One evening last November, while reporting on the front lines outside the Libyan capital of Tripoli, I got caught in an Emirati drone bombardment aimed at Libyan pro-government fighters. Alerted by the whirr of the craft overhead, the fighters whisked me inside a concrete villa, and we watched the streaks of the airstrikes from inside. A few days later, a group of foreign and Libyan workers at a biscuit factory east of Tripoli got no such warning. Around midmorning, an Emirati drone fired the first of five missiles through the roof of a storage hangar, destroying some supplies but sparing lives. The panicked workers fled north to an alfalfa field. The missiles followed them.
I arrived on the scene a few hours later to find the smoldering wreckage and impact craters in the field. The corpses had been removed, but the site was strewn with bits of skull and flesh, tufts of hair, and an orphaned sandal. In total, eight civilians died in the bombing, and more than two dozen were wounded.
The remnants of the missiles I saw pointed to the United Arab Emirates as the source—a conclusion that a Human Rights Watch investigation later corroborated. It was one of countless UAE drone strikes on civilian targets that have taken place during the latest phase of Libya’s yearslong civil war, adding to similarly devastating attacks in Yemen that the Emiratis launched in tandem with Saudi Arabia.
Both interventions, ostensibly undertaken against terrorists, Islamists and Iranian-backed militias, were enabled and prolonged by President Donald Trump’s feckless deference and signaling to Arab autocrats. Trump might tout his efforts to pull American forces out of the Middle East, but over the course of his presidency he still has wielded American power in the region to detrimental effects: He has blessed the Emirati- and Egyptian-backed war in Libya, vetoed a congressional resolution to end American military aid to the Saudi-Emirati campaign in Yemen, and exhorted Arab states to buy American arms—all of which has destabilized parts of the region and devastated swathes of its citizens.
On top of all this, Trump’s administration announced plans on November 10 for a massive weapons sale to the United Arab Emirates. In return for the Emirates’ signing the Abraham Accords, Trump’s overhyped UAE-Israel normalization agreement, the president wants to sell Reaper armed drones to Abu Dhabi, along with the advanced F-35 fighter aircraft and precision munitions. The delivery could take years, and the deal is already facing opposition on Capitol Hill: On November 18, a bipartisan group in Congress, concerned about the Emirates’ human rights violations in Libya and Yemen, announced they would introduce legislation to block the transfer. Regardless of the outcome of this move, the announcement of the package seems a fitting consummation of Trump’s destructive impulses in the region.
As president, Joe Biden will have to grapple with the aftermath of Emirati adventurism and the habits of other authoritarian Arab allies that have been lavished with American military support, not just under Trump but under previous administrations, as well. Already, there are positive signals that Biden intends to do this by pursuing a policy toward Arab states that is less personalized, less transactional, more values-based and more focused on advancing the welfare of the region’s citizens than accommodating the phobias and ambitions of its ruling elites. For example, some of Biden’s top advisers have expressed skepticism about the sale of offensive American weapons to the Gulf. The early reactions of some Arab regimes to Biden’s election suggest they sense this shift, and they are uneasy.
But even with Biden’s initial good intentions, the institutional inertia of American arms transfers and other forms of military engagement with Arab allies will be hard to escape. This will be true especially if the Biden administration tries to reenter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, in which case he could be tempted to use continued military support to reassure jittery Arab regimes. And, fearing that these regimes could increasingly turn to Russia and China as arms suppliers as he tries to shift America‘s energy to other parts of the world, Biden could similarly fall back on weapons sales to compete economically and militarily.
As an Air Force veteran and former attaché who served in several Arab countries, I understand the seductions of military aid as a policy tool. The truth is, its record in yielding beneficial returns for American interests has been mixed. Security sector assistance, including foreign military financing and arms sales, has rarely given the United States leverage over partner regimes, even when American military assistance is withheld or conditioned on those partners changing their behavior or making reforms. In many instances, the provision of expensive prestige equipment has failed to bolster U.S. allies’ ability to operate truly independently or address the threats they actually face. At its worst, security assistance and cooperation entangle America in the abuses and excesses of Arab regimes.
