Amy Klobuchar has laid the grounds for a presidential run on an image of “Minnesota nice.”
But behind the doors of her Washington, DC, office, the Minnesota Democrat ran a workplace controlled by fear, anger, and shame, according to interviews with eight former staffers, one that many employees found intolerably cruel. She demeaned and berated her staff almost daily, subjecting them to bouts of explosive rage and regular humiliation within the office, according to interviews and dozens of emails reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
That anger regularly left employees in tears, four former staffers said. She yelled, threw papers, and sometimes even hurled objects; one aide was accidentally hit with a flying binder, according to someone who saw it happen, though the staffer said the senator did not intend to hit anyone with the binder when she threw it.
“I cried. I cried, like, all the time,” said one former staffer.
In the emails seen by BuzzFeed, often sent between 1 and 4 in the morning, Klobuchar regularly berated employees, often in all capital letters, over minor mistakes, misunderstandings, and misplaced commas. Klobuchar, in the emails, which were mostly sent over the past few years, referred to her staff’s work as “the worst in ... years,” and “the worst in my life.”
When staffers made mistakes, the emails show, she reamed them out — and sometimes, emails show, threatened to fire them — over threads that included many of their colleagues.
As Klobuchar prepares to potentially announce a presidential campaign Sunday, four of those former staffers said they were sharing emails and anecdotes with BuzzFeed News because they believe that insight into her office reflects on the senator’s ability to run the country. BuzzFeed News spoke with some of the staffers extensively over a period of several months.
"Senator Klobuchar loves her staff — they are the reason she has gotten to where she is today. She has many staff who have been with her for years — including her Chief of Staff and her State Director, who have worked for her for 5 and 7 years respectively, as well as her political advisor Justin Buoen, who has worked for her for 14 years — and many who have gone on to do amazing things, from working in the Obama Administration (over 20 of them) to running for office to even serving as the Agriculture Commissioner for Minnesota," a campaign spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. "She is proud of them and the work they have done for Minnesota."
Some former staffers have gone on the record to defend Klobuchar. “Amy was one of the best bosses I’ve had,” said Asal Sayas, who was referred to BuzzFeed by Klobuchar’s office and worked as her director of scheduling for three years. “I found her to be incredibly fair and extremely effective.”
The senator “cared deeply for me as her staffer," said Kali Cruz, who worked for her during her first term in the Senate. "When I was pregnant with my first baby, she threw me a baby shower, opening up her home and cooking a meal for my family and friends. We worked hard, but we always had some fun, too.”
Some former aides, however, say that Klobuchar’s behavior as a leader didn’t just affect her employees but limited their ability to conduct Senate work, creating a chaotic environment where staff were forced to devote as much time to managing their boss’s unpredictable anger as they did to governing.
“She can be just as mad about a crisis with Facebook” as she was about being given the wrong clothing for an event, said a second former staffer, pointing to the senator's work on issues surrounding Facebook. “It will take you just as much staff time and energy to put out that kind of crisis as you spend on Facebook.”
The employees all asked not to be named, most because of fear of retribution from Klobuchar, who was first elected in 2006. They were hesitant to describe specific incidents on the record, or publish the text of emails, because they feared it would make them identifiable to the senator.
“I've always been taught that your true character shows in how you treat those with less power than you, especially behind closed doors,” said a third former staffer. “The way Sen. Klobuchar behaves in private with her staff is very different than when she’s in the public eye, and that kind of cruelty shouldn't be acceptable for anyone.”
HuffPost reported this week that at least three people had declined to take jobs on the senator’s potential presidential campaign because of her reputation with her staff.
Klobuchar is known as a friendly face in Minnesota and enjoys enormous popularity, even in rural, conservative parts of the state, in large part thanks to the careful attention she pays to the state’s interests. She called her 2015 memoir The Senator Next Door.
In Washington, she is known as one of the most difficult bosses on Capitol Hill. According to data from 2001 to 2016, Klobuchar had the highest staff turnover rate in the Senate, with an annual turnover rate of 36%. Her Washington office currently has 24 employees, according to the website LegiStorm.
Some staffers, including Sayas, said they felt that sexism was at the root of rumors and negative coverage of Klobuchar as a boss.
“Women shouldn’t be expected to nurture their employees or colleagues more than men, and they should be no less entitled to challenge them,” Sayas said. “As a strong woman, it was inspiring to work for another strong woman that was direct, incredibly smart, and a leader.”
Other women who worked for Klobuchar disagreed.
“I knew her reputation going in, and I rationalized it, because I thought that was what was going on — I thought people were saying that because she was a woman,” said the first former staffer. “I regret that now.”
“I don’t think this is one of those situations” where sexism is to blame, said the second former aide. Klobuchar’s gender may have played a role in the way rumors about her spread so rapidly through Capitol Hill, she said. “But honestly, if it were a man doing these things, that story should be written.”
Most staffers who spoke with BuzzFeed News are experienced congressional employees who say they have worked with difficult lawmakers, men and women, in the past. But as a boss, Klobuchar was uniquely unbearable, most former staffers said — in a way that four staffers said was “worse” than any rumors about her behavior they had heard.
Anything could set her temper off, they said, and it was often unpredictable. Among the things that staffers said had prompted outbursts from Klobuchar: minor grammar mistakes, the use of the word “community” in press releases, forgetting to pack the proper coat in her suitcase, failing to charge her iPad, and using staples.
“Two months later, that changes, and she’s really pissed about paper clips,” said the second former staffer.
Klobuchar’s temper also affected her own ability to do her job, said that staffer, making it difficult to prep her for interviews or distracting her in the moments before a hearing.
Klobuchar’s anger and her relentlessness are particularly clear in the emails to staff, which some preserved after they left the Senate to document what they said they believe to be abusive behavior by the senator.
But not every former staffer sees Klobuchar’s intensity as a liability. A fourth former staffer said that he did not believe Klobuchar’s temper — “She makes it clear when she is disappointed,” he said — affected her office’s ability to function successfully. Klobuchar is known in Minnesota for her attention to detail, he pointed out, and her ability to speak to and attend to the needs of many different constituents.
“Her office is a very successful office, and in part the reason she’s reelected with the margin she has, and enjoys the popularity in-state, is a result of her hardworking office and a member who’s very focused on representing her state.”
A fifth former aide said Klobuchar’s toughness had improved her work, and had had an undeniable impact on her state. “Her job wasn’t to be my mentor and cheerleader,” she said. “Her job was to get shit done for Minnesota.”
But four other staffers disagreed, saying their work, and the office’s, suffered as a result of Klobuchar’s behavior, because of a tense, anxious work environment and the high level of staff turnover.
"I’m not an anxious person; I’ve worked for other tough bosses,” said the second former staffer. “But it’s hard to explain the anxiety that permeates the office. It's an overwhelming sense of panic and not being able to plan. You never knew what was going to come at you. That compounds, and it affects the workplace.”
The first former staffer said they believed it was important for voters to be aware of what went on behind closed doors because they saw echoes of Klobuchar’s behavior in the chaos of the current administration.
“The reason it matters is when I hear the descriptors of our current president and how he lacks responsibility and everyone is to blame, and there’s erratic behavior, name-calling,” she said. “It’s unfortunate, but you’re also describing her.”