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Politics
AP
Joe Biden's inner circle: No longer a boys club

Weeks before Joe Biden launched his 2020 presidential campaign, he released a social media video to address allegations from women who said his uninvited displays of affection had made them uncomfortable.

“Social norms have begun to change. They’ve shifted,” said the former vice president, then 76. Looking straight into a cellphone camera, he added: “I hear what they are saying. I understand.”

Kate Bedingfield, an adviser the same age as Biden’s youngest daughter, was first to propose a direct-to-lens declaration. She joined forces with Anita Dunn, an alumna of President Barack Obama’s West Wing and relative newbie to Biden’s orbit. Together with two of Biden’s longest-serving confidants — Steve Ricchetti and Mike Donilon — they convinced the almost-candidate it was the right course.

When the boss was ready, Bedingfield held up her phone to record.

Those early days of spring 2019 portended a defining new reality for Biden: His innermost circle for decades was dominated by men, with the crucial exceptions of his wife, Jill, and sister, Valerie. But the 50-year political veteran has expanded his brain trust, and the cadre of women now included have helped shape — and even rescue — a campaign that has whipsawed Biden from early favorite to disappointing afterthought and finally to prospective Democratic nominee.

“We don’t have a senior meeting on the campaign where women are not at least half the meeting,” said Bedingfield, the deputy campaign manager, who had joined Biden during his final years as Obama’s vice president. Biden, she said, is “cognizant of the fact that we bring different life experiences to the table, and that that is valuable,” while also seeing women and men as equals in presidential politics.

It’s a vital dynamic for a politician whose career is marked by both successes and controversies where women are concerned, and also for his party, which again will nominate a man despite a historically diverse field that fueled many Democrats’ hopes that a woman finally could win the presidency.

Accordingly, Biden has highlighted that women are leaders on his campaign and assured voters they would remain so in his White House. He pledged days before the South Carolina primary to make a black woman his first Supreme Court nominee. After taking complete command of the nominating fight over subsequent weeks, he named Democratic operative Jen O’Malley Dillon as his campaign manager and promised to select a woman as his running mate.

Biden had previously tasked Dunn, 63, with leading his campaign after an embarrassing fourth-place finish in Iowa last month. Dunn already had bonded with two other top women advisers: Bedingfield, 38, and Symone Sanders, 30, who came to the campaign as one of the party’s most high-profile black women strategists. Dunn also recommended Biden make O’Malley Dillon, 43, his permanent manager.

Bedingfield and Biden’s first campaign manager, Greg Schultz, meanwhile, had built a team with women atop several divisions: policy, political outreach, research, fundraising and accounting. And Biden’s traveling chief of staff is Annie Tomasini, making her the candidate’s day-to-day shepherd.

That’s a notable lineup for a man who came of age in a staunchly patriarchal era. He joined an all-male Senate in 1973. He has since authored the Violence Against Women Act, but also has been harangued over his handling of Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas before his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation. Biden said that led him to recruit the first women to the Senate Judiciary Committee, though he’s never personally apologized to Hill for anything he did as chairman, instead referring generally to how other senators treated her.

Dunn said it is Biden’s “world view” to want women challenging him. But she and other women deflect credit for his campaign turnaround, pointing elsewhere, including at the men who remain fixtures.

“Successful campaigns are about addition,” Dunn said, “not subtraction.”

Indeed, while Dunn spent much of her time at Philadelphia headquarters before it was shuttered by the coronavirus, a trio of Biden’s old-guard — Donilon, his speechwriter and ad guru since the early 1980s, and former chiefs of staff Ricchetti and Bruce Reed — comprised a traveling mainstay with the candidate. Still, interviews with nearly a dozen Biden aides and allies made clear that women are a driving force behind the candidate and his campaign.

Women were in the room when Biden reversed his decades-long support for the Hyde amendment, a prohibition on federal money paying for abortions. They’ve helped soften his defensiveness about lingering criticisms over Hill. And women urged Biden to talk more openly about a debilitating stutter that he learned to manage as a boy, convincing him it wasn’t a weakness, but a humanizing strength.

When Biden granted Dunn final decision-making authority after the Iowa caucuses, she moved quickly. She recruited O’Malley Dillon, who’d never worked directly for Biden, to oversee the Nevada operation. Sanders headed to South Carolina. Those states resuscitated a campaign Dunn said was “on the brink of collapse.”

Bedingfield and Sanders were especially vocal in pressing Biden to bail on New Hampshire when it became clear he’d lose badly there. They helped convinced him to visit South Carolina for a rally on friendlier turf before traveling to Nevada.

“There was a big difference between a fifth-place finish in a ballroom in New Hampshire and a fifth-place finish being in South Carolina, making the case for where we thought our campaign would turn around,” Bedingfield said.

In South Carolina, a day after a crucial second-place Nevada finish, Sanders engineered a private, spur-of-the-moment meeting between Biden and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, as the state’s most powerful Democrat hosted a welcome reception for the Congressional Black Caucus. Days later, Clyburn delivered an emotional endorsement for his old friend, a move widely credited for turning an expected Biden victory into a romp and setting up his March surge.

Immediately after South Carolina, it was Dunn, Bedingfield and Sanders managing whirlwind negotiations with onetime rivals to rally behind the former vice president heading into Super Tuesday. They ultimately orchestrated remarkable scenes in Dallas with Biden alongside Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke in a show of force the night before Biden won 10 of 14 primaries.

That consolidation of Democratic factions ended Bernie Sanders’ hopes for the nomination.

None of this makes up for the fact that a woman won’t be elected president this year. But Lily Adams, who worked for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Sen. Kamala Harris this cycle, said Biden’s approach is an important recognition of the moment.