There are exceptions of course—like struggling, democratic Tunisia, which has benefited from American military equipment, intelligence and training to suppress terrorism and insurgency, defend its borders and respond to the coronavirus pandemic. And, in Lebanon, American assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces has been similarly important for counterterrorism and internal stability. But it is the UAE that usually is heralded as the success story of American investment in foreign militaries in the Middle East, with devotees pointing to the country’s aerial strike and special operations proficiency. “Little Sparta,” to use a timeworn moniker for the Gulf state, has even demonstrated competence in training and equipping its own local proxies.
Yet, armed with these capabilities, the UAE has repeatedly violated long-standing United Nations arms embargos against sending weapons to Libya, bombed civilians, helped to create the world’s worst famine in decades in Yemen, and recruited mercenaries from impoverished, conflict-wracked states, sometimes under deceptive pretexts. Even so, some of the UAE’s advocates, both inside and outside the U.S. government, have asserted that these blundering interventions are forgivable technical errors or growing pains, and that the broken crockery is hardly cause to penalize a plucky Arab ally. What’s more, they maintain, these interventions don’t actively undermine U.S. interests.
From a hard-nosed, realist perspective, perhaps this is true of civilian deaths from Emirati airstrikes, like the ones I saw that afternoon at the Libyan biscuit factory. But even the most jaded realist would agree that American interests are jeopardized by Russia’s ongoing military entrenchment in Libya, an oil-rich state on NATO’s Mediterranean flank. That entrenchment has been abetted by the Emirati intervention, greenlit by Trump last year, and by de facto battlefield collaboration between the Emirates and Russian mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group.
To reverse the legacy Trump has left, President-elect Biden’s administration will need to rebalance the militarization of U.S. policy in the region with more robust outreach not just Arab regimes but to parts of Arab society—like the asylum programs and educational exchanges the Trump administration canceled or curtailed. Biden must also eschew weapons deals with governments that have committed egregious abuses and violations of norms like embargoes, while more forcefully calling out and sanctioning the offenders. At the same time, his administration should redouble its efforts at what the U.S. military calls “institutional capacity building,” the often unglamorous work of advising military staffs and bureaucracies, in part to instill the values of accountability, rule of law and human rights.
Realistically, however, Biden might not significantly shift broader security policies in the region because his administration will be consumed by other demands. These include military and economic competition from China and Russia, and climate change, but especially crises here in the United States: the coronavirus pandemic, the economic downturn, political polarization and our broken criminal justice system. These domestic imperatives are obviously urgent and entirely appropriate. Getting our affairs in order at home is in fact a necessary first step toward reestablishing our credibility among our Arab allies. As Biden said in his victory speech, “We will lead not only by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
This is wise counsel. Having spent years researching and writing about militias in Libya and across the Middle East and their collusion with state institutions, I’ve had shudders of recognition at the mushrooming of armed groups, paramilitaries and vigilantes in the United States, and their sympathetic treatment by police. But a more compelling argument for following Biden’s dictum is a story I was told by a retired American military officer.
Assigned as an attaché to an important Arab ally, this officer was sent to deliver a démarche to government officials against using military grade equipment on civilian protesters. Seated in an office, he spoke firmly to his hosts. But all the while, he was glimpsing across the room at a flat-screen TV.
What he saw made him wince at the hypocrisy of his démarche: live footage from America, of the city police in Ferguson, Missouri, using military-grade equipment against civilian protesters.
The Justice Department has hired an economist known for provocative research claiming that communities can reduce crime by allowing widespread gun ownership and implementing policies making it easier to carry a gun in public.
Last month, John Lott, 62, left a nonprofit group he founded seven years ago to take a job as a senior adviser for research and statistics at the Office of Justice Programs—a DOJ division that doles out $5 billion in grants each year.
