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Power moves: Samantha Power’s celebrity draws spotlight to USAID — and questions about her future

Afghanistan was falling into chaos, the Taliban blitzing across the country, a darkness closing on generations of women.

But as the crisis unfolded in early August, one of President Joe Biden’s most prominent and outspoken foreign policy aides — a champion and scholar of human rights — said nothing. Samantha Power didn’t even tweet about it.

Her silence, while temporary, was unusual. But it kept her out of the fray at a difficult moment abroad and domestically for the Biden administration. When critics slammed its handling of the Afghan debacle, few, if any, pointed a finger at her.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning former United Nations ambassador has rarely avoided the public spotlight since Biden gave her the reins of the U.S. Agency for International Development. She’d appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” hobnobbed with pop stars, and cranked up USAID’s press release generator. Biden had even given her a guaranteed spot on the National Security Council, assuring her West Wing access, while high-profile trips abroad along with a kinetic Twitter account kept her in the public eye.

Her visibility in Washington has prompted speculation — from within USAID’s nonpartisan career ranks to both current Democratic and past Republican political appointees — that Power has her eyes on a bigger job. A potential secretary of State? National security adviser? World Bank chief?

She is outspoken to such a degree that some lawmakers and their aides quietly wonder if it’s counterproductive for U.S. diplomacy. So when the former Obama administration Cabinet member demurred on Afghanistan, some foreign policy hands saw a strategic move to protect her career prospects and reputation.

“What a lot of people believe is that she’s just auditioning,” said one former senior USAID official, who, like most other people cited in this article, requested anonymity to candidly discuss a powerful figure.

Given her resume so far, “if she wants to go anywhere after USAID, the most logical place for her to go within the U.S. government would be secretary of State or national security adviser,” added a second former senior USAID official.

Not that those positions are available for the taking.

Despite some calls for his ouster following the Afghan crisis, national security adviser Jake Sullivan appears secure in his job. Asked if Biden retains confidence in Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who likewise faced heavy criticism in the wake of the Afghan debacle, a White House spokesperson replied: “Absolutely.”

A USAID spokesperson flatly responded “no” when asked if Power sought a higher-profile post. Via the spokesperson, Power declined an interview with POLITICO.

Among aides to Biden, Power was something of a celebrity long before joining the administration. Her mere presence at USAID is boosting awareness of an agency responsible for tens of billions of dollars in spending abroad. USAID officials marvel at Power’s media savvy and Rolodex. They note that she’s on a first-name basis with people who in the past would barely give the agency the time of day.

“She doesn’t do ambassadors,” one senior USAID official said. “She goes straight to heads of state.”

Power player

Power, who was born in Ireland, had an early career as a journalist, making a name for herself as a war correspondent in Bosnia. She went on to gain global fame for writing “A Problem from Hell,” a deep look at America’s often-failed responses to genocide. The book won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize, and it put her on a first-name basis with many top world figures.

During Barack Obama’s presidency, Power served on the National Security Council staff as senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights. She later became Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, where she gained a reputation as a highly driven, and sometimes difficult, manager.

Power often advocated for U.S. military intervention on human rights grounds, such as in Libya in 2011, but she didn’t always win those debates, an experience she describes in her 2019 memoir, “The Education of An Idealist.” She’s also half of a power couple: her husband is renowned legal scholar Cass Sunstein, a former Obama appointee who’s been advising the Biden administration on immigration.

Since taking over USAID in the spring, Power has gone on several major trips, including to countries in Central America and Africa as well as to earthquake-devastated Haiti. She has met with genre-spanning musical artist The Weeknd, who is of Ethiopian descent, to discuss ways to ease the humanitarian crisis in that part of Africa, as well as everyone from Ukraine’s prime minister to “nutrition CEOs.”

During her nine-minute segment on Colbert’s show, she described USAID as America’s “soft power arsenal” and one of its “better-kept secrets.” “We do everything from support the education of girls to vaccinating young people and preventing outbreaks of disease,” Power said.

Earlier this month, Power laid out her vision for USAID, including promises to recruit a more diverse workforce and direct more development dollars to local organizations in countries where USAID operates.

The number of USAID press releases appears to have skyrocketed under Power, and it’s a rare one that isn’t centered on what Power has lately done in her jam-packed schedule. “Administrator Power Visits Delaware State University,” one recently noted.

