Election 2020

Here Are the Experts Leading Biden’s Transition at Federal Agencies

Normally, they’d already be landing inside government agencies, preparing for a smooth transfer of power—but can’t yet as Trump levels unfounded claims about election fraud.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
President-elect Joe Biden is seen in Delaware.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden after addressing the media in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 10. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

On Tuesday, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden released the names of hundreds of experts and former officials who will lay the groundwork for the eventual transfer of power at various federal agencies despite President Donald Trump’s ongoing refusal to accept Biden’s election win. 

The agency review teams consist of groups of experts assigned to different agencies—including the State and Defense departments, foreign aid agencies, and the intelligence community—to do the spadework for the transition. 

The review teams offer an early window into the personnel and priorities for the Biden administration’s foreign policy, though members of such teams are not necessarily guaranteed posts in the agencies they are assigned to review. Most are serving in the roles on a volunteer basis and come from a variety of think tanks, consulting firms, universities, and private industry. 

Biden vowed on Tuesday that his teams will get “right to work,” but compared with past incoming administrations, his teams face significant challenges in getting started—a delay that, as seen in the George W. Bush administration, can have lingering impacts on national security readiness. 

The Trump administration has not formally kicked off the transition process. The General Services Administration, led by Emily Murphy, a Trump appointee, has so far refused to send a so-called letter of ascertainment certifying Biden’s win to begin the transition. The letter is the key to unlocking government funds for the transition teams and to allowing his “landing teams” to get seated inside the federal government to get briefed on the latest intelligence and map out more than 4,000 political appointments, from low-level special assistants all the way up to Senate-confirmed jobs. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has said he doesn’t expect the standoff to end before Friday.

Despite Trump’s roadblocks, the Biden transition team appears to be moving forward with routine plans for a transition, downplaying frustrations with Trump’s refusal to accept the election results and not giving any indications that the delays have altered the transition plan.

The experts staffing the agency review teams also give early signs that the Biden campaign will make good on its promises to diversify the administration’s national security team, both on racial and gender diversity. For example, of the 23 members of the Pentagon agency review team, 15 are women. And of the 30 members of the State Department’s agency review team, 18 are women. 

The team that will oversee the State Department indicates, unsurprisingly, a sharp departure from Trump. The State Department agency review team comprises some former senior diplomats who were forced out of their jobs under Trump or resigned in protest to some of his controversial policies and who have since become outspoken in their criticisms of how the Trump administration has sidelined career diplomats and spurned traditional U.S. alliances and engagement with international institutions. 

The team lead for the State Department is Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a former career diplomat who served in the State Department for decades and held senior posts including director-general of the foreign service and assistant secretary of state for African affairs. At the time she stepped down from her job in 2017 under Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, she was the highest-ranking African American woman in the State Department. Current and former diplomats describe Thomas-Greenfield as a highly respected and balanced diplomat. Since leaving the department, Thomas-Greenfield has been an outspoken advocate for reforming the State Department and helping to improve its record on diversity, another indication that such issues will be a priority under the Biden administration. 

Another member of the State Department team, Roberta Jacobson, resigned from her post as U.S. ambassador to Mexico in 2018. Jacobson, who served in the State Department for over 30 years, was one of the department’s top experts and most experienced hands on Latin America. She later publicly condemned internal mismanagement at the State Department and Trump’s policies toward Mexico, saying the U.S.-Mexico relationship was being “destroyed” under Trump.

Biden’s transition team for the National Security Council includes former senior members of the Obama administration NSC who helped craft the Iran nuclear deal and have been outspoken critics of Trump’s handling of Iran policy since he abandoned the deal in 2018. This includes Jeff Prescott, former deputy national security advisor to then-Vice President Biden and senior director for Iran, Iraq, and Syria at the NSC; Colin Kahl, former national security advisor to Vice President Biden; and Kelly Magsamen, another seasoned Middle East expert who held posts in the Pentagon and NSC during the Obama administration. Magsamen is the vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress, an influential progressive think tank in Democratic foreign-policy circles. 

With Michèle Flournoy widely expected to become the first woman to be defense secretary under the Biden administration, the Pentagon transition team is headlined by several high-profile female voices on national security—many focused on boosting the agency’s high-tech weapons to prepare for a possible conflict with China. Spearheading the effort is Kath Hicks, who led the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) at the Defense Department while she served in Flournoy’s powerful policy shop, which sought to prepare the United States for confronting irregular warfare used by terrorist groups. She also led the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, which pushed for the agency to focus on the Asia-Pacific and to deal with Chinese weapons meant to deny U.S. access to the region as the agency bristled against budget caps imposed by Congress. She’s joined by Christine Wormuth, who was confirmed as the Pentagon’s top policy official in 2014 and who led the follow-on 2014 QDR; Susanna Blume, a former deputy chief of staff to Obama-era Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work; and retired Adm. Michelle Howard, the first Black woman to attain the Navy’s top rank. Former Biden Deputy National Security Advisor Ely Ratner and former Defense Department Comptroller Mike McCord are also on board. 

The 17-agency U.S. intelligence community has long been a target of Trump’s ire as president, and Biden’s efforts to restore the relationship with the new administration will be led by Stephanie O’Sullivan, a former principal deputy director of national intelligence under Barack Obama, and Vince Stewart, a retired three-star Marine general who was the first Black man to lead the Defense Intelligence Agency and a top deputy at U.S. Cyber Command. 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch