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President-elect Joe Biden, with his first round of cabinet nominees and White House staff picks, has reassured his party’s moderate wing by drawing from the deep reservoir of Washington establishment types that he’s been surrounded by during his nearly five decades in government, rather than elevating more ideological upstarts.
Biden appears to be prioritizing time spent in government service in his choices for the executive branch’s most powerful positions, prompting critics on the Right and, to a lesser extent, the far-left to suggest they will be liable to repeat the mistakes of past Democratic administrations. The nominees so far include familiar names from the Obama administration, including a number of prominent figures close to Hillary Clinton, who likely would have been appointed to senior positions had she won in 2016.
John Kerry, former secretary of state and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, will serve as special presidential envoy for climate, Biden announced on Monday. Kerry’s post, the first of its kind, will be housed within the National Security Council and will primarily involve conducting environmental diplomacy of the sort that President Trump decisively abandoned by withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords.
Biden nominated Jake Sullivan, previously a close aide to Hillary Clinton, as national-security adviser. Sullivan was implicated in the Clinton private email-server scandal and endorsed the contents of the infamous Steele dossier, which served as the basis for the FISA warrant to surveil Trump campaign advisers and has since been largely debunked.
The former vice president has also named Obama administration and Biden campaign alumna Dana Remus as White House counsel, Jen O’Malley Dillon as White House deputy chief of staff, Mike Donilon and Steve Ricchetti as senior advisors to the president, Ron Klain as White House chief of staff, Avril Haines as director of national intelligence, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Biden tapped Alejandro Mayorkas for Homeland Security secretary, another former Obama administration official and the first immigrant and Latino to lead the department. Mayorkas is widely considered to be the architect of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and was investigated during his time in the Obama administration for allegedly helping the friends of prominent Democrats navigate the EB-5 visa program, which provides green cards to foreigners who invest more than $500,000 in a U.S. development project. Mayorkas was found by the Obama Department of Justice Inspector General to have “exerted improper influence” over the program.
“Mayorkas communicated with stakeholders on substantive issues, outside of the normal adjudicatory process, and intervened with the career USCIS staff in ways that benefited the stakeholders,” the IG wrote in a report released on March 24, 2015.
Janet Yellen, former head of the Federal Reserve, will become the next Treasury secretary, the first woman to hold the position.
For the prestigious and powerful cabinet position of secretary of state, Biden has named Antony Blinken, who has worked with the former vice president since 2002 and served as his national-security adviser before he was promoted in 2015 to deputy secretary of state under Obama. A graduate of Harvard and Columbia Law School, Blinken was also Biden’s staff director while Biden was a senator from Delaware and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a role he left to work with Biden on his 2008 bid for the Democratic nomination, which he ultimately lost to former president Obama.
During Biden’s successful presidential campaign this year, Blinken served as the Democratic nominee’s top foreign-policy adviser and spokesman. A descendant of Holocaust survivors, Blinken is known to favor intervening militarily in crises around the world that could endanger innocent lives, perhaps more so than Biden. However, the two find themselves in agreement more often than not, including on supporting the Iran nuclear deal.
High-profile positions yet to be filled include White House press secretary and Homeland Security adviser.
For EPA administrator, Biden is considering two veterans of the department, Mary Nichols, who worked at the agency during the Clinton administration, and Heather McTeer Toney, an EPA employee under Obama.
The frontrunner for CIA director is Michael Morell, currently chairman of a Washington consulting firm, who previously served as CIA deputy director and acting director of the agency twice under Obama.
However, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a key Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned Biden this week not to nominate Morell, citing his alleged record as a “torture apologist,” which Wyden said makes his Senate confirmation a “nonstarter.”
Three contenders are in the running for Energy Secretary: Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, an adviser to Biden when he was a senator and deputy secretary of energy under Obama; Arun Majumdar, who previously worked for Google as well as at the Department of Energy; and Washington governor Jay Inslee, who has devoted particular attention over his political career to climate change.
Biden’s pick for Heath and Human Services secretary will no doubt attract particular interest as the nation grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, an issue Biden has promised to make his top priority once he takes office in January. Names that have been floated to lead HHS into the second year of the pandemic include two co-chairmen of Biden’s coronavirus advisory board, Vivek Murthy, a physician and former surgeon general, and David Kessler, former FDA commissioner. Mandy Cohen, a staunch Medicaid proponent who headed the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services during the Obama administration, is also under consideration.
For attorney general, Biden is strongly considering Sally Yates, who served briefly as acting attorney general in the Trump administration before she was fired over her opposition to the administration’s travel restrictions affecting seven Muslim-majority nations. Former senator Doug Jones, an Alabama Democrat, has also been floated to lead the Justice Department.
Michele Flournoy — a former Defense Department official in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, who advised Biden’s campaign on defense — is reportedly the frontrunner to become Biden’s defense secretary. Another name on Biden’s short list for the position is Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a retired Army officer who lost both her legs in Iraq and former assistant secretary of veterans affairs under Obama. Either would be the first woman to lead the Pentagon should they be confirmed, though congressional Democrats have reportedly cautioned Biden against drawing from among their ranks, arguing that they can’t afford to lose any veteran lawmakers considering their precarious majority in the House and minority position in the Senate.
Several members of the GOP’s Senate majority have already voiced their opposition to a number of Biden’s upcoming cabinet nominees, saying they represent a return to the Obama administration’s failed policies and suggesting that they may not vote to confirm them.
Senator Marco Rubio wrote in a tweet Tuesday that the former vice president’s cabinet picks “went to Ivy League schools, have strong resumes, attend all the right conferences & will be polite & orderly caretakers of America’s decline.”
“I support American greatness. And I have no interest in returning to the ‘normal’ that left us dependent on China,” the Florida Republican added.
On Wednesday, Senator Tom Cotton, an Army combat veteran, warned that the Biden administration currently taking shape will take the U.S. back to the foreign policy of the Obama era, which “had disastrous consequences for our nation.”