I was invited to accompany Vice President Kamala Harris on two trips along with photographers, and I was granted a one-on-one interview with her in the West Wing.
Photographer Jen Rosenstein and I joined Harris’s motorcade at Los Angeles International Airport one Friday morning in May.
As we made our way onto the tarmac in White House-rented vans, the day started with a fender bender. The volunteer driver had taken a turn too tightly and scraped the side of the vehicle along the security barrier at the entrance to the LAX tarmac. While waiting for police officials to take photos, a Secret Service agent said she had been the second person to strike the barrier that morning, hoping to reassure her.
The day’s adventure had begun.
Fortunately, Jen and I were moved to another van with a different driver who operated his vehicle safely for the remainder of the day.
We joined Brian Karem, the former Senior White House correspondent for Playboy who now writes for Salon and was filling in for pool duty, Mario Tama, a photographer for Getty Images, and a press assistant with the VP’s office, Tate Mitchell, who handles logistics. A Secret Service agent was assigned to the group and communicated movements as necessary. He rounded out the van’s occupants.
After the staff plane landed at LAX, Tate escorted us to the tarmac where Air Force Two had just landed and brought us “under the wing” (it’s a thing) to observe Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff emerge from the aircraft, wave, and step into an awaiting SUV.
Immediately after, everybody rushed to their vans, and the motorcade was “rolling.”
It should be noted that there’s nothing quite like traveling around notoriously traffic-congested Los Angeles without stopping or really slowing down. Once the motorcade started, it didn’t stop again until it reached the first destination, a nonprofit organization called Baby2Baby that supports mothers and children experiencing poverty.
As Harris stepped out of her vehicle, the crew from the press van was ushered into the large building complex through a side door around the back. Inside, some local press members had been staged at the end of a corridor where Harris and representatives from the company would end up as they walked the building touring the organization’s warehouse.
Harris and the Baby2Baby co-CEOs came around a corner and stopped (stepping on their “x” spot markers) as photographers and videographers captured some of the conversations. A few moments later, all journalists were ushered down the hall to the next stop along the tour, and the scene repeated itself. This happened again a few times; each time, the press gathered and waited as the organization’s leaders and the vice president made their way to the next part of the building to be featured.
Harris was deeply engaged in the conversation, understanding the organization’s challenges and learning about its work.
At one point, Karem tried to ask Harris a question about the debt ceiling negotiations but was rebuffed by a press assistant, who politely but forcefully said “thank you” and indicated that Harris wouldn’t be answering questions at that time. After the tour, though, Harris acknowledged Karem and responded to two of his questions about the then-looming debt ceiling crisis.
The crew from the press van was ushered out of a side door, where we waited until Secret Service agents indicated that Harris was making her way to her vehicle; thus, the scramble began, and everybody rushed to the awaiting cars and vans before police officers on motorcycles began zooming past to start the motorcade heading to Harris and Emhoff’s Brentwood home. We were again “rolling.”
Once more no stops and hardly any slowdowns as the motorcade made its way across Los Angeles unimpeded.
After arriving on the street where the vice president’s home is, the press van peeled off and headed to the hotel where most White House staff stayed.
Karem, Tama, Jen, and I found a nearby location to sit and eat lunch (and charge several phones) before rejoining the staff at the vans outside the hotel about 90 minutes later and heading back to the VP’s home for an “OTR” or off-the-record stop.
Tate had shared with us (with the agreement we wouldn’t publicize the information until we arrived at the destination) that Harris and Emhoff would be attending the WNBA home opener of the Los Angeles Sparks at Crypto.com Arena, where the team would face the Phoenix Mercury and Brittney Griner in her first professional basketball game back since she was released from wrongful detention in Russia. I had written a profile about Griner and the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts to free her last December, and the opportunity to see her was going to round that story out.
After a short wait outside Harris and Emhoff’s home, the motorcade was rolling again and headed clear across the city into downtown Los Angeles. As the motorcade sped along freeways and city streets, Los Angelinos had their phones out to take photos and video of the spectacle as it made its way to the arena.
Once there, Harris and the entourage entered the building underground. The press group was taken to a small room used for post-game press conferences and asked to hold.
Shortly after that, Jen and I were invited to exclusively witness Harris and Emhoff meet with Griner and her wife, Cherelle, during a private, quiet moment. Harris’s engagement had been integral to freeing the WNBA star.
Next, as ESPN producers conveyed the broadcast countdown time until the game would air live, Harris and Emhoff visited the Mercury’s locker room. The press had been ushered in beforehand.
Following a 6-minute visit with the Mercury, the assembled media members were brought to the Sparks locker room, where Harris and Emhoff joined a few minutes later to encourage the home team. As a long-time Sparks fan, Emhoff was very excited, a point Harris made to the team as she invited him to say a few words.
Next, we were all brought onto the basketball court, passing by tennis star Billie Jean King, her wife, and basketball superstar Magic Johnson, who were all in attendance. Saturday Night Live comedian Leslie Jones was among the thousands of spectators.
Soon, the teams were introduced to thunderous applause and began warming up. After the national anthem, as the lights came back on, the crowd appeared ready for a great game.
Then came the announcement explaining why so many photographers stood on the court. The announcer introduced Harris, and the crowd went wild. Harris stepped onto the court and walked to the center, smiling and waving to cheers and applause.
She was given a Sparks jersey and waved before rejoining her husband. The couple then watched some of the game as the press van crew was ushered back into the arena’s bowels and taken to a dining room with refreshments and catering.
There we waited for about 30 minutes until the Secret Service agent assigned to the van indicated that it was time to go, and the hustle to the vehicles began anew.
The day’s events concluded upon arrival at Harris and Emhoff’s home in Brentwood again around 9 p.m.
Next, I was invited to conduct a one-on-one sit-down interview with Harris the following week in the vice president’s West Wing office the following week.
After arriving, Tate took us to the White House medical unit for a quick covid test before convening in the VP’s press team’s offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House.
Then, we were escorted the short walk into the West Wing, where a Marine guard opened the door. Nothing at the White House is done without meticulous attention to detail, and so too do the U.S. Marines who have the honor of posting up at the door. As Jen and I waited (and took a selfie) in the foyer of the vice president’s offices, we watched three Marines practice opening and closing the door in one smooth motion.
Shortly after, as we sat outside the vice president’s office door, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre appeared outside the nearby door that leads to the White House press briefing room. She and Jen embraced (Jen shot The Advocate’s cover featuring Jean-Pierre recently), and Jean-Pierre left to brief the country on President Joe Biden’s day.
“We’re ready for you,” said one of Harris’s assistant press secretaries, and I was introduced. “Madam Vice President Christopher Wiggins from The Advocate here to see you,” he announced.
As Harris and I exchanged pleasantries and while one of the aides procured cold water to serve, Jen and the VP’s White House photographer Lawrence Jackson circulated the room taking photos. After the photographers left, Harris and I conversed for what was initially scheduled for 20 minutes but lasted nearly 45 as the vice president was eagerly engaged in the topic of conversation.
The interview is part of The Advocate’s July-August cover story, available now.
The following weekend, photographer Mike Nelson joined me for a trip on Air Force Two to accompany Harris and Emhoff to the U.S. Military Academy West Point, where Harris would be the first woman to give the commencement address at the prestigious institution.
The previous day, Mike and I were required to take a COVID test at the White House complex. Meeting before dawn at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, D.C. in Maryland, we were met by an Air Force liaison who escorted us to the passenger terminal.
A security scan similar to that at a commercial airport, including explosives and weapons-detecting canine examining bags, was conducted. The dog took no interest in our belongings.
Rhode Island U.S. Senator Jack Reed, who graduated from West Point, appeared in the terminal with an aide. White House staff confirmed that Reed would be joining on the plane.
As departure time approached, staff, Mike, and I boarded Air Force Two. Once aboard, passengers were treated to a sunrise drink which consisted of orange juice, a splash of grenadine, and an orange slice. Already at each seat was a meal prepared for immediate enjoyment.
Many of the agents and support staff began eating immediately (days traveling with the vice president can be super hectic with few moments to grab a bite, so those with experience know to eat when they can.)
At each seat, a card read “Welcome aboard Air Force Two” with the passenger’s name printed on it. (Just about everybody keeps their card as a memento.)
In addition to joining the trip for The Advocate, I was designated print pool reporter, so I was responsible for sending reports of updates on Harris’s movements and activities to the distribution list of journalists and organizations who have access to pool reports.
As I wrote the first report, were informed that it was time to go “under the wing” for Harris and Emhoff’s arrival on Marine Two and boarding Air Force Two.
The helicopter landed, Harris and Emhoff emerged and were greeted by an Air Force officer and Reed. The two walked up the stairs, waved at us, and disappeared into the aircraft.
Everybody else rushed onboard using the rear stairway, and the plane was on its way within minutes.
About 15 minutes into the flight, Mike and I were invited to the front of the aircraft for a few minutes of pleasantries with Harris. As Harris and I chatted, she introduced me to Reed, who was seated nearby.
After a brief conversation and photos with Harris, Mike and I retook our seats.
A short flight later, staff ushered us back under the wing after we landed and we captured the Second Couple’s disembarkment and entry into the armored SUV.
The team hurried into the press van again, and the motorcade was again underway.
It took between 20 and 30 minutes to arrive at West Point, where soldiers lined the streets, saluting the motorcade as it traversed the campus.
After arriving at West Point’s Michie Stadium, Mike and I and a crew from CBS’s 60 Minutes were brought to a spot outside the door where Harris would walk to take her place on the dais set up in the midfield of Michie Stadium.
The day was beautiful, with blue skies, sunshine, and temperatures in the low 70s.
One can read The Advocate’s coverage of Harris’s historic speech here.
More than 900 graduates were greeted by Harris, who remained onstage to shake their hands. After the class tossed their white caps in the air, Harris and Emhoff, along with the entourage, were ushered back to their nearby vehicles, and the motorcade was once again off, heading back to Stewart Air National Guard base to catch their return flight.
That flight, though a bit bumpy, was also otherwise uneventful.
Upon landing again, we were once again escorted under the wing and witnessed the Harris and Emhoff deplane and get on Marine Two.
The helicopter lifted off and took off toward the Naval Observatory in northwest D.C., where vice presidents live.
Mike and I were met by the military escort on the tarmac, and we followed him off the air base in our cars.
No longer in a motorcade, since it was Memorial Day weekend, I was immediately stuck in traffic.