It should have been the safest of political appearances — a group of kids gushing about their love of science and space exploration with Vice President Kamala Harris.
But for Harris, it became a controversy.
The children, it turned out, were paid actors. And the video, filmed on location at the White House and the vice president’s official residence at the Naval Observatory, was promoted on NASA’s YouTube Channel and Harris’ Twitter account last week without making that clear.
The fallout over the video, produced for YouTube’s original programming platform, is the second in recent weeks where a seemingly innocuous appearance by Harris has become modestly troublesome.
Late last month, Harris generated more serious consternation and criticism from pro-Israel Democrats and media for not pushing back when a student at a classroom encounter at George Mason University in Virginia accused Israel of “ethnic genocide.” Harris spent the next several days clarifying her longstanding support for Israel and reaching out to pro-Israel organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League.
Such stumbles have been featured extensively in conservative media, where Harris is a regular target. But they also reinforce concerns among Democrats that Harris has not yet found her political footing since taking office amid high expectations. The presumed front-runner to succeed President Biden on the Democratic ticket in 2024 or 2028, Harris recently enlisted two veteran Democrats to help stabilize her communications efforts.
Harris’ office and NASA would not discuss the decision-making process that led to her participation in the YouTube Original or the administration’s marketing of the special, which was produced by a Canada-based company called Sinking Ship Entertainment.
Harris’s office did not select the children who participated in the YouTube Originals special, a White House official said. A YouTube spokesperson said that “the casting process for this show was no different from typical unscripted kids’ shows across other networks and streaming platforms.”
The special debuted during World Space Week. It features NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough giving five children the clues for a scavenger hunt that takes them to the U.S. Naval Observatory, where they not-so casually run into Harris, who welcomes them onto the porch of the vice presidential residence.
While sitting in a white chair alongside the children, Harris reminisces about going to the lab with her scientist mother during her childhood and says she is excited to chair the National Space Council. She offers advice to the children about showing their true selves.
“Never let anybody tell you who you are,” she tells them. “You tell them who you are.”
Like many online productions, the special has the feel of something between a kids’-oriented news segment and a scripted show. The children, who introduce themselves with their hometowns, act surprised and excited as they meet the real-life astronaut and the vice president.
Earlier this week, one of the children who appeared in the video described in detail his audition process to KSBW TV in Salinas, which sparked mockery online and news coverage. Harris’ appearance drew especially sharp critiques in conservative news outlets. Fox News, in its coverage, has tried to draw a comparison to the criticism unleashed on former President Trump after his 2015 campaign launch in which he paid people to act like supporters.
Appearing as a guest on Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s show, commentator Candace Owens falsely told viewers that Harris paid children to appear in the special.
White House officials have a long history of appearing as themselves in scripted shows, often with children. First Lady Nancy Reagan promoted her anti-drug message on the popular 1980s sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes,” and then-President Obama participated in a televised sketch alongside comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
The difference this time was that the show’s format was ambiguous, and its presentation and promotion by Harris and NASA led commentators to believe it had been produced by the government.
Communications consultants said the vice president’s staff should have more thoroughly vetted the program and ensured it was clearly labeled as a reality show with paid actors when the U.S. government promoted it.
Ultimately, Harris’ staff let her down, they said.
“The vice president and the president can’t do their own vetting on things like this,” said Kevin Madden, who served in senior communications roles for Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns.
Madden added that Harris should not have participated in the program with paid actors, especially “in an era where there is a very high quotient of fake news and misinformation, you have to expect this kind of scrutiny.”
“The criticism [here] becomes warranted,” he said.