ANALYSIS: Ian Sams Is the Forrest Gump of Political Failure

In the running for worst political operative of the 21st century

January 26, 2022

Ian Sams, one of the Biden administration's top COVID-19 communications aides, is under fire for an old tweet in which he suggested the COVID-19 vaccines might be "unsafe" because Donald Trump was president at the time they were invented.

"Americans are rightly concerned about the rushed process leading to an unsafe vaccine," the veteran Democratic operative wrote in September 2020. Sams, who was serving as national press secretary for then-vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris at the time, was defending Democratic candidates who had expressed skepticism about the safety of the vaccines.

At this point, it's worth taking some time to reflect on Sams's career in politics. Just as Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, is the Forrest Gump of American foreign policy disasters, Sams is also a Forrest Gump-like character when it comes to American political failures.

Consider his current position as deputy assistant secretary for public affairs (COVID response) for the Department of Health and Human Services. As a candidate, Joe Biden relentlessly attacked Trump's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and promised to "shut down the virus" if elected. (Fact check: He did not.) Since Biden took office, more than 460,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 on his watch, compared to 408,000 deaths on Trump's watch. Not surprisingly, a majority of Americans disapprove of Biden's handling of the pandemic.

The Kamala Harris presidential campaign was also an unmitigated disaster. A terrible politician, Harris was forced to drop out of the race months before the Iowa caucuses. Sams, for his part, didn't just shepherd his candidate to an early defeat. On more than one occasion, the comms guru publicly humiliated himself and his boss by making the story about him.

October 2019 was a particularly rough month for Sams. After the Democratic primary debate on Oct. 15, the press secretary lost his mind when BuzzFeed editor Katherine Miller posted a "problematic" tweet criticizing Harris's performance. Miller had simply highlighted Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D., Mass.) blunt dismissal of Harris for demanding that Twitter ban Trump from its platform.

"This kind of stuff is just a really horrible look for you guys," Sams texted Miller's boss, BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith. "Frankly, it's whiteness manifest. If Kamala shrugged off a Warren critique of how she wasn't with her on [breaking up] Facebook, we'd get raked over the coals and [Warren] would be lauded as taking on corporate power."

Smith, who made the exchange public, responded appropriately. "Do you seriously not have real problems?" he wrote Sams. "This text makes me think you are totally, totally unready for an actual presidential campaign." (Fact check: He was totally unready for an actual presidential campaign.)

Days later, Sams posted one of the dumbest photoshops in the history of American politics. He altered a photo of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) yelling at Trump by pasting a photo of Harris in Trump's place. "Time for an upgrade," he wrote. The tweet, which Sams eventually deleted, was almost universally mocked for its incoherence. "Right-wing Twitter is a really sad place," he huffed.

Prior to that, Sams served as regional communications director for Hillary Clinton's failed presidential campaign in 2016. Of the five states under his purview—Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia—his candidate won just two. Sams also gained notoriety by debasing himself as a model for campaign merchandise, most notably the $30 "Grillary Clinton" apron. All in all, that campaign will be remembered as one of the biggest failures in American political history.

Following Hillary's humiliating loss, Sams went on to serve as communications director for Tom Perriello, a Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia who would go on to lose the primary to Ralph Northam. The Perriello campaign's inability to find the racist medical school yearbook photo that almost ended Northam's career represents another failure of epic proportions in American politics.

This all goes to show that the people in charge of our government, from the staff level to the politicians themselves, did not get where they are because of talent or any form of merit-based assessment. Jake Sullivan will continue to preside over foreign policy disasters, and Ian Sams will continue to fail upward as only he knows how.