In Break From Trump, Biden Opts for Experience, Expertise for Top National Security Jobs

The U.S. president-elect laid out most of his national security team even as more Republicans abandoned Trump and his legal battles over the election results.

Then-US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) gestures next to Then-US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Linda Thomas-Greenfield before their bilateral talks with Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta (not pictured) at the State House in Nairobi on August 22, 2016.
Then-US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) gestures next to Then-US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Linda Thomas-Greenfield before their bilateral talks with Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta (not pictured) at the State House in Nairobi on August 22, 2016. Thomas Mukoya/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden named senior members of his national security team on Monday, including a raft of seasoned diplomats and Obama administration veterans, signaling a return to experience and expertise after a sharp four-year break under President Donald Trump. 

After tapping longtime policy advisors Antony Blinken for secretary of state and Jake Sullivan for national security advisor, Biden also announced his picks for director of national intelligence, secretary of homeland security, United Nations ambassador, and special envoy to fight climate change, which the president-elect has characterized as one of the country’s most pressing national security threats. (One big job that was not on the list: secretary of defense. Michèle Flournoy, a defense expert and former senior Pentagon official, is widely favored for the role, but Biden has yet to make an announcement.)

Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence. In 2013, Haines became the first woman to serve as deputy director of the CIA, before going on to become the first woman appointed deputy national security advisor. If confirmed as director of national intelligence, Haines would smash the highest glass ceiling in the U.S. intelligence community, becoming the first woman to be the nation’s spy chief. Her career path has been unconventional, training at an elite judo academy in Japan after high school and later working as an auto mechanic during college. In the late 1990s, Haines and her husband ran an independent bookstore in Baltimore, and she also worked as a community organizer. 

“When I was doing community work, I found that the people that really understood the most about how to change society, how to work the system, how to improve things, were lawyers for the most part,” she said in an interview with the Belfer Center in 2017. That experience led her to enroll in Georgetown law school in 1998. Since then, Haines has accrued extensive experience in U.S. national security and developed a reputation as a workhorse. Her appointment will mark a sharp departure from Trump’s picks for the position, who were seen as highly partisan and unqualified.

Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor. Sullivan, who was a contender for a cabinet-level post on Hillary Clinton’s team if she had won in 2016, instead had to wait out the Trump years in a series of academic posts after a meteoric rise through the Obama administration that included stops at the National Security Council and the State Department. The Clinton confidant was one of the first Obama administration officials to establish backchannel talks with the Iranian regime in Oman that led to the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. He will be a key player for a Biden administration that is looking to get back into the nuclear agreement, which Trump jettisoned more than two years ago. The Associated Press also reported that during the Obama administration, Sullivan was a key advocate pushing for greater outreach to Asia and Latin America. Notably, Sullivan will be 44 years old when he takes office, the youngest person to hold the job since McGeorge Bundy served in the Kennedy administration. 

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, United Nations Ambassador. Linda Thomas-Greenfield is a former career diplomat who served as director-general of the foreign service and assistant secretary of state for African affairs. At the time she left the State Department in 2017, she was the highest-ranking African American woman at the department. If Thomas-Greenfield is confirmed by the Senate, she would be the first U.N. envoy who hailed from the ranks of the foreign service to permanently take up the U.N. ambassador post since 2004, a signal that Biden plans to empower career diplomats whom Trump viewed with suspicion and disdain during his time in the White House. The Biden campaign said that the U.N. ambassador will again be a cabinet-level position, giving the new envoy additional clout and influence in Washington. 

John Kerry, Climate Change Envoy. A fixture of Washington politics for nearly four decades, the former secretary of state and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee will join the Biden administration as its top climate official, sitting on the National Security Council. Kerry has recently led a bipartisan coalition dubbed World War Zero calling for a warlike mobilization to halt rising global carbon emissions by 2050. 

His first order of business is likely to be a U.S. return to the Paris climate agreement, which he helped negotiate, and which Biden has pledged to rejoin on his first day in office. The issue of climate change will be followed closely by left-leaning Democrats pushing for a Green New Deal, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. One progressive organization, Justice Democrats, said it was encouraged by Kerry’s appointment but wanted to see the incoming Biden administration put in place a domestic climate change czar as well. 

Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of Homeland Security. The Cuban-born Mayorkas would become the first Latino secretary of homeland security after rising from a U.S. attorney to become a deputy secretary in the agency during the Obama administration. He has supported the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program after Trump’s acting Homeland Security head, Chad Wolf, tried to suspend the program. Mayorkas has also urged more cooperation with the private sector to combat cybercrime. Republicans boycotted his confirmation hearing for his last Homeland Security job, however, after a leaked inspector general probe said he had provided special access for acquaintances of political allies, such as then-Sen. Harry Reid, then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s brother, for green cards to bring wealthy foreign investors to the United States.

The Biden team’s announcements signal that they are plowing ahead with the transition process despite Trump’s refusal to concede his election loss. Trump, without ever presenting any evidence, maintains there was widespread voter fraud. After his legal team lost dozens of court cases in battleground states, a growing number of influential Republican lawmakers and White House allies have urged Trump to accept the results.

“We have no time to lose when it comes to our national security and foreign policy,” Biden said in a statement. “I need a team ready on Day One to help me reclaim America’s seat at the head of the table, rally the world to meet the biggest challenges we face, and advance our security, prosperity, and values.”

Most of Biden’s top national security team will require Senate confirmation before taking their jobs, a matter that hinges on two Senate runoff races in Georgia in January, which will determine whether Republicans keep or lose control of the Senate. 

“It is in our national security interest to ensure the President-elect can have his cabinet of choice, especially as the State Department was decimated under the previous administration and needs to rebuild to manage global diplomacy and defend our national interest,” New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “The work to counter the massive loss of experience, knowledge, and relationships over the last four years cannot wait.”

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

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack