Bidens adopted Willow from a Pennsylvania farm, not only did she have to learn to be an indoor cat, she also had to adjust to a new name (her previous owners called her Tommi, “Mi” for short) and to sharing space with large dogs with behavioral problems. Plus, the Bidens themselves were still trying to figure out the rhythms of their new life.
It was a lot. So LaRosa stepped in.
He bought a cat carrier, moved Willow into his apartment and made arrangements for friends and family to watch her when he traveled with the first lady. When it was time to start introducing Willow to the White House grounds, LaRosa would drive her to work with him and show her around the East Wing, and then take her back home at the end of the day.
“I think people started to piece it together when they saw him unloading Willow from his car and carrying her through the [magnetometers],” said a former White House staffer who is not, we repeat not, SHERLOCK HOLMES.
When the time came for Willow to finally move into the White House with the Bidens full time, it was hard for LaRosa, who had grown attached after a year of caring for the cat. Even the first lady recognized the two had bonded. In the same New York Times interview, she said: “I don’t even know whether I can get the cat back at this point,” an apparent reference to LaRosa’s connection with the feline.
At first, LaRosa would still take the cat home on weekends, according to the former staffers familiar with the arrangement. But eventually Willow spent more weekends with the Bidens, often getting schlepped around with the dogs to Delaware or Camp David. LaRosa would only see Willow when the cat would wander around the East Wing during the day.
“Willow was a great cat and he did a wonderful job taking care of her,” said another former White House staffer. “But at the same time, it was the first family’s cat and when it was time to move her back, he was sad.”
The former White House staffers said there wasn’t any animosity over the cat’s custody. At LaRosa’s goodbye toast last September in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, the first lady thanked him for his work and gave him a framed photo of Willow, joking that “the cat was out of the bag.”
When asked for comment for this story, LaRosa responded with a smiling cat emoji.
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Which was the first presidential pet to have a camera follow it around the White House in a series of wildly popular videos?
(Answer at bottom.)
MEANWHILE, OUT WEST: Biden on Wednesday visited Arcosa Wind Towers in Albuquerque, N.M. to speak about Bidenomics. The president hit all the usual notes, touting the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS Act. And he continued to needle Republicans claiming credit for the investments that his economic agenda has brought to their home districts despite voting against it.
This time, his target was Rep. LAUREN BOEBERT, whose Colorado district is the site of a groundbreaking of the world’s largest wind tower manufacturing site. “You know, that very quiet Republican lady — it’s in her district — who, along with every other Republican, voted against this bill,” he said. “That’s OK, she’s welcoming it now.”
‘PRACTICALLY SPEAKING’ … NICE TRY: In an interview with The Weather Channel that aired Wednesday, Biden was pressed on the need to to declare climate change a national emergency. “I’ve already done that,” he said. When the interviewer pointed out that he hadn’t, the president responded that, “practically speaking,” he has. (He hasn’t). He then pointed to his various efforts to combat climate change, including the $370 billion in green energy tax incentives enacted by last year’s Inflation Reduction Act. As our KELLY GARRITY reports, declaring climate an official emergency would expand Biden’s executive authority to act.
In a statement, KASSIE SIEGEL, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, said that, “practically speaking, Biden has devastated communities and wildlife by backing disastrous carbon bombs from Alaska to Appalachia. But the president can still become the leader we need by declaring a climate emergency for real.”
The White House, meanwhile, pushed back on the uproar over — and coverage of — Biden’s remarks. In a tweet, deputy communications director HERBIE ZISKEND called CNN’s fact check on the matter “misleading,” insisting that Biden has “treated climate change as an emergency … since day one.”
O-H! – I-NO!: Biden expressed support for Ohio voters who rejected Issue 1, a state ballot initiative that would have raised the threshold for changing the state’s constitution to 60 percent, rather than a simple majority. The election had been viewed as a proxy war over abortion rights, with a proposed constitutional amendment that would preserve access to the procedure on this November’s ballot. “This measure was a blatant attempt to weaken voters’ voices and further erode the freedom of women to make their own health care decisions,” Biden said in a statement.
