The Cable

The NSC’s invisible man

Brent Scowcroft, George H. W. Bush’s right-hand man on foreign policy, famously said that the national security advisor should be seen infrequently, and heard even less. Thomas Donilon appears to be taking Scowcroft’s advice to heart. A former assistant secretary of state for public affairs, Donilon has become almost entirely invisible to the outside world ...


Brent Scowcroft, George H. W. Bush’s right-hand man on foreign policy, famously said that the national security advisor should be seen infrequently, and heard even less.

Thomas Donilon appears to be taking Scowcroft’s advice to heart. A former assistant secretary of state for public affairs, Donilon has become almost entirely invisible to the outside world since assuming the No. 2 job in Obama’s National Security Council.

Don’t be fooled by his low profile, associates say. As deputy national security advisor, Donilon, 53, is the lynchpin of the interagency process. He runs the all-important deputies meetings, where the real foreign-policy options get ironed out. In a White House where policymaking is growing ever more complex, associates describe, Donilon’s role is unmatched in importance.

Donilon is what keeps the government together, one associate explained on condition of anonymity. “He doesn’t have time to talk; he runs the government when it comes to foreign policy.”

“Tom is a real pro,” the NSC’s director of strategic communications Denis McDonough said. He “runs agenda-driven meetings, no drama, all facts, careful to make sure everyone with equities is heard and does not shy away from the hard questions.  The President feels fortunate to have him on the team.”

“Tom Donilon leaves the press to others,” said former NSC official Philip Zelikow. “Meanwhile, he runs the machine. The way they have the system, Donilon chairs all the deputies meetings. To a significant degree, that is where the options are really roughed out, and the issues are narrowed for the principals discussion.”

The way the Obama team has set up the NSC, national security advisor Gen. James L. Jones (ret.) wants the deputies empowered to speak for their principals, Zelikow noted.

“Policy design is choreography,” Zelikow added. “The stars on stage” — the principals, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, etc. — “don’t choreograph their own numbers. A lot of choreography is done at the subcabinet level, where people unroll things: ‘Are we going to have a meeting, what is the agenda.’ The most important thing the deputy does is quality control of the staff work, to ensure the sheer quality of the analytical work” informing the options.

Associates note that Donilon doesn’t come from the ranks of foreign policy wonkdom, however, but rather from the network of Democratic party insiders and operatives. Donilon’s wife, Catherine Russell, has been named chief of staff to Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, whose presidential campaigns Donilon has advised. And his brother, Mike Donilon, was a partner of Democratic consultant Bob Shrum, in the firm of Shrum, Devine, and Donilon.

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, Donilon reportedly was moved to become a political operative after reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. After graduating from Catholic University in 1977, Donilon interned for President Jimmy Carter. After law school at the University of Virginia, Donilon advised the failed 1988 presidential campaigns of Biden and later Michael Dukakis. During the first Bush’s term, Donilon became a partner at the law firm O’Melveny & Meyers. After Bill Clinton‘s presidential victory in 1992, Donilon was senior counsel to Clinton’s presidential transition team, and then chief of staff to Clinton’s first secretary of state, Warren Christopher, becoming the State Department’s public affairs chief in 1996.

From 1999 to 2005, Donilon served as executive vice president at Fannie Mae, where, ABC News reported, he oversaw the mortgage giant’s retroactively controversial lobbying efforts. He then returned to law firm O’Melveny & Meyers, where he reportedly earned $3.9 million last year according to White House financial disclosures. An Iraq advisor on Biden’s recent presidential campaign, Donilon endorsed Obama after Biden dropped out. Donilon did the debate preparation for Obama, associates said. He went on to cochair the Obama-Biden State Department transition team, where he helped vet appointments, before being named deputy national security advisor.

In recent years, Donilon made concerted efforts to burnish his foreign policy expertise, becoming a member of the Aspen Strategy Group and a trustee of the Brookings Institution. This month, Donilon traveled aboard Air Force One with Obama and the presidential entourage en route to the G20 summit and Obama’s pan-Europe tour — among his rare media mentions since assuming the NSC job.

“He is a tough-minded Democratic supporter who is well liked by many Republicans, because he’s seen as someone straight and smart, and highly practical,” Zelikow, a friend of Donilon’s for two decades, said. “Tom has the ability to manage strategy and operations. Unlike a lot of people who have ridden to prominence and become identified with a particular area of expertise, or ideological identification, Tom is a highly regarded generalist. He’s respected and connected… but not associated with a certain wing of the party.”

Although their personalities are different, associates compared Donilon in some respects to former Clinton-era national security advisor Sandy Berger, also a lawyer and a process person rather than a subject-matter expert. Others observed that Donilon had brought to the job the low-key qualities of Scowcroft’s former NSC deputy Robert Gates, Obama’s Republican holdover Defense Secretary.

“In an administration that needs people like that, he’s playing a role,” observed the University of Maryland’s I.M. Destler, coauthor with Brookings scholar Ivo Daalder of a recent study of the NSC, In the Shadow of the Oval Office.

In the modern NSC, the person who manages the process, who gets you to a decision, can’t be an expert on everything, the associate noted. Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg, undersecretary of defense for policy Michèle Flournoy, among others, are the people who drive the ideas, he said. Donilon’s role “is to distill the best ideas, and [figure out] how to pull them together for the president to decide.”

Other sources who demanded anonymity said that the function Donilon is fulfilling in Obama’s NSC is even more important given concern about what they described as a kind of awkwardness in security advisor Jones’s managerial style and fit in the wider Obama national security team. The top three figures in Obama’s NSC, Jones, Donilon, and NSC chief of staff Mark Lippert, have never worked in an NSC before.

Recognizing that, Donilon brought in a Clinton-era NSC veteran, Mara Rudman, as NSC executive secretary. But Rudman is said by associates to be somewhat frustrated there, in part as a longtime Clinton loyalist working in the Obama camp, and in part because she’s done the NSC executive secretary job before. Some associates said Rudman is likely to move over to work for Obama’s Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell, with whom she is currently traveling in the Middle East. Neither Rudman or Donilon responded to queries.

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