In the first wave of appointments for the cabinet that Joe Biden will form after he is inaugurated on January 20th, the president-elect has opted for a quality that Donald Trump mocked and disdained over the four years of his presidency: experience.
Take, for example, Biden’s pick for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, which was formally announced on Tuesday. After working on Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, Blinken, 58, a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, became Biden’s chief foreign policy adviser in the Senate in 2002, serving as the Democratic staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Biden was that committee’s chairman, and then worked as adviser on Biden’s unsuccessful presidential bid in 2008. After Barack Obama picked Biden as his vice-president, Blinken returned to the White House as Biden’s national security adviser. (A blue-shirted Blinken can be seen at the back of the room in the famous photograph of White House officials, including President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, monitoring the 2012 raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.) And government service runs in the family: Blinken met his future wife, Evan Ryan, in 1995 when he was working at the White House as a speechwriter on the National Security Council, and she was a scheduler for first lady Hillary Clinton.
In contrast, Donald Trump picked for his first Secretary of State the Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, a Texas businessman who had no diplomatic experience and someone whom Trump barely knew. The relationship did not take. Tillerson (who reportedly told aides that the president was “a fucking moron”) lasted only a year, was fired in a tweet by the president, and left a hollowed-out, demoralized State Department in his wake. “Tillerson would be at or near the bottom of the list of secretaries of state, not just in the post-Second World War world but in the record of U.S. secretaries of state,” Paul Musgrave, a scholar of U.S. foreign policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told Vox after his firing. Tillerson was replaced by the former Kansas congressman Mike Pompeo, who has spent the past three years largely alienating allies and seemingly campaigning for his own presidential run in 2024.
As The Guardian wrote this week, “After four years of an administration that has separated migrant children from their parents and kept them in cages, Blinken’s arrival at the state department will mark a dramatic change, to say the least.”
Biden’s other initial appointments manage to combine a depth of experience with ground-breaking diversity.
So far, Biden has tapped appointees who would be the first woman to be Secretary of the Treasury (Janet Yellen), the first woman to be Director of National Intelligence (Avril Haines) and the first Latino to head the Department of Homeland Security (Alejandro Mayorkas). In addition, in naming Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a 35-year veteran of the Foreign Service, as his pick for Ambassador to the United States, Biden also announced he would restore that post to cabinet-level status.
The pick of Yellen (though not officially announced as yet) was widely expected and was greeted as a welcome signal from the incoming administration. “A lot of people are breathing a sigh of relief,” the MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle, a former managing director at Deutsche Bank, said on Tuesday morning. “We will have a professional in this seat. She knows what she is doing.” From 2014 to 2018, Yellen served as chair of the Federal Reserve, where she was also the first woman to hold that position. She previously was chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton administration.
Among those who cheered the news of Yellen’s appointment was Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economics columnist for The New York Times:
Janet Yellen for Treasury! Fantastic news. Not just someone with vast experience and a terrific track record, but a deep thinker too. One of the people who kept realistic, useful macroeconomics alive through some intellectual dark times. 1/
— Paul Krugman (@paulkrugman) November 23, 2020
Biden formally unveiled his national security team on Tuesday, a day when Donald Trump, who has been largely out of sight since losing the presidential election two weeks ago, made two brief appearances—the first to herald the stock market hitting a new record high and the second to ceremonially pardon two Thanksgiving turkeys. As Trump started back into the White House, having sparing the necks of Corn and Cob, a reporter shouted out, “Will you be issuing a pardon for yourself?” The president kept walking, silent, his back to the press corps.
Introducing his national security team—which in addition to Haines, Mayorkas, and Thomas-Greenfield, also included Jake Sullivan as National Security Adviser and John Kerry as climate envoy—Biden stated, “America is back.” The president elect, surrounded by his picks on a socially distanced stage in Wilmington, Del., said his nominees were “ready to lead the world, not retreat from it.” He praised their credentials, but also said they were not bound to the past. “While this team has unmatched experience and accomplishments,” Biden said, “they also reflect the idea that we cannot meet these challenges with old thinking and unchanged habits,”
Missing from the stage was Biden’s choice for Secretary of Defense. Michèle Flournoy, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy under Bill Clinton and under secretary of defense for policy under Barack Obama, is said to be the leading contender, though some opposition has begun to emerge. If nominated and confirmed, Flournoy would be the first woman to hold that post.
In naming Avril Haines as the Director of National Intelligence, Biden not only made another barrier-breaking choice, but also picked someone with deep ties to the U.S. intelligence community. An expert in international law, Haines has worked for the Obama and Bush administrations in jobs for the National Security Council, the State Department, and the C.I.A. Under President Obama, Haines was a national security legal adviser, a position that helps oversee covert C.I.A. programs, including drone strikes. She later served as a deputy C.I.A. director from 2013 to 2015, after which she returned to the White House as President Obama’s deputy national security adviser. Earlier in her career, like Tony Blinken, Haines worked for a time as a lawyer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Joe Biden was the chairman.
Under the four years of Trump’s presidency, the position of DNI—a post created by Congress following the terrorist attacks on 9/11—has been a revolving door of five largely unqualified, political appointees including the polarizing Richard Grennell, whose appointment was widely criticized when Trump made him acting director in 2019. “This is a job requiring leadership, management, substance and secrecy,” John Sipher, a former C.I.A. officer told The New York Times. “He doesn’t have the kind of background and experience we would expect for such a critical position.”