“Usually, when there are the toughest odds, the most successful people who are ready to walk through fire are women, because in many cases they’ve faced down every obstacle, every amount of bias,” Adams said. “The importance of diversity in teams isn’t just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s the smart thing to do.”

None of the women around Biden see themselves as supplanting anyone. Dunn said Jill Biden and Valerie Biden Owens are now elevated as “principals in their own right” — veritable extensions of the candidate. Bedingfield texts regularly with the candidate’s wife.

Val, as Biden calls his sister, managed her older brother’s politics for decades, becoming the first woman to manage a modern U.S. Senate or presidential campaign. Biden still trusts Ricchetti perhaps more than anyone other than Jill or Val. And no newcomer matches Donilon’s comfort with Biden’s voice.

“The fact that he values relationships and loyalty,” Dunn said, “doesn’t mean he can’t establish new ones.”


International
AP
Islamic State gunman kills 25 in attack on Sikhs in Kabul

KABUL, Afghanistan — A lone Islamic State gunman rampaged through a Sikh house of worship in the heart of the Afghan capital Wednesday, killing 25 worshippers and wounding eight, Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry said.

The gunman held many worshippers hostage for several hours while Afghan special forces, helped by international troops, tried to clear the building. At least one of the dead was a child.

Within hours, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Afghan special forces rescued at least 80 worshippers who had been trapped inside the Sikh house of worship, known as a Gurdwara, as the gunman lobbed grenades and fired his automatic rifle into the crowd, the ministry said.

Earlier, Afghan lawmaker Narindra Singh Khalsa said he rushed over to help after receiving a call from a person inside the Gurdwara telling him of the attack. There were about 150 people inside at the time, he said.

The SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks militant postings and groups, said IS claimed responsibility for the attack on the group’s Aamaq media arm. The communique identified the gunman as Indian national Abu Khalid al-Hindi, who carried out the attack to avenge the plight of Muslims living under severe restrictions in Indian-ruled Kashmir, Hindu India’s only Muslim dominated state.

At a Kabul hospital, Mohan Singh, who was in the Gurdwara when the attack began, said he first heard the sound of gunshots and ducked for cover under a table. Later he heard explosions, adding that he believes they were hand grenades. He was wounded when parts of the ceiling fell on him.

In photographs shared by the Interior Ministry, about a dozen children were seen being rushed out of the Gurdwara by Afghan special forces, many of them barefoot and crying.

As news of the attack first broke, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed tweeted that the Taliban were not involved. Earlier this month, Afghanistan’s IS affiliate struck a gathering of minority Shiite Muslims in Kabul, killing 32 people.

Afghanistan’s National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib condemned the attack in a tweet while neighboring Pakistan and India both issued statements of condemnation. Pakistan described the attack as “heinous.”

“Such despicable acts have no political, religious or moral justification and must be rejected outright,” the Pakistani Foreign Ministry statement said.

India said the attack was particularly egregious coming as Afghanistan sought to deal with the growing coronavirus pandemic.

“Such cowardly attacks on the places of religious worship of the minority community,” India said, reflect the “diabolical mindset of the perpetrators and their backers.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the attack, reiterating that “attacks against civilians are unacceptable and those who carry out such crimes must be held accountable,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan called for a “reduction of violence leading to a cease-fire” by all combatants in Afghanistan

Sikhs have suffered widespread discrimination in the conservative Muslim country and have also been targeted by Islamic extremists. Under Taliban rule in the late 1990s, they were asked to identify themselves by wearing yellow armbands, but the rule was not enforced. In recent years, large numbers of Sikhs and Hindus have sought asylum in India, which has a Hindu majority and a large Sikh population.

In July 2018, a convoy of Sikhs and Hindus was attacked by an Islamic State suicide bomber as they were on their way to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in the eastern city of Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province. Nineteen people were killed in that attack.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, at least eight civilians were killed in southern Helmand province when their vehicle hit a roadside mine, said Omer Zwak, spokesman for the provincial governor. The area is under Taliban control but no one took immediate responsibility.

In a separate incident in northern Kapisa province, insurgents opened fire on a vehicle killing three civilians and a security officer, said Shahiq Shoresh Kohistani, spokesman for the provincial police chief.

Washington signed a deal with the Taliban on Feb. 29 and has begun to withdraw its troops in keeping with the agreement but it has run into trouble as Afghanistan’s political leadership battles relentlessly for power. Two presidents sit in Kabul. Even a surprise visit by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday, who threatened to withhold $1 billion in aid if they didn’t “get their act together,” could break the impasse.

A glimmer of hope appeared late Wednesday with a tweet from Taliban political spokesman Sohail Shaheen. He said the release of Taliban prisoners — a must before intra-Afghan negotiations can begin — could start by March 31. The decision came after a four-hour video conference between the Taliban, the government, Washington’s peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Qatari government representative. The Taliban maintain a political office in the Middle Eastern State of Qatar.

The U.S.-Taliban deal calls for the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners as well as 1,000 government captives as a good will gesture to launch intra-Afghan negotiations, but until now Kabul has been resisting the release.

Shaheen also said four Taliban members may travel to the prison at Bagram, north of the Afghan capital Kabul.

Meanwhile, with more than 137,000 Afghans returning from Iran so far this year — traveling throughout the country before being tested and without follow up — there have been concerns that the country’s already war-devastated health system could be overwhelmed.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) on Wednesday called for a “reduction of violence leading to a cease fire” by all combatants in Afghanistan to better prepare for “the looming health crisis posed by COVID-19,” and to give a chance to intra-Afghan negotiations between warring groups.