Lott, who holds a doctorate from the University of California at Los Angeles, is best known for his 1998 book, “More Guns, Less Crime,” and for a slew of reports, articles and op-eds advocating for lifting gun control laws.
Lott confirmed his move to DOJ but declined to comment further. “I took a job at the Department of Justice. I’m really not supposed to say more than that,” he said when reached by phone last week.
A Justice Department spokesperson confirmed Lott’s title Monday, but declined to answer further questions about his hiring. The spokesperson would not say whether Lott is serving as a political appointee or a career civil service position.
OJP, a relatively low-profile branch of the Justice Department, administers about $5 billion in grants each year to states, police departments and nonprofit groups. The office also conducts research into the causes of crime and gathers statistics on criminal justice topics.
A colleague at the Crime Prevention Research Center, the small organization Lot started in 2013, also confirmed Lott's exit. The center features an unusual board of directors, including musician Ted Nugent, conservative talk show host Lars Larson and former Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, best known for his fiery speech in favor of Donald Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention.
“John Lott & the Crime Prevention Research Center is doing God's work for a safer America!” Nugent wrote in a 2015 Facebook post. “NRA membership & support for CPRC is the ultimate suckerpunch to the gungrabbing punks.”
Lott’s role as president of CPRC was turned over earlier this month to Andrew Pollack, who emerged as a prominent pro-gun voice after his 18-year-old daughter Meadow was killed in the shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in 2018.
Pollack did not respond to requests for comment, but CPRC executive director Nikki Goeser said the group’s pro-gun advocacy will continue.
“Since Dr. Lott left the CPRC on October 12th, much about the CPRC will remain unchanged,” Goeser told POLITICO by email.
“Research projects that we have been conducting are continuing: on the percent of gun ownership across different countries as well as our regular reports on things such as the number of concealed handgun permits, keeping track of what would have been mass public shootings that were stopped by concealed handgun permit holders will continue, keeping track of states that allow people to carry handguns at state capitols will continue, and similarly for state rules on letting teachers carry guns,” she added.
In the days leading up to his hiring, Lott continued his steadfast advocacy for Trump, warning in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that Joe Biden’s advocacy for civil liability for gun manufacturers would effectively make guns illegal.
Since Lott assumed his new government job, he has kept up his outspoken presence on social media sites, often trashing the media and espousing pro-Trump views.
In a post on Facebook and Twitter last week, Lott appeared to endorse the White House’s wildly exaggerated claim that one million Trump supporters showed up in Washington earlier this month for the so-called Million MAGA March.
“NPR is pretty much Pravda at this point. Trump supporters (a million plus people) are right-wing activists and hate groups and they echoed Trump's false claims about vote fraud? Such editorializing (and lies) in a ‘news’ story,” Lott wrote.
Lott has been a go-to witness for Republican lawmakers for more than two decades, often appearing on Capitol Hill to express deep skepticism of gun control legislation.
Just last year, he testified at gun-violence-related hearings held by the House Appropriations Committee and the Joint Economic Committee.
While gun violence has been the primary focus of Lott’s work, he has also dabbled in research related to election fraud. In September 2017, he delivered a presentation to Trump’s short-lived election-integrity commission, urging use of the national gun background check database to verify voter rolls.
In recent days, Lott has insisted that the presidential election results were tainted by a huge wave of illegal ballots. “Massive vote fraud in Pennsylvania,” he declared on Facebook on Nov. 4.
President Donald Trump is the favored Republicn candidate for a 2024 run, beating other notable Republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence, by a double-digit margin, according to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll released Tuesday.
Trump gets 53 percent of support among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents for a hypothetical 2024 Republican primary, according to the poll of registered voters. Pence came in second at only 12 percent support. Donald Trump Jr. got the third-highest support at 8 percent, while other Republican figures, including Sens. Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz and Mitt Romney, and Nikki Haley each got less than 5 percent support.