Power also uses social media to an extraordinary degree, commenting on everything from the melons of Uzbekistan to the Cuban government’s repression of artists to the importance of fixing America’s immigration system.

A State Department official complained that Power is so prolific that public relations staffers there at times wonder if their USAID counterparts will release a Power statement before Blinken comments on an issue. Congressional aides said they’d heard similar grumbling from State.

“I see a thousand readouts a day from USAID about things that she is doing. The other day there was something with the Irish somebody,” the State Department official said. “There’s just this desire to be part of every conversation.”

Sometimes, State Department officials wonder why Power weighs in at all. For instance, earlier this month she slammed Nicaragua’s election, which dictator Daniel Ortega “won” after jailing all the legitimate opposition candidates. The press release could have easily been written for Blinken.

Asked why Power issued the Nicaragua statement, the USAID spokesperson said: “Programming to strengthen democracy and fight corruption has been core to USAID’s work for decades and is one of Administrator Power’s top priorities for the agency.”

Power’s allies say her motives are pure.

“Her whole life, she’s internalized a lesson that you can help advance things you care about by bringing attention to them,” said Ben Rhodes, a former senior national security aide in the Obama administration.

And her defenders include both Sullivan and Blinken.

“She is a stellar teammate,” Sullivan said of Power in a statement. “And the president relies on her strong counsel and key insights across the full range of foreign policy issues.”

In a separate statement, Blinken said the Biden team was lucky to include Power because of her “unique experience, broad expertise and deep passion.”

Traditionally, and according to statute, the USAID administrator has deferred to the secretary of State for policy guidance, though many past agency chiefs have felt quite free to share their policy views in internal discussions.

A senior Biden administration official said that the president decided to make the USAID chief an official member of the National Security Council’s Principals Committee before Power was selected for the job. It was all due to Biden’s desire to better integrate USAID into foreign policy decision-making, the official said.

USAID officials say having Power formally at the table is a step up.

“We’re, like, on the map,” the senior USAID official said. “It’s not State telling us what to do. It’s us engaging with, ‘Hold on a sec, let’s look at this from a development angle.’”

A tough boss

During much of Donald Trump’s presidency, USAID was overseen by Mark Green, a Republican former congressman and ambassador who commanded bipartisan respect. Green adopted a low profile, keeping the agency off of Trump’s radar and focused on its mission of development, humanitarian work and promoting democracy.

Green’s departure in spring 2020 coincided with a White House effort to jam-pack government bodies with Trump loyalists. USAID soon found itself home to several Trump appointees who had taken actions or made comments troubling to many of the agency’s career employees.

Morale sank, and the coronavirus pandemic, which strained the agency across the globe, didn’t help.

When Power’s nomination was first announced, USAID employees were generally happy to learn someone so prominent would soon lead them. But some had reservations, having heard that Power, during her time at the United States Mission to the United Nations, was an unusually demanding boss.

No one doubted that Power genuinely cared about the subjects she and her team tackled. Some former and current aides talk about her in wondrous terms, saying she’s the type of person who truly wants to change the world for the better.

But her dearth of previous management experience didn’t always match well with her intense drive. Multiple people familiar with the issue said Power expected her staff to work unnecessarily long hours and that she would occasionally admonish employees in front of others. It didn’t help that Power seemed to have an endless list of priorities, one former staffer said.

“There was a culture of blame fostered,” the former staffer recalled. “There was working people all hours of the night. Making meeting after meeting after meeting. It cuts into your ability to work. There was real burnout.”

Even that staffer, however, said that Power became aware that she had to adjust her methods, and current USAID officials say she seems attuned to concerns that her hard-charging style may not always be the best fit.

“I think she’s evolved as a manager, and she has a cadre of people around her whom she has confidence in,” one USAID official said. “It’s been working well.”

Power has recruited an array of people for various positions, including bringing in some highly loyal aides who worked for her at the United Nations. Perhaps the most high-profile figure nominated to work for Power at USAID is Atul Gawande, the surgeon and New Yorker writer. If confirmed, he’ll serve as the assistant administrator of USAID’s global health bureau.

“USAID lost a lot of talent in the last administration,” the USAID spokesperson said, referring to the Trump years. “Administrator Power is fully focused on rebuilding and recruiting.”

Asked about Power’s management style, the USAID spokesperson said Power has “profound respect” for the people who’ve worked with her before, and that her “entire career has been focused on the need to promote the dignity of individuals.”

