President Joe Biden announced White House chief of staff Ron Klain will step down next week and will be replaced by Jeff Zients, the former Obama administration official who ran Biden’s Covid-19 response operation.
Biden said there will be an “official transition” event at the White House next week to “thank Ron for his tireless work and officially welcome Jeff back to the White House in this role.”
Biden hailed Klain in a statement Friday morning, saying when he was elected president he “knew” he wanted Klain to be his chief of staff calling him “as tough, smart, determined, and persistent as anyone I have ever met.”
On Zients, Biden said he is “confident that Jeff will continue Ron’s example of smart, steady leadership, as we continue to work hard every day for the people we were sent here to serve.”
The announcement confirms earlier reporting by CNN and other news outlets.
In his resignation letter Friday, Klain said it had been “quite a journey” serving Biden, writing that 36 years ago he joined Biden’s then-Senate staff on the day he returned from his honeymoon.
“Leaving and returning to your staff several times since, my work for you has defined my life, both personally and professionally,” Klain wrote to Biden, adding he was “filled with gratitude.”
Klain promised to complete “an orderly handoff” to his successor and promised to do “whatever I can to help your campaign” should Biden choose to run for reelection.
“The halfway point of your first term – with two successful years behind us, and key decisions on the next two years ahead – is the right time for this team to have fresh leadership,” Klain said. “I have served longer than eight of the last nine Chiefs of Staff and have given this job my all; now it is time for someone else to take it on.”
Klain touted Biden’s policy record in the first two years of his presidency, comparing him to some of the most notable Democratic presidents of the last century as he touted “the most significant economic recovery legislation since FDR” and praised him for managing “the largest land war in Europe since the Truman era.”
“You did it all in the middle of the worst public health crisis since the Wilson era, with the smallest legislative majority of any newly elected Democratic president in a century,” Klain wrote.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has maintained an extremely close relationship with Klain through the last two years, praised his tenure as critical to “one of the most historic and productive first two years of a presidency in generations.”
Schumer, a New York Democrat, spoke by phone with Zients before the decision was officially announced and said the two agreed to maintain the “same close relationship with the White House Chief of Staff that I had with Ron.”
“He’s organized, focused, and deliberate, exactly the right person to lead the Biden administration and ensure the American people see and feel the benefits of these new laws,” Schumer, who often spoke to Klain by phone several times a day, said of Zients in a statement.
In replacing Klain with Zients, Biden is turning to a consultant with more business experience than political background as he enters the third year of his presidency.
The decision to pick Zients surprised some internally given that there were differences in Biden’s and Zients’ management styles early on in the administration. But Biden was impressed with his job as the coronavirus response coordinator when Zients inherited what officials described as a “largely dysfunctional” effort by the Trump administration.
Zients is expected to focus on managing the White House and implementing Biden’s legislative and policy agenda, while other senior advisers – namely senior adviser Anita Dunn and deputy White House chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon – take the lead on Biden’s political operation as Biden gears up for a reelection campaign.
The balance of power is expected to be similar to the split portfolios of then-White House chief of staff Jack Lew and David Plouffe, a senior adviser to former President Barack Obama who managed political operations. Klain is also expected to remain involved from the outside and additional political advisers are expected to be hired.
A White House official touted Zients as having the ideal set of skills and relationship with Biden to lead the White House in a year that will be focused on implementing key pieces of Biden’s legislative agenda. Officials pointed to Zients’ experience as Biden’s Covid-19 response coordinator and his roles as director of the National Economic Council and acting director of the Office of Management and Budget under Obama. Zients has also worked closely with Biden’s other senior advisers.
Klain’s departure comes at a difficult time for Biden, with a special counsel investigating his handling of classified information after his time as vice president and with the administration and the president’s family facing renewed scrutiny by the GOP-controlled US House of Representatives. An official familiar with Klain’s plans said his decision to step down is not related to the investigation underway about classified documents found at Biden’s private office and Delaware residence, with the decision being made before the special counsel was announced.
Klain has been mulling his exit since November’s midterm elections, according to a person familiar with the matter, who said people inside the White House have watched closely for clues as to his intentions. Klain is known to email staff at all hours and even check on gas prices in the middle of the night – a work pace that many of his colleagues viewed as unsustainable in the long run.
Klain himself has noted publicly – and in a more detailed manner privately – the grueling and exhausting nature of the position. But his deeply ingrained presence in nearly every aspect of the West Wing, along with his decades-long relationship with Biden, has made him crucial to the administration’s first two years.
Klain’s departure could preface other shifts inside the West Wing, as senior staff either shift over to the expected reelection campaign or decide themselves to depart the administration after two years. A talent search process has been underway, led by Zients, to identify potential replacements for top posts.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.