Currently, the position is occupied by John Ratcliffe, a controversial, résumé-inflating former Texas Congressman and fiercely partisan supporter of Trump, and someone who, like Grennell before him, had no experience in working with the intelligence community. Ratcliffe’s appointment earlier this year—the second time Trump put forward his name for the post—was overwhelmingly opposed by Democrats in the Senate and he was confirmed by a strict party line vote of 49-to-44, receiving more votes against his confirmation than any DNI in the 15-year history of the office.
Perhaps tellingly, Haines co-authored a piece for Foreign Policy earlier this year in which she and her fellow authors sharply criticized President Trump for his “politicalization” of U.S. intelligence operations. “Politicized intelligence … reinforces preexisting beliefs, depriving leaders of a foundation for developing sound policy,” they wrote. “That is why intelligence analysts are trained, from the very outset of their careers, in presenting objective analysis, and why the intelligence community has institutional safeguards, including ombudsmen and inspectors general, to push back against pressure that leads to bias and politicization of intelligence analysis.” The authors added: “Every president since the creation of the U.S. intelligence community after World War II has supported this principle—until Donald Trump. Trump has repeatedly pressured the intelligence community to present analytic judgments consistent with his views, rather than those of its expert analysts.”
The son of Cuban Jews who fled Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution, Alejandro Mayorkas would be the first immigrant to lead DHS if the Senate confirms him. Mayorkas acknowledged the significance of that moment in a tweet he posted Monday afternoon:
When I was very young, the United States provided my family and me a place of refuge. Now, I have been nominated to be the DHS Secretary and oversee the protection of all Americans and those who flee persecution in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones.
— Alejandro Mayorkas (@AliMayorkas) November 23, 2020
This would be Mayorkas’s second time working in the White House. During the Obama administration, Mayorkas was deputy secretary of DHS under then-Secretary Jeh Johnson, and before that was the director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, a part of DHS that oversees granting citizenship and other immigration benefits. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and Loyola Law School, Mayorkas, 61, was the highest-ranking Cuban-American in the Obama administration and is known as an expert in the increasingly crucial field of cybersecurity.
Homeland Security is another department that saw almost unprecedented turmoil under President Trump, with five different directors under his watch, only two of whom were Senate-confirmed. (Earlier this year, the General Accounting Office found that Chad Wolf, the latest acting secretary of DHS, was not legally qualified to hold his job.)
As The Washington Post noted earlier this year, “The White House has run the department as an instrument of policy and politics, appointing openly partisan figures to its top leadership ranks, where they serve in acting roles without the slightest pretense of a formal nomination.” Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor who served as the department’s first secretary under President George W. Bush, told the Post, “The president has perverted the mission of DHS.”
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who is also Cuban American, called Mayorkas a “smart and natural pick” to lead the DHS. “He has the subject matter experience to take on the enormous job of cleaning up after the disastrous and inhuman immigration policies that have torn lives and families apart under the Trump administration,” Menendez said in a statement.
Biden’s pick to be ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, could not be more different than the woman she will replace if confirmed, Kelly Craft. Craft, a longtime Republican with close ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell but with no diplomatic experience, had a brief and somewhat bumpy run as the Trump administration’s ambassador to Canada before being named as the replacement for Nikki Haley in 2019. (Trump’s original choice to replace Haley was said to be Heather Nauert, a former Fox News anchor.)
In contrast, Thomas-Greenfield is a three-decade veteran of the State Department who served as ambassador to Liberia, director general of the foreign service, and top diplomat for Africa before leaving the State Department during the early months of the Trump administration. Although Thomas-Greenfield, 68, will not be the first Black woman to be the country’s ambassador to the U.N. (Susan Rice holds that distinction) nor the first African American in that position (Andrew Young held the job during President Jimmy Carter’s administration), she is a pioneer nonetheless.
When she joined the State Department 35 years ago, she was one of the very few Black women to do so and one who came from a less-than-privileged background. In his formal announcement on Tuesday, president-elect Biden called her a “ground-breaking diplomat … who never forgot where she came from, segregated Louisiana” and noted that she was the first in her family to go to college. (Thomas-Greenfield is a graduate of LSU, attending that college in the 1970s, as part of the first wave of African American students accepted by that previously all-white school. Among her fellow students was David Duke.) In a TEDx talk last year, Thomas-Greenfield described her upbringing in the “Deep South … in a segregated town in which the KKK regularly would come on weekends and burn a cross in somebody’s yard.”
After the news of her announcement leaked on Monday, Thomas-Greenfield reflected on that childhood in a tweet:
My mother taught me to lead with the power of kindness and compassion to make the world a better place. I’ve carried that lesson with me throughout my career in Foreign Service – and, if confirmed, will do the same as Ambassador to the United Nations.
— Linda Thomas-Greenfield (@LindaT_G) November 23, 2020
In one more significant appointment to his national security team, Biden confirmed on Tuesday that he was naming John Kerry, the former U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, and the Democratic nominee in 2004 as the special envoy for climate change, a newly created position that will be part of the National Security Council. Biden said that his selection of Kerry would signal to world leaders that climate change was a top priority for the new administration. “He will have a seat at every table around the world,” Biden said.
In his comments, Kerry said the U.S. would immediately re-join the Paris Climate Agreement, from which the Trump administration had withdrawn in 2017, and once again be a part of the global fight against climate change. “Mr. President Elect, you’ve put forward a bold transformative climate plan. But you’ve also underscored that no country alone can solve this challenge,” Kerry said. “To end this crisis, the whole world must come together. You’re right to rejoin Paris on day one, and you’re right to recognize that Paris alone is not enough.”