Brushing aside the White House’s drive to sow questions about the race, presumed President-Elect Joseph R. Biden moved quickly to fill a number of top diplomatic and security posts, including some candidates who may not support a total rejection of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy legacy.
Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken, a longtime Biden confidant, will lead the charge in getting rid of Mr. Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, but he’s also grudgingly praised Mr. Trump on North Korea and has a reputation as a centrist despite having built his name as an Obama-era insider who favored the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal.
There is little question that Mr. Biden’s early personnel decisions mark a stark shift from the Trump administration’s go-it-alone foreign policy posture, one that has unnerved many career diplomats and traditional American allies. The Trump Revolution is giving way to the Biden Restoration.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry is coming back as Mr. Biden’s chief of climate policy. Obama administration veterans Jake Sullivan and Linda Thomas-Greenfield are back as, respectively, national security adviser and U.N. ambassador. Former CIA Deputy Director Avril Haines will be director of national intelligence.
And — in an unexpected move — Mr. Biden has picked former Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen to be the Treasury secretary. She would be the first woman to hold the title.
The selections broadly follow Mr. Biden’s campaign promise to have a Cabinet that reflects the country’s diversity. But they also mark the return of what the foreign policy establishment sees as a more “traditional” to relations with the rest of the world after Mr. Trump’s often disruptive term.
An Associated Press assessment of Monday’s picks as a vindication of what Mr. Trump often derided as the foreign and economic policy “deep state,” many of whom left — or were driven from — their posts in the bureaucracy under Mr. Trump.
Mr. Biden’s transition team called the group “experienced, crisis-tested leaders who are ready to hit the ground running on Day One.”
“These officials,” it said, “will start working immediately to rebuild our institutions, renew and reimagine American leadership to keep Americans safe at home and abroad, and address the defining challenges of our time — from infectious disease, to terrorism, nuclear proliferation, cyber threats and climate change.”
The choices reflect Mr. Biden’s emphasis on developing a diverse team with Ms. Thomas-Greenfield, a Black woman, at the U.N.; Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban American lawyer likely to become the first Hispanic person to lead Homeland; Ms. Haines and Ms. Yellen.
It’s also a clear break with Mr. Trump’s personnel practices. Mr. Trump picked Exxon/Mobil CEO Rex W. Tillerson as his first secretary of state and retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis as secretary of defense, despite barely knowing either of them personally before their selections.
Praise from Democrats
Democrats on Capitol Hill quickly heaped praise on the picks.
“I am incredibly pleased,” New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said in a statement.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, called it the beginnings of “a historic, high-powered national security and foreign policy team” that will “repair the damage wrought by the Trump administration” and “restore America’s critical and preeminent role in the international arena.”
Missing from the list on Monday, was Michelle Flournoy, another Obama administration alumna widely expected to become the first woman to become secretary of defense. It was not immediately clear why she wasn’t named with the others, although she is known for a hawkish streak that could ruffle the feathers on Capitol Hill.
An article this month by the progressive magazine Mother Jones claimed a Flournoy pick would be “divisive among progressives,” since she “sits on the board of a major defense contractor and co-founded a consulting firm that’s done business with companies in the tech and defense industries.”
At the same time, it said Ms. Flournoy’s “policy views, especially on China, have also attracted scorn from antiwar leftists, who consider her excessively hawkish.”
Mr. Blinken is known to be close with Ms. Flournoy. In 2018, the two started a high-powered private Washington consulting firm called WestExec Advisors, named after West Executive Drive, the strip of pavement between the White House and the Old Executive Office Building.
But Mr. Blinken has been more elusive than Ms. Flournoy in his public comments on China. Last year, for instance, he told CBS that Mr. Trump has been “right to confront” China on the issue of Beijing’s unfair trade practices, although he also lambasted the president’s overall China policy for “veering wildly between confrontation on the one hand, and abdication on the other hand.”
He specifically criticized Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a U.S.-led multinational trade pact crafted by the Obama administration, saying it helped create a leadership vacuum that could benefit China.
“In the absence of American leadership, in the absence of an American model,” he said, “a Chinese model could win by default — not because it’s better.”
Mr. Blinken is expected to hold the most influence in the incoming Cabinet amid hopes the State Department could be in for more money and more clout over the next four years as it claws back power lost in recent decades to the Pentagon and National Security Council.
“If confirmed, this is a mission I will take on with my full heart,” the 58-year-old graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School said Monday.
Mr. Blinken rose to prominence as a national security adviser to Mr. Biden when he was vice president and later as the State Department’s No. 2 in the Obama administration. Conservatives have more recently known him as a Washington establishment figure who told CBS News that President Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal has been an “abject failure.”
The North Korea problem
Despite such assertions, Mr. Blinken is broadly respected by the State Department’s rank-and-file as a centrist who attempts to keep domestic politics out of his foreign policy assessments. During his CBS interview last year, he even praised Mr. Trump’s attempt to try something new with regard to the North Korea nuclear crisis, even though the president has so far failed to secure a major denuclearization deal with Pyongyang.
“There was some merit in President Trump throwing the deck of cards up in the air and seeing what came from it, because the fact of the matter is the policy that successive administrations have pursued over the last decades has not worked,” Mr. Blinken said, adding that the next administration should look more to arms control than unlikely denuclearization.
“The hard reality is it is, if not impossible, highly unlikely that we will achieve, in any near term, the complete denuclearization of North Korea. I just don’t see that as realistic in the near term,” he said. “What I think we can get is an arms control and, over time, disarmament process put in place. But that requires enough pressure, sustained and comprehensive to get North Korea to the table.
Mr. Sullivan, who is being tapped as national security adviser, is likely to be another major voice on foreign policy.
The 43-year-old is another Obama-era standout, who some have privately referred to as a Jared Kushner-type figure of the Obama administration.
Mr. Sullivan succeeded Mr. Blinken as Mr. Biden’s national security adviser in 2013 and was part of a small group of officials hand-picked by President Obama to hold top secret meetings with an Iranian delegation in Oman, setting the stage for the multinational nuclear deal later reached with Tehran — an agreement repudiated by Mr. Trump.
But Mr. Sullivan has also drawn less flattering attention over the years. He found himself in the spotlight during the federal investigations into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email servers and possible mishandling of classified information.
As a one-time top aide to Mrs. Clinton — both at the State Department and later for her 2016 presidential campaign — Mr. Sullivan was among a handful of officials who sent emails through the server.
It’s an issue that’s unlikely to draw much new media focus going forward, since Mr. Sullivan’s elevation to the national security adviser post in a Biden administration will not require Senate confirmation.