Groups in states like Arizona, Florida and Nevada are working to include similar ballot initiatives that protect abortion access in next year’s general election, when they anticipate turnout will be higher, driven by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, our MADISON FERNANDEZ, ALICE MIRANDA OLLSTEIN and ZACH MONTELLARO report.
A FATAL ENCOUNTER: FBI agents, while serving a warrant, fatally shot a Utah man who made threats against Biden and Manhattan District Attorney ALVIN BRAGG. Charging documents allege CRAIG DELEEUW ROBERTSON plotted to target Bragg — the prosecutor overseeing the case involving alleged hush-money payments by former President DONALD TRUMP — and assassinate him in a parking garage. NBC News reports that Biden was briefed on the raid.
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE WANTS YOU TO READ: This piece by NBC News’ SAHIL KAPUR and SCOTT WONG about how some House Republicans from districts Biden won in 2020 are backing off the idea of impeaching the president. Reps. MIKE LAWLER (R-N.Y.) and BRIAN FITZPATRICK (R-Pa.) are among those who’ve tried to walk back impeachment talk, claiming the move would be too political and risks turning the process into “essentially a vote of no confidence in the British Parliament.” White House oversight and investigations spokesperson IAN SAMS tweeted the piece.
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE WANTS TOMMY TUBERVILLE TO READ: This Public Policy Polling survey showing that a majority of Alabama voters — 58 percent — think that Republican Sen. TOMMY TUBERVILLE should end his monthslong blockade of hundreds of military nominations and promotions over the Defense Department’s abortion policy. Pentagon press secretary (and lower White House press alum) CHRIS MEAGHER tweeted the poll, and White House communications director BEN LABOLT retweeted it.
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ: This piece by our ADAM CANCRYN and MEGAN MESSERLY about the White House bracing for blowback as millions of Americans roll off Medicaid plans following the expiration of a Covid-era requirement that shielded low-income enrollees from coverage loss. Adam and Megan write that given Biden is “already facing entrenched skepticism over the state of the economy, allies increasingly worry the drumbeat of coverage losses will undercut his core message that ‘Bidenomics’ is driving the biggest gains for those who have the least.”
THEY WON’T BE HAPPY ABOUT THIS: The Biden administration announced new restrictions on Wednesday that would bar private American equity firms from investing in China’s technology sector, including emerging areas such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, our GAVIN BADE reports.
Allies of the move have cited protecting national security and limiting China’s access to American capital needed to grow its military, despite the likelihood the efforts will rankle Beijing. The new restrictions come after a series of high-profile visits to China by senior administration officials, including Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN and Treasury Secretary JANET YELLEN, aimed at thawing relations between both countries.
WE’RE NOT WORRIED ABOUT IT: National Security Council spokesperson JOHN KIRBY downplayed new polling that suggests a growing number of Americans oppose additional military aid to Ukraine, CNN’s NIKKI CARVAJAL reports.
“I think it’s important to remember that if we just sit back and we let Putin win, we let him take Ukraine, where does it stop next?” Kirby told reporters in a call on Wednesday.
Faltering U.S. support for Kyiv comes as the country’s counteroffensive has stalled in recent weeks as trained Ukrainian forces still await American military equipment, including the 31 Abrams tanks set to arrive in “early fall,” our PAUL McLEARY reported earlier this week for Pro subscribers.
U.S.-Saudi Deal Sets Path to Normalize Kingdom’s Ties With Israel (WSJ’s Dion Nissenbaum)
Abortion rights activists set their sights on Arizona after Ohio win (POLITICO’s Zach Montellaro)
First American City to Tame Inflation Owes Its Success to Affordable Housing (Bloomberg’s Mark Niquette and Augusta Saravia)
BARNEY, the Scottish terrier of GEORGE W. BUSH, starred in various “BarneyCam” videos that offered a dog’s eye view of the White House and the lives of senior White House aides. He even had his own .gov Web site for a while.
Read more about how the BarneyCam videos came about from their creator, JIMMY ORR, in a tribute to Barney by the former White House spokesman.
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Edited by Eun Kyung Kim and Sam Stein.