It has become common wisdom in Washington that one of the first things presumptive President-elect Joseph R. Biden plans to do upon arriving at the White House is flush the Trump administration’s “America First” doctrine down the drain — but the extent to which it happens will depend on the support team Mr. Biden chooses as his top foreign policy and national security advisers.
With the deepest Washington experience of any incoming commander in chief in decades, Mr. Biden has a well-established bench from which to draw his lineup.
First on the list, according to three separate sources close to the Biden camp, is former Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is under consideration for either national security adviser or secretary of state.
Mr. Blinken, 58, rose to prominence as a national security adviser to Vice President Biden and later as the State Department’s No. 2 in the Obama administration. Conservatives have more recently known him as an Obama-era Washington establishment figure who told CBS News that President Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal has been an “abject failure.”
Despite such assertions, Mr. Blinken is broadly respected among national security centrists, and his reputation is not so different from that of Michele Flournoy, another former Obama administration official widely seen as Mr. Biden’s likely pick to become the first female secretary of defense.
Like many being floated for top national security posts, Mr. Blinken and Ms. Flournoy are well-established creatures of Washington. Both have rotated out of government into lucrative consultancy roles in recent years while waiting for the possibility of returning to a Democratic administration at higher-level positions.
The same is true of Jake Sullivan, 43, another Obama-era standout, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Mr. Sullivan succeeded Mr. Blinken as Vice President Biden’s national security adviser in 2013 and is now reported to be under close consideration for a key foreign policy advisory post.
But with Mr. Biden under pressure to diversify and expand his circle of advisers, big questions remain over who will ultimately be nominated for such critical posts as secretary of state, CIA director, secretary of defense and director of national intelligence. Those four clutch positions will influence how a Biden administration reshapes America’s image and geopolitical standing.
Insiders told The Washington Times that the presumptive president-elect has yet to formally alert anyone of whether they will be nominated. “Right now, he’s is ruthlessly focused on COVID, economic recovery and a major health care strategy,” one source said. “He’s just not focused on the major national security positions yet.”
There is, however, a list with some prominent names.
For the CIA, it includes Michael Morell, a career U.S. intelligence analyst who served as the agency’s deputy director from 2010 to 2013. Also in the running are Thomas Donilon, who was national security adviser from 2010 to 2013 and worked on Mr. Biden’s failed 1988 presidential campaign, and Avril Haines, who served as deputy CIA director from 2013 to 2015.
For director of national intelligence, a job Mr. Trump has filled with five different officials since 2016, three of them on an acting basis, Mr. Biden is considering Robert Cardillo, a career Defense Intelligence Agency official who bears the rare distinction of being respected deeply by both sides of the aisle in Washington.
Mr. Cardillo, presently a professor at Georgetown University, served as DIA deputy director early in the Obama years and later as director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, a position he held well into Mr. Trump’s term before stepping down in 2019.
Mr. Biden is casting a wider net for secretary of state. Fellow Delaware Democrat Christopher A. Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is reported to be a top candidate.
Mr. Coons, who has good working relations with Republican friends in the Senate, would likely have an easier confirmation than others who have been floated for secretary of state. That includes Susan E. Rice, who served as ambassador to the United Nations and national security adviser in the Obama administration and often had polarizing relationships with top Republicans.
William J. Burns, the career American diplomat, former ambassador to Russia and former deputy secretary of state, is also being considered, although there are signs that Mr. Coons may be the front-runner. He has already emerged as a kind of Biden transition team surrogate for foreign dignitaries to meet during visits to Washington.
Mr. Coons tweeted a photo of himself with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha on Tuesday, a day after Ms. Kang met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Mr. Coons said he and Ms. Kang had “an excellent discussion.”
Mr. Biden’s calculus will hinge on whether Mr. Coons may be more effective staying in the Senate. The senator has played down expectations he might be tapped but recently told Politico that he will accept the nomination if offered.
“If [Mr. Biden] surprises me by asking me to consider serving in his Cabinet, I’d be honored to do so,” he said. “But I could also understand how he might say, ‘Look, we’re at a moment where folks who can deliver on bipartisanship in the Senate are at a premium, and I need you to stay there.’”
Obama-era officials figure prominently in the transition speculation, but some outside observers say the presumptive president-elect could draw from the top echelons of the Washington establishment and may even pick from the ranks of moderate Republicans who either were never-Trumpers or have broken with the president over the past four years.
“After the last four years, President-elect Biden is going to have a wealth of talent willing to work on his national security and foreign policy teams from across the spectrum, because a range of people saw the Trump administration as a wake-up call that we really need to course-correct in our approach to the world,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow with the left-leaning Center for American Progress think tank.
“Literally from across the spectrum, from progressive Democrats who favor diplomacy and disengaging from wars to traditional Republicans who saw the threat that Trump posed to our democracy, if Biden wants, he could have the A-team helping him out in solving the world’s problems,” Mr. Katulis said.
Trump supporters fear a 180-degree reversal of some of Mr. Trump’s signature foreign policy and economic stands. Many are warning that a Biden administration will quickly turn soft on Iran and seek to pander to European allies by pushing for a U.S. reentry into the Iranian nuclear deal.
Others worry Mr. Biden will cast aside what have been the Trump administration’s bare-knuckle efforts to rally allies and adversaries alike around the view that China’s Communist government is the leading threat to economic, political and religious freedom in the world.
But some longtime foreign policy operatives say the extent of the rollback may be overblown.
Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA officer and Moscow station chief, said Wednesday that predictions of a major shift from both sides are off the mark.
“It’s always ‘America First,’” said Mr. Hoffman, who writes an occasional column for The Washington Times. “We were America First back when my grandfather fought in World War I. That was America First when they went over there to protect their new country, America.
“It’s just a question of how you approach it,” Mr. Hoffman said. “Biden’s approach is going to be to work more collaboratively with allies and to keep some disagreements — such as frustration that the Germans don’t pay enough for NATO or that the South Koreans don’t pay enough to support U.S. troops — those things will be kept behind the scenes.”
Despite uncertainties about the U.S. policy toward Iran, Mr. Hoffman said, Mr. Biden strongly favors international partnerships.
“He’s going to be really focused on shoring up alliances,” Mr. Hoffman said, “because he gets the core issues that Russia has always tried to undermine our relationship with NATO and that China wants to drive a wedge between the U.S. and our allies in Asia.”
Mr. Hoffman added: “I think Biden understands that China’s economic predation all over the world impacts our workers in the United States. I think he understands that Chinese state-backed companies steal intellectual property from America and its allies, and conduct espionage — I mean full-throttled espionage — against the United States.
“Biden’s advisers, all the ones I know at least, get that totally,” Mr. Hoffman said. “The question is: What kind of policy do they conceive?”