Washington (CNN)A fatigued, runny-nosed President Joe Biden entered Covid solitude on July 21 with his legislative agenda stalled, a standoff brewing with the House speaker and an unfinished plan to kill the world’s top terrorist with a drone.
More than two weeks later, Biden is deep into his second stint in isolation with his agenda suddenly revived, tensions with China dramatically ratcheted up and the terrorist dead.
The two-plus weeks Biden has spent with just his German Shepherd for company have proved some of the weightiest of his presidency, with his once-bleak legislative fortunes enjoying a surprise turnabout and his foreign policy shaken by events across the globe.
Even some White House staffers said they felt a certain degree of whiplash, and Biden himself has mused to confidants at the sudden turn of events.
“It’s been an extraordinary few days for the nation,” he told a virtual gathering of Democrats on Wednesday.
Left unsaid was how extraordinary those days had been for Biden himself, who oversaw almost all of it from the White House residence, isolating alone with only a bare-bones, in-person staff.
The brutal months that came before had lent the Biden presidency a sense of gloom, fueled by high prices, abysmal approval numbers and swirling questions about the President’s ability to lead. Many problems — like a growing outbreak of monkeypox, the war in Ukraine and shortages of baby formula — still persist, and a new crisis is emerging with China. Democrats running for office this year are still putting distance between themselves and the President.
Yet Biden and his allies are now enthused at the string of victories, which includes passage of major pieces of legislation, a long-sought agreement on a climate and taxation bill, a steady decline in the price of gasoline and a surge in hiring. A primary election this week in Kansas also gave Democrats new hope for the midterms.
Biden is preparing a victory lap of sorts, with major White House bill signings scheduled for several days next week in the Rose Garden — the type of ceremony that had eluded him for much of the past year — once he tests negative and leaves isolation.
When Biden’s top Cabinet officials and national security advisers met with him on his fourth day of Covid isolation, the President’s nose had mostly stopped running. His voice seemed less raspy.
And he had some questions.
The team had come prepared with a final intelligence assessment showing the leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was living on the third floor of a safe-house in an upscale neighborhood of Kabul. A plan was nearly ready for the CIA to take him out with a Hellfire missile when he stepped onto his balcony.
But Biden wanted to know what lay behind the windows and door to the small outdoor patio. He asked about the layout of the rooms near where his team was proposing Zawahiri be killed. And were there any other options that would reduce the potential for civilian casualties?
He’d already spent time examining a small-scale model of the house that intelligence officials constructed and carried to the White House Situation Room in a worn wooden box. But he still needed to be convinced the mission wouldn’t come with collateral damage.
The meeting went on for several hours, one official said. Biden “pressed at a granular level,” another senior administration official added.
The meeting concluded with Biden going through each of his top advisers and asking their recommendation. Eleven years ago, during a similar go-around-the-table before the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, Biden told then-President Barack Obama to hold off.
This time, Biden heard no opposition. And he authorized the strike.
At 9:12 a.m. ET, Biden swiped his nose with a cotton swab and hoped for the best. It was officially his sixth day isolating with Covid. His symptoms had disappeared. He’d started working out again in the White House gym.
Working mostly from the second-floor Treaty Room, an enormous oil painting of President William McKinley looking on, Biden had been going stir crazy during his isolation. The strike he’d authorized two days earlier was still in the works as operatives waited for the right moment.
He’d taken to strolling out to the White House balcony to wave at visitors below.
Fifteen minutes later, only one pink line showed up on the Abbot rapid Covid-19 test: negative. Biden was thrilled. He joked his aides might be less so.
“As I was walking out, I thought I heard a rumbling in my staff saying, ‘Oh, he’s back,'” he joked in the Rose Garden, buoyant at successfully weathering the virus that he’d spent more than two years trying to avoid.
It turned out beating Covid — or at least the initial bout — was not the biggest surprise that Wednesday. As Biden was returning to work in the Oval Office, a plan was being finalized on Capitol Hill that could amount to a dramatic reversal of fortune for a domestic agenda many had left for dead.
Struck in total secret between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the Senate’s most moderate Democrat, the climate and taxation bill came as a surprise to many inside the White House, though some officials had a general awareness the two men had restarted talks.
“They were basically kept apprised of what was going on to a certain extent,” Manchin would tell reporters.
When Biden learned the men had struck an agreement that afternoon, he placed a phone call to Manchin — who was isolating himself with Covid in the mountains of West Virginia — for their first formal talks about the President’s agenda since December.
Gathered in the dining room adjacent to the Oval Office for the first time in seven days with members of his staff all masked just in case Biden’s Covid came back the President turned on the television to watch another long-stalled piece of legislation pass the Senate. The bill investing in domestic computer chip production and scientific research was meant to bolster competitiveness with China.
It was China that was quickly becoming Biden’s next problem.
Sitting behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, an open binder and stacks of loose briefing cards strewn in front of him, Biden had a message for Chinese President Xi Jinping: Nancy Pelosi would decide on her own whether to visit Taiwan.
Already, her potential visit was drawing fierce recrimination from Beijing and warnings from Chinese officials to other members of Congress not to join her.
A day before he tested positive for Covid, Biden had informed reporters the military didn’t think it was a good moment for the woman who’s second-in-line to the US presidency to visit the self-governing island.
His defense secretary had spoken personally to the speaker to provide his assessment of the security situation.
And two weeks earlier, the prospect of Pelosi’s visit arose in a meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Chinese counterpart in Bali, according to a senior State Department official.
Sitting in the Oval Office for the marathon two-hour 17-minute phone call, Biden listened carefully as an interpreter translated a warning from Xi: “If you play with fire, you get burned.”
Members of his team inside the room — Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, deputy national security adviser Jon Finer, the NSC Asia Coordinator Kurt Campbell and Senior Director Laura Rosenberger — weren’t surprised at the rhetoric. Xi had used similar turns of phrase on earlier phone calls.
As the call was concluding, Biden and Xi remarked at how much work they had created for their teams, a senior administration official said.
After 11 days without leaving the White House, Biden was ready to break free. His home in Delaware — and his wife, whom he hadn’t seen in more than a week — were beckoning.
The rapid tests he’d been taking daily had all come back negative. He was back to his regular schedule in the gym. And he was planning a surprise visit to Capitol Hill, where protesters had been gathering after Republicans blocked a bill that would dramatically expand government benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.
So, the news delivered by the White House medical team was less than welcome: “By the way,” Biden recounted being told, “it’s back.”
A rebound infection was always viewed by Biden’s physician as a possibility, given similar incidents among those who took the antiviral drug Paxlovid. Beyond a cough, Biden’s symptoms never returned.
But it foiled his plans to escape the White House, a building he’d already come to view as a gilded cage, even before he was stuck there alone for more than two weeks.
Biden dispatched his Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough with pizzas for the group at the Capitol and spoke to them on FaceTime.
“I’ll tell you what, as long as I have a breath in me, I’m going to fight to get this done. As long as I have a breath in me,” he told them.
While he was on FaceTime on the Truman Balcony, his team in the Situation Room was determining conditions were right for the strike on Zawahiri. Biden was informed as the sun was setting the mission was underway. Twelve minutes before 10 p.m. ET, Zawahiri was dead.
The dry cough was back. And Biden was staring down the possibility of a brand-new crisis.
Pelosi was hours from arriving in Taiwan, where the island’s leadership was preparing a lavish welcome. China had conducted live-fire exercises over the weekend on short notice, a sign of their extreme displeasure.
At the White House, national security officials saw indications that Beijing was positioning itself for further provocations, including firing missiles and sending fighter jets across the Taiwan Strait.
After working over the previous weeks to apprise Pelosi of the risks of visiting Taiwan, including in briefings from Pentagon and other administration officials, there was a recognition by Monday she wouldn’t be scrapping the stop.
Biden did not believe it was his place to tell Pelosi she should not go, and the two never spoke about it. He had avoided commenting publicly about her trip at all since his initial statement on July 21. At a certain point, administration officials determined it would be more damaging to be seen as against the trip than to have her go, whatever risks that entailed.
In any case, Biden was focused on another matter: announcing the death of Zawahiri. By Monday, officials were certain the man struck by two Hellfire missiles in Kabul on Saturday night was, in fact, the terror leader.
They didn’t have DNA test results, instead relying on visual confirmation. One official said they would never have Biden address the nation unless the identification was 100% certain.
Speaking from the Blue Room Balcony, with reporters watching through an open window at a Covid-safe distance, Biden
“No matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out,” Biden said in his seven-minute speech.
A string of legislative victories had led to an unusual feeling in the West Wing: Momentum. Biden once hoped to harness it in Michigan, planning a visit there for Tuesday to sign the China competitiveness bill.
The trip got pulled down when Biden’s rebound case emerged. And while he met with semiconductor producers virtually instead, there is open fretting among some Democrats that his persistent struggle in selling his accomplishments will hamper any upside to his recent victories.
Democrats anxiously awaiting their fate in November’s midterms saw a glimmer of optimism that night when Kansas voters overwhelming rejected a measure that would have removed abortion right protections. Biden, who activists accused of being caught flat-footed by the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse Roe v. Wade, seized on the results almost immediately.
Yet of all the issues pending in Washington, it was the veterans bill was the most personal to the President. He has long suspected his son Beau’s fatal cancer was linked to burn pit exposure in Iraq.
When he watched the vote finally pass the Senate on Tuesday evening in the Treaty Room, Beau’s memory was palpable. Family photos, including from Beau’s childhood, line the wooden shelves where the television sits.
As Biden watched the vote pass, he pumped his right fist. In his left hand, he was clutching a baseball cap from the Beau Biden Foundation.
The long huddle on the Senate floor was drawing attention. Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema — the Arizona Democrat who was a last remaining holdout on the climate and tax bill — sat and talked at length, Manchin gesturing and laughing as Sinema spoke.
Neither revealed details of their talk. But a few hours later, as a thunderstorm ranged outside the White House, Sinema broke her week-long silence on the bill: She would support it after tweaks to some of the tax provisions.
The long-stalled plan was finally headed for votes. Yet if the year-long saga of Biden’s agenda seemed to be resolving itself, the standoff with China prompted by Pelosi’s 17-hour visit to Taiwan was worsening.
Beijing had sent more of its warships and planes near Taiwan. And at the White House, the Chinese ambassador to Washington had been brought in for a formal protest. Campbell, the NSC Asia coordinator, condemned the escalations during a tense meeting.
The cough was mostly gone. The five-day isolation period was up. And after 16 days without leaving the White House, Biden hoped a surprisingly strong employment report — 528,000 jobs added in July — might be the perfect opportunity to finally break his isolation.
After all, strong hiring has been the White House’s strongest bulwark against recession fears. Aides made initial preparations to turn a virtual event in the afternoon into an in-person affair.
But the test was still positive.