Psaki Dodges After Sen. Duckworth Says She Was Told, 'You Have Kamala...You Don't Really Need' More Asians

By Patrick Goodenough | April 1, 2021 | 4:46am EDT
Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois. (Photo by Greg Nash/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois. (Photo by Greg Nash/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

( – A push by Asian American lawmakers to have someone from the community have a secretary-level post in President Biden’s cabinet hit a snag when, according to one Democratic senator, an administration official told her, “You have Kamala [Harris] … you don’t really need any other Asians in the cabinet.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki faced an awkward question at a press briefing on Tuesday when confronted with those words from Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).

Rather than comment on them directly, Psaki pointed to plans to name “a high-level Asian American” to a White House position dealing with policy and outreach.

Duckworth, a Thai American and one of two Asian American women currently in the Senate, made the comment during a CBS News interview a day earlier.

“I was pushing for more representation at the highest levels of the Biden administration,” she recalled.

“I love Kamala, she’s my girlfriend, you know, we were freshmen in the Senate together. I’ve spoken with her,” Duckworth said.

“They actually – the folks in the administration brought up her name and said, well, ‘You have Kamala. You know, you don’t really need any other Asians in the cabinet.’”

“And I thought, wow, that’s really offensive,” she continued. “You wouldn’t say, ‘We have a white male president. There shouldn’t be any more white male members of Cabinet.’ Why would you say that to someone from the Asian community?”

Vice President Harris’s mother emigrated from India, and her father is from Jamaica.

During Tuesday’s White House briefing, a reporter read out Duckworth’s words and invited Psaki to respond.

“Well, first, we’ve had a range of conversations with Senator Duckworth since that call which happened about a week ago, including a commitment to naming a high-level Asian American member of the AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community to a position in the White House,” she said. “And that’s something we're working to do through consultation with a range of officials and elected officials as well.”

“And that person will be a commissioned officer and will be working on both policy and outreach,” Psaki added. “And as soon as we have a name, we will share that with all of you.

“But a big part of our effort has also been on taking actions to address the rise in anti-Asian violence and bias, and underscoring the commitment of our entire administration to working in partnership with the AAI – AAPI community,” she said, then went on to speak for almost another minute about steps the administration was taken to address anti-Asian hate speech and violence.

‘Even’ Trump had Asian Americans in his cabinet

The comment about Harris apparently was raised during a call between Duckworth and White House officials on March 23, during which she threatened to block key nominations over the issue of AAPI representation at senior levels.

Last December, the Asian American Federation posted a series of tweets challenging the president-elect over the fact no Asian American had been included on a rapidly-dwindling list of cabinet vacancies.

AAPIs are the fastest growing racial and ethnic group in the country, it said, “and two out of three of us voted for you.”

The federation pointed out that “even” President Trump had two Asian Americans in his cabinet, a reference to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and former Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, whose position was a cabinet-level one.

The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) at the time also urged Biden to nominate a member of the AAPI community to one of the remaining secretary-level positions.

“If we do not have an AAPI cabinet secretary in the Biden administration, it will undermine the historic progress that AAPIs have made over the past 20 years,” CAPAC said. “The millions of AAPIs who came out to vote for a president who promised to see them and hear them, and who promised to unite us, are watching.”

Biden did nominate two AAPI individuals to cabinet-rank, but not secretary-level, positions: Neera Tanden, president of the liberal Center for American Progress, as director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Katherine Tai, the chief trade counsel for House Ways and Means Committee, as U.S. Trade Representative.

Tanden’s nomination attracted opposition from Republican senators over critical tweets she had posted in the past, and was withdrawn. Tai, of Taiwanese descent, was unanimously confirmed on March 17 and sworn in the following day.

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