“Administrator Power works hard, and so does her staff,” the spokesperson said. “And that is what the American people expect of those entrusted with the responsibilities and resources for which she is responsible.”

‘Do no harm’

So far, Power has not broken publicly in any major way with Blinken or others on the Biden team when it comes to policy. But her public comments, combined with her professional and personal star power, have led to some concerns about her role and that of the secretary of State getting blurred.

Take Ethiopia, where a war between federal forces and fighters aligned with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front has led to atrocities and starvation. The senior USAID official said that, in an early brainstorming session with staffers, Power asked about ways to embarrass the Ethiopian government given its role in the unfolding catastrophe in the Tigray region and beyond.

Power visited Ethiopia in August. While there, she urged government leaders to avoid language that could escalate the conflict, warning that “there are many, many people out there who hear rhetoric, hateful rhetoric or dehumanizing rhetoric and take measures into their own hands or can be incited by that.”

Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed — who has called opponents in the conflict “weeds” — didn’t grant Power a meeting during her trip, which many observers took as a deliberate snub.

On one hand, many of Power’s supporters — including within USAID — say she’s right to speak out on the deepening crisis. After all, things have gotten so bad in the conflict that some close observers are using words like “genocide” and Blinken is pondering how to label the atrocities there. Besides, her aides say, Power is careful to stick to an administration-approved message.

“We’re not out there being rogue on our own. It’s pretty coordinated,” a second senior USAID official said. “There’s some really bad things happening on Tigray. I, for one, want the U.S. government to speak out on that. We can’t turn a blind eye to crimes being committed against human beings.”

But Power’s celebrity status, as well as her reputation as a genocide scholar and interventionist, can inflame tensions, others warn. She is not, after all, the typical, often-little-known figure atop America’s main overseas aid agency.

Aid workers on the ground in Ethiopia have expressed worries to U.S. lawmakers’ offices that their work — which often relies on U.S. funding — may be endangered if the Ethiopian government or other authorities get angry enough with Power, people familiar with the matter told POLITICO.

During a hearing in July, Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, alluded to his concerns about Power and the potential politicization of aid.

“USAID leadership should follow the ‘Do No Harm’ principle in delivering assistance, while leaving the politics of U.S.-Ethiopia bilateral relationship to the diplomats,” Risch said.

The USAID spokesperson suggested that Power has other plans.

“Administrator Power has been and will remain outspoken about the conflict in Northern Ethiopia because it is one of the worst humanitarian and human rights crises in a generation and USAID is the lead government agency in responding to humanitarian crises overseas,” the spokesperson said.

Quiet on the Afghan front

Because she’s usually so outspoken, Power’s early silence on Afghanistan was hard to miss.

For much of August, she focused on other issues, especially the U.S. response to an earthquake in Haiti, for which Biden gave her a lead role. It wasn’t until Aug. 18, after the Taliban had taken the Afghan capital and prompted a chaotic evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies, that Power issued a short Twitter thread on the situation.

“All of @USAID is heartbroken by the scenes we’re seeing in Afghanistan and the dangers confronting the Afghan people,” she wrote. “Our top priority right now is doing everything we can for the safety of our Afghan staff and partners.”

Power became much more vocal about Afghanistan in subsequent days; she convened a high-level roundtable on the country with senior officials from an array of other nations during the United Nations General Assembly.

But people in the aid and foreign policy establishments noticed her early silence, and some questioned if Power initially didn’t want to touch the debacle for fear of tainting her reputation.

“The State Department does not look good on Afghanistan right now, so you do wonder if there’s opportunity for her there,” a senior official at an international non-profit that deals with USAID said.

It’s not clear what position Power took during the administration’s internal debates about Afghanistan; admittedly, much of the discussion about withdrawing U.S. troops from the country was hashed out before she formally joined the team. The USAID spokesperson said Power “strongly supports President Biden’s shift of American foreign policy from ‘relentless war’ to ‘relentless diplomacy,’ including in Afghanistan.”

The senior administration official said the White House had not directed Power to avoid talking about Afghanistan. “In no way did anyone discourage her from speaking out,” the senior official said. “Quite the opposite, in fact. It is helpful to all of us when she is out there carrying a message.”

The USAID spokesperson said Power’s priority as the Afghan crisis unfolded was helping Americans and Afghans connected to USAID get out of the country. That was confirmed by multiple other USAID officials.

“Maybe she didn’t want to piss off the Taliban until our people were out,” the first senior USAID official said.

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