In pre-pandemic March, after a strong showing on Super Tuesday, a triumphant Joe Biden was addressing a rally in Los Angeles when a protester charged the stage. The campaign did not have Secret Service protection, as Biden had yet to clinch the Democratic nomination, but without blinking, three women close to him sprung into action: his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, senior adviser Symone Sanders, who suddenly doubled as a bodyguard, and Remi Yamamoto, Biden’s 28-year-old traveling national press secretary, who leapt into the fray from the sidelines to protect the vice-president and force the protester off stage.
“We all just mobilized out of instinct,” Yamamoto told Vogue, sending a clear message to the disruptor: “nuh-uh, friend.‘” Having Biden’s back is at the heart of Yamamoto’s job. From 7 a.m. until the wee hours, she scans Twitter, reads the news, and flips through CNN and MSNBC to serve as former VP Biden’s eyes and ears into the media. She briefs Biden on endlessly-breaking news, from top stories to Trump tweets, and is often the one who shares big stories, good or bad.
On a December 2019 rope line, she recalls, “I had to grab his ear and say, ‘Sir, Senator Harris unfortunately just dropped out of the race.'” It’s up to Yamamoto to be plugged into local news markets—”what’s important in Scranton is not necessarily what’s most top of mind in Miami,” she says—while also taking on the delicate tasks of prepping Biden for tough interviews by asking him hostile questions, and managing the traveling press pool.
“Remi has one of the toughest jobs in politics,” Bruce Reed, counselor to Biden, told Vogue.
The traveling part of her title means Yamamoto has been living out of a suitcase from the earliest days of the Biden campaign, rarely spending more than a day in one place. “Monday we might be in Wilmington, Tuesday we might be in Florida, then Wednesday we might be in Arizona and Thursday in Wisconsin,” she says. “Your best friend is Downey Wrinkle Release,” she laughs, plus a go-to All Saints jacket and a black turtleneck that she can wear anywhere. Normal 28-year-old life—the very notion of brunch—is a bit of a distant memory. “Taking this role, you kinda just text family and friends, ‘See you in two years.'” (For self-care purposes, FaceTime, face masks and “anything Bravo” helps.)
The rigors would be enough to break some people, especially in the throes of a pandemic, while running against an unprecedented and often-unhinged opponent. Not Yamamoto, whom Sanders describes as calm, cool, and thorough. (Sanders recalls one morning on the trail, returning to a hotel with her Starbucks to find Yamamoto wide awake, wielding a stack of papers and waiting to ask her “a very technical question about some agricultural issue.”)
When I ask Yamamoto how she manages the toxic Trump-dominated news cycle—which attacks does she respond to? which does she ignore?— she is unflappably upbeat via Zoom. “A lot of what Donald Trump does, with his tweet rants and all of that, is distraction, right?” she says. “You have to keep the focus on what is important.” In this, she takes cues from her boss. “The vice-president, from day one, has been incredibly focused, solely disciplined on the stakes of this election. We started it with him outlining that it was a battle for the soul of the nation.”
Hitting the road with Biden has bred a special relationship with the candidate: Yamamoto is often seen in photos just a few steps away from him, the two de-boarding the campaign bus in their shades, or facing press gaggles side by side. “He has a strong compass,” Yamamoto says. “He wears his heart on his sleeve.” According to Biden’s traveling chief of staff Annie Tomasini, Biden and Yamamoto share a “true mutual admiration and respect for one another… they’ve really grown together.”
It’s no small thing, Sanders adds, “that one of the key people that travels with him on nearly every trip, who is in charge of briefing him on the road and handling prep, is a millennial woman of color.”
A Honolulu native (she was born in the same hospital as Barack Obama), Yamamoto is from a Japanese-American family who understands firsthand what it means to be othered. During World War II, her grandmother was taken from her native California and isolated at an internment camp. Her grandfather fought in a segregated unit of the war, “because they didn’t want them to fight with the rest of the Army,” Yamamoto told me. “I grew up knowing the importance of speaking up for what is right.”
Decades later, she is believed to be the first Asian-American traveling national press secretary for a presidential candidate, in a race that has been plagued with Trump’s racism and xenophobia. It makes the 2020 campaign, and her position, personal. “The way that this president has spoken about Asians, with calling the virus ‘China virus’ or ‘Kung flu,’ disparaging Asian-American reporters…we’re seeing a rise of Asian hate crimes and that’s not lost on me,” she said. “I’m at stake in this election. I feel that every day, but I also feel the gravity of it for people who don’t look like me.”
In the final days of the race, Yamamoto says she’s feeling less anxiety, and more responsibility as she strives for a Biden win. And she’s remembering her late grandparents, too: “I think they’re watching now.”