A viral video intended to showcase Vice President Kamala Harris that instead made news for featuring paid child actors was produced by a company called Sinking Ship Entertainment. Now, Harris’s own ship appears to be taking on water, and her aides are headed to the lifeboats.

A top adviser and chief spokeswoman for Harris, Symone Sanders, is set to resign from her position by the end of the year, a White House official said Wednesday. It's one of several high-level departures in the vice president's office since she was sworn in earlier this year.

The staff turnover caps months of messaging missteps and struggles with the media, such as the child actors video story.


Peter Velz, the vice president’s director of press operations, is leaving the office in the coming weeks, along with Vincent Evans, deputy director of public engagement and intergovernmental affairs, according to reports. Ashley Etienne, Harris’s communications director, is also stepping down. Advance staffers departed over the summer, soon after a trip to Guatemala where Harris drew criticism for a biting response to a question over when she intended to visit the southern U.S. border.

A source familiar with Harris’s office woes quipped that the defections must be “completely unrelated to reading stories where they are blamed for everything.”

“This is the same story that gets played out again and again — it’s always the vague ‘staffing,’” this person said. “I don’t think there are a ton of staff, present and former, that would rush to defend the way the office is run.”

Unlike President Joe Biden, a 79-year-old Democratic insider who has spent decades in Washington, few Harris aides had worked for her for any significant length of time before joining her in the administration.

Asked whether Harris was dissatisfied with her staff or whether aides simply did not want to work for her, press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that campaign and White House work was grueling and suggested the departures were part of normal attrition. She praised Sanders as “whip smart” with “charisma coming out of her eyeballs.”

“In my experience, and if you look at past precedent, it’s natural for staffers who have thrown their heart and soul into a job to be ready to move on to a new challenge after a few years, and that is applicable to many of these individuals,” Psaki said.

But, Psaki added, “It’s also an opportunity as it is in any White House, to bring in new faces, new voices, and new perspectives.”

“I figured her days have been numbered for a long time," a former Harris adviser, who remains close to the vice president, told the Washington Examiner, adding that this wasn't a criticism of Sanders but a reflection of the kind of aide that best fits with Harris, who can be sensitive to certain dynamics and personalities.

“When people act crazy around her, it makes her crazy," this person said. “She needs cool, calm, collected people.”

Talk of troubling polls, discord with the West Wing, and scrutiny over who could successfully mount a 2024 White House bid if Biden chooses not to run has reached a fever pitch in Washington.

Some of that attention has landed on Pete Buttigieg, a 2020 Democratic primary rival and media-savvy Cabinet secretary, who has enjoyed a meteoric rise. On Thursday, after weeks of bruising headlines that have, at times, pitted Harris and Buttigieg against one another, the two traveled to North Carolina to promote the Biden administration’s infrastructure plans.

Traveling on Air Force Two, Buttigieg made his way to the back of the plane to chat with reporters, where he faced questions about the succession issues animating Washington gossip, including speculation that Biden may choose to forgo another presidential run, and the prospect of him and Harris mounting presidential campaigns of their own. The former mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city deflected the question.

“It’s 2021. … We are squarely focused on the job at hand,” Buttigieg answered. “I am excited to be part of a team led by the president and the vice president, and I think the teamwork that got us to this point is really just beginning.”

Like Biden, Harris faces low approval ratings, with voters voicing worries over inflation, rising gas and grocery prices, and Democrats' handling of COVID-19. All of these issues are prompting new scrutiny of potential contenders as the party reckons with recent statewide electoral losses and begins positioning itself for upcoming elections.

Not until Harris had toured a Charlotte bus depot and delivered remarks did reporters catch up with her for questions, the first opportunity since the latest news of the exits.

Asked about the coming departure of top aide Sanders, Harris said, “I love Symone,” and talked about their work together.

“I can’t wait to see what she will do next. I know that it’s been three years jumping on and off planes going around the country … and I mean that sincerely,” the vice president added.

Harris rebuffed further questions from reporters about whether she’s in the midst of a staff defection or whether she views the situation as something of a reset.

“Well, I told you how I feel about Symone,” Harris responded.

Sanders was one of Harris’s most visible staffers, traveling with her to Guatemala, Asia, and France and regularly briefing reporters. Before joining Harris’s team, Sanders was a senior adviser to Biden during the presidential campaign and a cable television surrogate. She has shared her West Wing ambitions, writing in her 2020 memoir No, You Shut Up!, “One day I want to be White House press secretary.”

Earlier, Sanders was the national press secretary for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the race to lead the 2016 Democratic Party ticket.

Sanders drew praise from across the political spectrum following her announcement.

“Shame the White House underutilized & practically hid one of the smartest, most talented people there,” tweeted Kellyanne Conway, former President Donald Trump’s senior counselor in the White House and 2016 campaign manager, with a link to a report announcing Sanders’s departure.

A former Harris presidential campaign staffer praised Sanders to the Washington Examiner, calling her a “f****** genius” communications adviser.

Biden’s team has seen fewer senior aides depart.

White House communications chief of staff Emma Riley announced last month that she was moving to a new post at the Labor Department under Secretary Marty Walsh. Riley was an aide to Walsh when he was mayor of Boston. Influential Biden adviser Anita Dunn stepped down from a temporary position over the summer ahead of a deadline to file a public ethics disclosure. Special government employees can forgo the disclosure if they serve in their role for less than 130 days and receive a salary of $132,500 or lower.

Biden’s press secretary demurred when asked whether the West Wing should expect its own wave of exits.

“People are ready to do something new. They’re ready to spend time with their families. They’re ready to sleep more, and that is to be expected,” Psaki said. “I know the vice president is grateful to all the staff who have served her.” Both teams are staffed by Democratic campaign aides and operatives who were on the 2020 campaign trail.


Responding to the wave of departures, one former Harris campaign aide said the vice president's office needs better management. The vice president’s office is run by chief of staff Tina Flournoy, a respected Democratic operative who has held prominent campaign and senior roles working for former Democratic President Bill Clinton, Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore, and others.

“[Flournoy] can’t manage up AND down. Nobody can,” this person said. “She needs someone to run the staff. She can’t run Kamala and also an entire office. She needs a strong number two to run the office so she can run the boss.”