With Trump losing the 2020 presidential election, he is still constitutionally eligible to run for a second term in 2024 or later, at which point he would be at least in his late 70s. Trump has delayed conceding the election to President-elect Joe Biden, and his legal team is continuing its fight to reverse results in key swing states.
While some members of his own party have pushed for Trump to concede, several other prominent Republicans have taken a neutral stance on who the next president will be. If Trump were to run in 2024, he would be a formidable force in the party, potentially crowding out other GOP hopefuls. His cultural cachet among the MAGA base is already enough to disincentivize Republicans from antagonizing him — including with regards to an election concession this year.
Trump’s resolve on the election is not without consequences. The administration’s refusal to acknowledge Biden as the next president stonewalled the former vice president’s team from accessing federal resources necessary to immediately move ahead with the transition.
But the administration recognized Biden's electoral victory on Monday — just after the poll was conducted. Pressure from a growing number of Republican senators was also mounting on the administration to acknowledge Trump's defeat. Still, while Trump gave his blessing to the administration starting the transition process, he still refused to concede, vowing to continue his legal battles.
A majority of voters, particularly among Democrats, support the way Biden is handling the presidential transition, with 62 percent of voters approving. That number drops to 27 percent among Republicans, according to Tuesday’s poll.
A majority of respondents said the coronavirus and other health care issues should be Biden’s top priority for his first 100 days in office. Sixty-eight percent said Biden should prioritize controlling the coronavirus; a new coronavirus aid package and a vaccine distribution plan each got 67 percent support.
The poll was conducted Nov. 21-23 online among 1,990 registered voters. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 2 percentage points.
No national security adviser has ever run for president. Few people outside of Washington policy circles even know who the White House’s national security adviser is at any given moment.
Yet Robert O’Brien, President Donald Trump’s fourth — and least well-known — national security adviser is telling friends and colleagues he is considering a presidential bid in 2024, according to three people who have talked to him.
It’s a possibility that GOP strategists dismissed as an illogical long shot at best. But several of O’Brien’s friends insisted that maybe, just maybe, O’Brien could click with the American people.
O’Brien himself has remained publicly mum on the subject. But his travel as national security adviser has included a slate of early presidential primary slates, including Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada — an unusual combination for someone in his position. And one of O’Brien’s Republican friends said the trips have “amplified” his interest in running for president.
The chatter reflects the skirmish that is brewing as everyone with a link to Trump vies for supremacy after President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January. Trump himself has privately mulled a 2024 comeback, but numerous figures in his orbit — everyone from Vice President Mike Pence to Donald Trump Jr. to Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — have been regularly floated as the GOP’s next standard-bearer.
While Trump’s 2016 run showed political neophytes like O’Brien cannot be completely barred from this conversation, the reality TV star at least had his celebrity to lean on. It’s unclear what O’Brien’s angle would be.
“He’s not terribly well known — I don’t know of any geographic base or ideological base within the party,” said Michael Steel, a former communications aide to both one-time 2016 Republican presidential favorite Jeb Bush and former Republican House Speaker John Boehner. “If he’s running as the heir to President Trump’s national security legacy, I assume there will be other candidates like the vice president or former Ambassador Haley, who would be better positioned to do that. I just have no idea what his lane would be.”
“To run as an outsider is one thing. To run as an unknown, that’s a lot more difficult,” added Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee communications director. “What makes one person stand out when they have zero name ID? … In politics, you never say never, but you often say this is extremely difficult to do.”
Even some GOP strategists who know O’Brien are skeptical. “While his service is admirable, there are other personal traits of his that would not translate well to being president or winning a primary campaign,” said one GOP strategist who declined to speak on the record so as to not damage his relationship with O’Brien.
O’Brien declined to comment on the record for this report.
O’Brien, 54, is a lawyer by trade, but has long moved in Republican and national security circles. During the George W. Bush administration, he was appointed as an alternate representative to the U.N. Later, he co-chaired a State Department initiative meant to use public-private partnerships to promote rule of law in Afghanistan — a role he continued into the Obama era.
O’Brien has also dabbled in presidential politics, serving as a foreign adviser to three Republican candidates — Mitt Romney in 2012, and Scott Walker and Ted Cruz in 2016.
In 2018, O’Brien came to the Trump administration as a special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. With the president heavily promoting efforts to secure the release of Americans like pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey and rapper ASAP Rocky in Sweden, O’Brien started receiving some public attention. He was installed as Trump’s national security adviser the following year after John Bolton’s acrimonious split from the White House.
O’Brien brought a much lower profile to the National Security Council than his predecessors.
Unlike O’Brien, Bolton was a well-known foreign policy firebrand who had served in the Bush administration and been visible for years on Fox News. Before Bolton, H.R. McMaster had entered the job as a noted military strategist who had led a cavalry force during the Iraq War and written a popular book critiquing the military’s handling of the Vietnam War. And Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was a household name for leading “lock her up” chants during Trump campaign rallies and railing against former President Barack Obama’s foreign policy.
O’Brien’s arrival was seen as an opportunity to bring in someone who would quietly support the president’s agenda — which he did.
He downsized the NSC staff and trained the council’s focus on China. He defended the president’s moves to withdraw troops from military bases in places like Germany, an effort many national security veterans opposed. And he publicly backed the president’s controversial decision to kill Qassem Soleimani, head of a powerful Iranian military division responsible for many of Tehran’s extrajudicial and secret military operations.
And he often took that support to television, where O'Brien is trusted within the administration to appear on Sunday morning network news shows and popular cable programs to tout the administration’s policies.
Yet O’Brien has also used his perch to visit a number of states critical to the early stages of the presidential primaries. And in the run-up to the Nov. 3 election, O’Brien traveled to key presidential swing states like Arizona, Minnesota, Nevada and Wisconsin, sparking chatter that the national security aide was becoming too involved in the political process — a territory traditionally off limits to current foreign policy officials.
There’s some evidence O’Brien did use these trips to enhance his political knowledge. During a September trip to Iowa to speak at Drake University, O’Brien asked a local political consultant to give him a “lay of the land” briefing on the state’s political situation, according to the consultant.
During his travels, O’Brien has gotten a variety of receptions, according to several people who either attended his events or discussed them.
The Republican friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe O’Brien’s travels, said the national security aide had encountered a couple people who told him he “could be interesting four years from now.” But other appearances have been simply ho-hum. And during one October trip to Salt Lake City to speak at a symposium on global peace and stability, O’Brien turned off at least one attendee during a meeting with local faith leaders.
O’Brien, the highest-ranking Mormon member of the Trump administration, had convened the meeting to discuss the administration's work on religious freedom with local representatives from Episcopal, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Baptist, Jewish and Muslim congregations.
But just as O’Brien started assuring the group the president was committed to religious tolerance and an ally of all faith communities, he got pushback from Rabbi Sam Spector, who was attending the meeting. Spector recalled pressing O’Brien on how the Trump administration could claim the mantle of religious tolerance when the president had pushed to ban people coming to the U.S. from numerous Muslim-majority countries and had repeatedly been slow to condemn white supremacy.
“He didn’t acknowledge any of my concerns and instead just started saying that what I said was inaccurate and a misrepresentation of facts,” Spector said, describing O’Brien as stunned.
Internally, O’Brien has also faced pushback from some colleagues, including a whistleblower complaint from Yevgeny Vindman, a senior ethics official for the NSC and the twin brother of impeachment witness Alexander Vindman. The complaint alleged both misuse of government resources and “demoralizing sexist behavior” — claims the White House strenuously denied.
Still, those around O’Brien insist he has a demeanor that could play well with voters, noting he also has the advantage of being tied to Trump’s national security platform, which is popular among the president’s base.
“I think he would campaign on American strength, strong families and communities, strong economy and strong national security,” said the Republican friend, calling O’Brien “super-likable.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who knows O’Brien well, argued the national security adviser “would be a very strong contender” and “a very credible presidential candidate” if he chose to get in.
“Robert O’Brien’s one of the most powerful people in Washington, even though he is perhaps not as widely known as he should be given how much influence he has,” Lee said. “You don’t see his name a lot on the front page of the paper, but whenever you do see his name, it's attached to something very significant."
O’Brien, his friends argued, could help carry the Republican Party into a new generation and lay claim to being a political outsider, having never held elected office. And, perhaps most important, O’Brien can claim a good relationship with Trump, they added — a key distinction in any fight to take over the GOP base.
“Trump loves O’Brien, and every other conversation where O’Brien comes up, he’ll say, ‘This guy is right out of central casting, he’s beautiful, his wife’s beautiful,’” Lee said.
National security advisers don’t have a long history of entering politics, however. Some, like Susan Rice, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger, later rose to Cabinet positions or were floated as presidential or vice presidential aspirants. But none have made the jump into a presidential primary.
Heye, the Republican strategist, reiterated his doubt about O’Brien’s prospects of making the leap.
“You have to have a compelling reason for why you’re running and why it should be you, as opposed to every other person who’s running,” he said.
In late 2008, during the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, there was a mantra that took hold among Washington insiders: Obama won the election but Hillary won the transition.
The most loyal denizens of the Obama campaign — the people who were with him from Springfield to Grant Park — watched with deep trepidation as the Obama administration was staffed at the highest levels with the same Clintonites — including Hillary herself — they thought they had vanquished in the Democratic primaries the previous summer.
It is still early in the Biden transition. There are thousands of jobs to fill. But a similar sense of dread is starting to bubble up from veterans of the Biden campaign, particularly those who were there with the president-elect from the Philadelphia announcement speech to the Wilmington victory speech. The target of their ire? The Obama establishment, which has eclipsed the Clinton name as shorthand for yesterday’s Democratic Party.
“The Obama staffers are now cutting out the people who got Biden elected,” said a senior Biden official channeling the feelings of the old guard of the Biden campaign, who requested anonymity for the obvious reason. “None of these people found the courage to help the VP when he was running and now they are elevating their friends over the Biden people. It’s f----- up.”
Another Biden adviser who worked on the campaign echoed the point. “It is a very valid criticism,” the adviser said. “A lot of people are living in uncertainty.”
There are some caveats, both about the 2008 transition battle between the campaign and the transition and the 2020 sequel. Back then Obama was a member of the U.S. Senate, where he didn’t have a large staff on which to rely upon for government positions. He was also taking over the presidency in the middle of a raging economic crisis. It shouldn’t have been surprising that he would draw from a pool of talent that dominated the administration of the last Democratic president.
Today, the conventional wisdom is that Biden is actually stocking his administration with his campaign loyalists at the expense of other factions within his party. And in one sense that’s true. The top of the campaign — Ron Klain, Mike Donilon and Steve Ricchetti — will move into the top slots of the Biden White House. Biden’s two top national security advisers on the campaign will take over the two top national security jobs in the administration: Tony Blinken as secretary of State and Jake Sullivan as national security adviser. The campaign manager, Jen O'Malley Dillon, and one of the campaign co-chairs, Rep. Cedric Richmond, will have senior White House roles.
The relatively uncontroversial nature of these picks has been by design. Internally, Biden officials have been instructed to emphasize to reporters how normal the picks are, how “these are tested leaders.” It’s seen as a success if the Biden staff and Cabinet announcements don’t make much news.
But just below that elite level there is concern bordering on panic — depending on who you talk to — about the perceived lack of outreach to many campaign alumni. “There’s real doubt about whether they will be taken care of,” said the Biden adviser.
Some of the grumbling dates back to one of the main divides in the Biden campaign: people who joined the campaign before Dillon was named campaign manager in March and those who came in after. Some in the old guard feel they were underappreciated — they won the Democratic nomination! — and were layered over by Dillon hires who are now being prioritized for White House jobs.
Several people I talked to pointed out that both Dillon and Julie Rodriguez, one of her campaign deputies, received high-profile positions in the White House before people like Kate Bedingfield and Symone Sanders, two prominent veterans from the pre-Dillon era who are still widely seen as likely to receive top communications jobs. “People who were not part of winning the hard-fought primary were placed before people who were part of that,” said the Biden adviser. "If you noticed, Jen’s people are being taken care of.”
In response to these criticisms, a Biden transition official, who asked to remain anonymous because they were concerned that the Biden campaign officials speaking out might “focus their frustrations towards me,” said in a prepared statement: “The Biden-Harris transition team includes many longtime campaign staff working alongside transition staff who have been laying the groundwork for a smooth transition for months. It is still extremely early in the process of staffing the Biden-Harris Administration and the people who put in the hard work to win will continue to be an integral part of the work moving forward."
Some of the factionalism forming is related to Biden’s long career. Not everyone involved with helping him get to the White House formally worked on the campaign. There are Biden Senate staffers, Biden vice presidential staffers, Biden presidential primary staffers, and Biden general election staffers. Some people straddle multiple eras. The current fears about the transition being taken over by the previous generation of Obama staffers who make up Washington’s permanent establishment are coming from a younger set of Biden true believers who chose to work for him in early 2019 even when all of the cool young operatives were flocking to Beto and Bernie and Warren.
Even then, there was a disconnect between the brain trust at the top of the campaign, which is now seamlessly moving to the top of the White House, and the Biden proletariat that made up the bulk of the campaign operation. The fear from the proles is that the brain trust doesn’t understand that they are being left behind. So they are speaking out — anonymously — in the hope that people like Klain and Ricchetti and Donilon, and perhaps the president-elect himself, will take notice.
In the meantime, many of these people are sitting around and waiting, often without any real understanding of how they even apply for crucial jobs.
“People are pissed,” said the Biden adviser. “I think I’m going to be taken care of but I have not been taken care of yet. I am really interested to find out how you even find out how you got a job in this White House.”
The most prominent appointment President-elect Joe Biden has made for his new White House team is Chief of Staff Ron Klain — a long-time Biden adviser who went to Harvard Law School and won a prestigious Supreme Court clerkship.
The most prominent appointment he has made so far to his cabinet is Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken — a long-time Biden adviser who went to Harvard as an undergraduate and then moved through decades of prestigious posts in the Washington foreign policy establishment.
Wait, you may wonder about this apparent Harvard focus, where is the diversity?!
Not to worry. The choice to lead the National Security Council, Jake Sullivan, is a previous Biden adviser who went to Yale, before winning a Rhodes scholarship. And there is still lots of speculation about a likely spot for Bruce Reed, a veteran Biden aide who went to Princeton, before winning a Rhodes scholarship. His choice for Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen, is not a long-time Biden adviser but is someone he has known for years. She went to Brown and Yale.
The opening days of the transition have highlighted something that has been clear for years to anyone following Biden’s personnel preferences: He tends to have crushes on a couple of well-defined types.
One of those types is the Washington professional with impeccable credentials from elite institutions.
Biden will be the first president since Ronald Reagan not to possess an Ivy League degree at either the undergraduate or graduate level. People who have worked around Biden describe how he sometimes displays an acute awareness of colleagues’ academic bona-fides, and occasional sensitivity about his own. This suggests a parallel with a predecessor who was known for keen awareness of who went where.
“My Harvards,” is what Lyndon B. Johnson called his considerable roster of academic standouts, many of whom he inherited from John F. Kennedy. This group was epitomized by national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, who was both a graduate and dean at Harvard. The phrase, “The Best and the Brightest,” once invoked with genuine admiration, later was used with acid sarcasm as a book title by David Halberstam, after LBJ’s Harvards helped tug him into the Vietnam catastrophe.
“He both respects them and resents them,” one colleague of Biden’s in the Obama White House said of his attitude toward Washington’s large class of academic elites. “He wants their approval,” this person said, but is quick to injury if he perceives condescension.
Biden graduated from the University of Delaware with a shoulder-shrug transcript full of Cs. In 1987, as his first presidential campaign was struggling to get airborne, there was a fuss over Biden’s claim that he graduated from Syracuse University Law School “in the top half of my class.” In fact, he was near the bottom.
But this has for decades been part of a Biden paradox. For year he labored under a reputation for modest intellect, and as recently as this campaign he endured taunts on that theme from President Donald Trump. But, stretching back decades, he has shown an enduring ability to recruit — and, just as importantly, retain — succeeding generations of staff members with glittering smart-kid credentials.
Part of the reason, say veterans of Biden’s Senate and vice presidential operations, is that he was always more conversant in and determined to have impact on first-tier policy issues than his public reputation suggested. He showed respect to ambitious young people and gave them the influence they craved. Klain worked with Biden as chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee in his late twenties.
But these people typically also gave Biden, who himself arrived in the Senate at an uncommonly young age, something he craved: A sense of comfort that Washington’s most capable people were fighting for him.
This connection also applies to a second type of Biden favorites. They may have arrived in Washington without head-turning academic credentials, but they quickly excelled as skilled political operators with an extra measure of hustle.
Among those now headed to the White House with Biden as counselor is Steve Ricchetti, who began his career as Washington operative right out of Miami of Ohio in the early 1980s and has been deputy chief of staff in Bill Clinton’s White House and chief of staff to Vice President Biden in the Obama administration. Also going in with Biden as White House senior adviser is veteran political operative Mike Donilon, who has been with him for years. So has Donilon’s sister-in-law, Cathy Russell, who will now run the White House personnel office. Her husband is Tom Donilon, who began in Washington as a young aide to Jimmy Carter and then became Obama’s National Security Adviser.
Even as only a fraction of positions in the Biden administration are filled it is already obvious his team has some defining signatures. After years in which Trump and allies denounced a sinister “Deep State” buried in the executive branch, and many senior jobs went to people with scant credentials other than loyalty to him, the people getting Biden’s top jobs for the most part have been immersed in government and Washington culture for decades — just like their boss.
For all the attention to the various ideological messages Biden may be sending with appointments, as he tries to hold together a Democratic coalition of jostling factions, what he is assembling is not so much a team of rivals as a team of careerists. A contender for Secretary of Defense is Michele Flournoy, who has been in national security circles for decades. She started a public affairs firm with Blinken, and graduated from Harvard a couple years before him.
Perhaps the closest equivalent is George H.W. Bush, who relied on decades-old relationships in Washington to fill his administration. The next four successors —Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump — all arrived from outside Washington or after a very short tenure here, and had to integrate personal loyalists into the Washington firmament. In Biden’s case, these two groups are exactly the same.
What’s also notable is how much endurance his team has shown. In most cases they started their Washington careers as prodigies, with impressive jobs at young ages. Now, most are deep into middle age, toiling for a boss who is well past it, as they finally grasp top prizes.
Klain, who served as chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore before holding the same job for Biden, could plausibly have been a White House chief of staff at age 39 if Gore had won the 2000 election. As it happened, Klain got portrayed by actor Kevin Spacey in the movie “Recount,” but he didn’t get the job he wanted until two decades later.
James P. Rubin, who was a top deputy to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in the 1990s but was a foreign policy advisor to Biden on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a decade before that, says there is an important lesson in this endurance. Biden commands long-term loyalty in a way that many politicians do not.
“When you work for him he gives you enormous strength — he trusts you to run with the ball and he protects you when you fumble,” Rubin said. “He gives you great confidence that he would be there for you if you were fighting for him.” It is a pattern that began in his Senate days: “He wanted the best people, he attracted them, he gave them a long leash, and he was at the center of important things.”