6 Things You Need to Know About Denis McDonough
Get up to speed on the man most likely to be the next White House chief of staff.
Though he has mostly focused on domestic issues in laying out his second term agenda, U.S. President Barack Obama appears likely to dip into his foreign-policy team in appointing his next chief of staff — the White House official responsible for making the trains run on time. The latest reports indicate he’s leaning toward Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough.
It would be a major promotion: The chief of staff acts as both a key advisor and the staffer with the most influence in carrying out the president’s agenda. The post has also frequently been a stepping-stone to cabinet-level — or higher — positions for such notables as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (under President Gerald Ford) James Baker (Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush) and Leon Panetta (Bill Clinton).
But McDonough, though a ubiquitous presence in the White House and consummate Washington insider, doesn’t have much of a public profile. Here are some key facts to know about Obama’s new right-hand man.
1. He’s Washington to the bone
The former college football star from the small town of Stillwater, Minnesota arrived in the nation’s capital in the mid-1990s to attend a master’s program at Georgetown University. He was mentored early in his career by CIA legend Cleveland Cram — a fellow St. John’s University alumnus who was by then the agency’s in-house historian. Getting his foot in the door on Capitol Hill as an intern for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, McDonough rose quickly, serving as committee staffer, advisor to committee chair Lee Hamilton, and then foreign-policy aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
It was McDonough who called then junior White House staffers John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales on the night of Sept. 11 to ask what the Senate could do to help — a process that led to the "Authorization for the Use of Force Against Terrorists," which gave the George W. Bush administration the legal power to launch the war in Afghanistan. He was also Daschle’s point man on discussions over the subsequent authorization of force in Iraq. (McDonough would tell journalist James Mann years later that Congress shouldn’t have been so quick to agree to the White House’s demands.)
After Daschle was defeated in 2005, McDonough worked for a short time for senator — and future interior secretary — Ken Salazar, then moved to the Center for American Progress, where he was a senior fellow focusing on foreign policy.
2. He’s one of the campaign guys
McDonough, 43, is a textbook example of an "Obamian," Mann’s term for the young aides who joined the administration straight from the campaign trail and whose worldview had been shaped more by the post-9/11 years than by the Vietnam war. McDonough was recommended to Obama by their old boss Daschle, one of the earliest prominent Democrats to support the campaign, and worked under Mark Lippert, Obama’s main foreign-policy aide and a fellow former Daschle staffer. (According to journalist Bob Woodward, Obama referred to his two main foreign policy advisors as "Thing one" and "Thing two" — a Dr. Seuss reference.) In the summer of 2007, when Lippert, a Navy reservist, was called up to active duty, McDonough took his place as Obama’s main day-to-day advisor on foreign affairs.
McDonough had first joined the administration as head of strategic communications for the National Security Council (NSC). He again took Lippert’s place as the NSC’s chief of staff in 2009 when Lippert again returned to the Navy, and was named deputy national security advisor in 2010.
According to Woodward, McDonough — along with Lippert and speechwriter Ben Rhodes — has been a key member of the campaign "tribe" within Obama’s team, competing with the "Hillary tribe" at the State Department and the "Chicago tribe" centered around political advisor David Axelrod. Mann writes that "McDonough, Lippert and Rhodes worked so closely with Obama on foreign policy issues that they almost seemed like a single entity." The White House’s top Afghanistan advisor, retired Gen. Douglas Lute, dubbed them less generously "the insurgency."
3. He’s Obama’s enforcer
According to numerous accounts, when staffers receive a directive from McDonough, they can generally assume it’s coming directly from the president. According to the Helene Cooper of the New York Times, "When it comes to national security, Mr. Obama’s inner circle is so tight it largely consists of Mr. McDonough." This has sometimes rubbed other staffers the wrong way, particularly Jones, who as national security advisor technically outranked McDonough but, according to Woodward’s account, never enjoyed the easy rapport or access to the president of his young deputy. According to Mann’s book, McDonough was — for the most part — the only White House staffer kept fully in the loop during the preparations for the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound.
McDonough’s duties have often included calling in senior officials for a dressing down when they go off message. Senior figures including Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal and the late Afghan envoy Richard Holbrooke have reportedly been on the receiving end of McDonough’s broadsides.
4. He keeps a low profile
Though he’s a near-ubiquitous presence in high-profile national security meetings and seems to be constantly at the president’s side, it can be difficult to pin down McDonough’s worldview or the exact nature of his responsibilities — which clearly go beyond the official mandate of his job — as he rarely talks about himself, preferring to keep the spotlight on his boss. After Cooper’s profile — for which he declined to comment — appeared in the Times in 2010, Slate’s Jack Shafer took the paper to task for providing little new information about him.
McDonough’s low profile might seem odd considering the frequency with which he talks to the press. Cooper’s profile describes him haranguing a reporter all the way home from the White House to Takoma Park, a neighborhood on Washington’s northeastern border, on his bicycle. As Mann puts it, McDonough "rarely said or did anything without the president’s approval." Comparing his style with that of the outspoken, self-promoting Holbrooke, Mann writes that "nether was modest about calling reporters to try to shape a story in advance or to complain about something after it appeared. But the similarities stopped there. Holbrooke called the press on matters involving himself or his own causes; McDonough was a staff man who pushed, equally aggressively, on behalf of his boss."
5. He’s a realist
To the extent that we know anything about McDonough’s views, he seems to be more in the realist camp. According to Mann’s account, while Rhodes tended to argue that the United States should be providing more support for democratic movements abroad during the 2009 Iranian uprising and the Arab Spring, McDonough tended to be more cautious, siding with realists like future CIA Director nominee John Brennan and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon over interventionists like Susan Rice and Samantha Power. It was McDonough who cited former George H.W. Bush advisor Brent Scowcroft as a model for the Obama administration’s foreign policy in 2010.
When asked why the administration had intervened in to topple a dictatorship in Libya as opposed to Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria in March 2011, McDonough said, "We don’t make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent. We make them based on how we can best advance our interests in the region" — a response that could be viewed as either textbook realism or a cynical excuse for inconsistency.
6. He’s not a Middle East guy
Given the national security debates of the 2012 election and the controversies that have emerged over the nominations of Chuck Hagel and John Brennan, one might get the impression U.S. foreign-policy is focused solely on the Middle East. McDonough’s portfolio is a bit more varied. He was something of a generalist during his time as a fellow at CAP, for instance, writing about issues ranging from congressional oversight of the intelligence services to immigration to green energy and China.
His original interest was in Latin America, dating back to his college days when his favorite teacher was a Spanish professor and Borges scholar. He traveled widely in Latin America after college and taught for a while in Belize. As a House Foreign Relations Committee staffer, he handled the Latin America portfolio. Years later, he would be dispatched to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, where he reportedly played a critical role in pressuring Florida officials to resume medical evacuation flights.
McDonough was also an early and enthusiastic proponent of Obama’s Asia "pivot," telling Mann, "We are reorienting our focus to Asia" nearly a year before Clinton officially announced the policy in an article for Foreign Policy.
But overall, McDonough seems to have been more enforcer than advisor, and his role in the second term is likely to be more about carrying out the president’s policies than shaping them.
J. Dana Stuster contributed research to this article.