“You have to be kidding me.”
Philippe Reines was sitting in a yurt in Mongolia during a trip with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sure that he’d finally done it: traveled to more countries than anyone else with Clinton as one of her top aides. And then Jake Sullivan strolled in.
“He’d literally just been in Oman for secret peace talks with the Iranians, and he managed to make it to this remote part of Mongolia,” said Reines, still floored by the feat seven years later. “So in the end he’s the only human being who went to 112 countries with Hillary. His capacity for work is just that annoying,” he joked in an interview, one of a dozen for this story.
All that work has clearly paid off: Sullivan, now 43, will be the youngest national security adviser in nearly 60 years when President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated in January — in what those who know him described as an almost-inevitable next step for a man who’s always seemed preternaturally older than his actual age.
After holding top positions at the State Department and in the Obama White House and playing a key role in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, it’s clear Sullivan is “on the Benjamin Button track,” Reines said, referring to the F. Scott Fitzgerald character who is born into an old man’s body and ages backward. “He is the equivalent of at least a decade, if not two, beyond his biological years.”
Reached by phone on Tuesday, just hours after he was officially introduced by Biden along with other incoming national security leaders, Sullivan spoke at length for the first time about the unique circumstances that will face him and his team on Day One — specifically, a raging pandemic and a changing climate that will spawn new dangers.
It remains to be seen how much progress a Biden administration will be able to make on issues like climate change and a return to the Iran deal with what is likely a GOP-controlled Senate — Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has not allowed any climate plans through the upper chamber and supported Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal in 2018, calling it “a deeply flawed agreement.”
In an interview, though, Sullivan said he believes “the American people will understand now, better than they have in a long time, that a threat that emanates from elsewhere can cause massive disruption and catastrophic loss of life. And so being engaged in the world — being out there with our diplomats and our public health professionals and being part of institutions and systems that can help track and prevent threats before they arrive at our shores — that matters profoundly to working families across this country.”
Sullivan grew up with four siblings in a middle-class home in Minneapolis. His father worked on the business side of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and later at the University of Minnesota’s journalism school, and his mother worked as a public school teacher. They were strict and determined that their kids prioritize education, said Sarah Rathke, who first met Sullivan at cross country practice at Southwest High School. All five Sullivan kids attended either Yale, as Jake did for undergrad and law school, or Cornell.
“Looking back at everything he did during those years, it’s clear he’s always had a plan,” Rathke, now a lawyer in Cleveland who still counts Sullivan among her best friends, said in an interview. She recalled Sullivan’s decision to learn two foreign languages — French and Spanish — as a teen and his unusual fascination with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, at the time the largest social reform plan in modern history.
A few years later, when Sullivan would visit Rathke at Georgetown, their idea of fun was playing “the senator game” on the steps of the Supreme Court, she said.
“One person would pretend to be the senator, and run up the steps and wave to the people, while another person would play the reporter, and the third would be the senator’s handler and just say, ‘the senator has no comment,’” Rathke said. “That was it. That was the game. We played it late at night so no one would see us being so goofy.”
Back during one of his first nights at Yale, a “spirited” evening debate about German versus American nationalism — which lasted until 7 the next morning — gave Sullivan’s roommates an early taste of what it would be like to live with him. “I challenged Jake once to see who could finish ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ first,” recalled his college roommate Sherlock Grigsby, referring to the book by Hannah Arendt that introduced the phrase “banality of evil.”
“I thought I was pacing myself pretty well and figured Jake was so busy he wouldn’t be able to keep up,” Grigsby said. “Turns out he beat me easily. I didn’t challenge him after that.”
Sullivan graduated from Yale in 1998 with a degree in political science and was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford, where he graduated in 2000 with a master’s degree in international relations. That same year, he came in second place in the 2000 world debating championship — a vindication of sorts after not making the Yale debate team his freshman year, Rigsby said. He then enrolled at Yale for law school and graduated with a JD in 2003.
Was there anything Jake was just plain bad at?
“He’s possibly the world’s worst driver,” Rathke mused. “He errs on the side of going really slow and doesn’t believe the lane lines are talking to him.”
Sullivan went back to Minnesota after law school to work at the law firm Faegre & Benson and later as chief counsel for Sen. Amy Klobuchar. It was Klobuchar who introduced him to Clinton, for whom he started working during her first run at the presidency in 2008.
Clinton’s upset loss to Barack Obama could have been a rare career setback, but as usual Sullivan landed on his feet: He went on to become the youngest director of policy planning in State Department history after serving as Clinton’s deputy chief of staff there and stayed on in government after Clinton stepped down as secretary, serving as then-Vice President Biden’s national security adviser. And throughout it all, he made sure to find time every year to attend the Final Four, his friends said.
Sullivan has managed to avoid much of the sharp criticism other top Obama-era officials, such as Ben Rhodes, have faced from conservatives — perhaps because he lacks his former colleagues’ appetite for partisan combat.
A former White House colleague noted Sullivan’s outreach to groups and think tanks like the Foundation for Defense of Democracies that vehemently opposed the Iran deal. FDD’s chief executive Mark Dubowitz, a harsh critic of the deal, has described Sullivan as the “sharpest guy on the [Iran] issue I know.”
In the White House, Sullivan was known for his insistence on questioning the assumptions behind a given policy — “welcoming ‘devil’s advocate’ discussions, gaming out third- and fourth-order effects, and reframing issues to bring new questions to light,” said Michael Carpenter, a former Biden foreign policy adviser who worked with him.
In 2016, Sullivan left his relative comfort zone of national security and global affairs to work for Clinton as a senior policy adviser to her campaign — an experience that exposed him to the politics of everything from health care to gun control to immigration. He has since homed in on a philosophy that happens to fit seamlessly with Biden’s political message: that the strength of U.S. foreign policy and national security lies primarily in a thriving American middle class, whose prosperity is endangered by the very transnational threats the Trump administration has sought to downplay or ignore.
Reflecting on his time in the Obama White House, Sullivan said he felt more could have been done there, too, to put the average American on the agenda in the Situation Room on a regular basis. And he paused for a long moment when asked how the rise of Trump and Trumpism had affected his worldview, attuning him more, for example, to the populist tide at home that he may have missed while focusing on international nuclear negotiations, peace deals and trade treaties.
“When you spend years in government working on the Iran deal, or working on the Asia-Pacific rebalance, or working on issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, it’s not that you completely lose sight of what’s happening on the home front — but your focus is more on other things,” Sullivan said. “I do think that the 2016 campaign had an impact on my thinking, but it wasn’t all about Trump. It was about the vigorous debate the Democrats had in the primary. It was about a recognition, as I left national security and entered a domestic political conversation, about how profoundly such a large segment of our country felt their government wasn’t working for them.”
Sullivan caveats that he doesn’t believe such economic anxiety was the sole driver of Trump’s 2016 victory, which he says was also fueled by appeals to identity and isolationism. But the campaign gave him a “crash course,” he said, in the importance of bringing issues of inequality, dislocation and a disconnect between working people and their government to “every table in the White House — including in the Situation Room.”
So what will a Sullivan-led National Security Council look like? It won’t be too big or micromanaging, Sullivan insists — criticisms that dogged the Obama NSC, which stood accused of stepping on the prerogatives of Cabinet agencies, be it by setting troop levels or insisting on signing off on individual drone strikes.
“I see my job as fundamentally about supporting and lifting up the work of the broader national security team in service of the president-elect’s mission and strategy,” he said. “My goal is to have a process that is able to give sufficient direction, but then empower the departments and agencies to be the tip of the spear to carry that out.”
“He is unlikely to be confined to traditional structures,” said former Obama NSC official Salman Ahmed. “He has long argued persuasively that these issues don’t fit neatly within the bureaucratic lens.”
The early years of Obama’s NSC were often tense, particularly under retired Gen. Jim Jones, an outsider who often clashed with the coterie of political aides around the president and resigned just before the 2010 midterms.
Among the many challenges Sullivan will confront immediately, knowing colleagues like incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain won’t be one of them. “I’d argue no two people know each other better, have worked more closely, overlapped more or have a better working relationship on Day One than any chief of staff/national security adviser pair before them,” said Reines.
“They all worked together at one level down in the Obama administration,” another former Obama White House official said. “They are all friends — they’re not strangers, not rivals, and at the very least are all known commodities to each other.”
One could argue that might make the team insular, prone to the kind of groupthink that can lead to mistakes and missed opportunities. Mike Pompeo, the outgoing secretary of State, has already mocked his successors for allegedly living in “a bit of a fantasy world” and for practicing “multilateralism for the sake of hanging out with your buddies at a cool cocktail party.”
The former Obama White House official said the preexisting relationships among the Biden crew will make them effective — unlike the early days of the Trump presidency, which was plagued by rivalries, competing media leaks, backstabbing and constant staff turnover.
For all Sullivan’s innate caution, he seems inclined to break sharply with his predecessors’ emphasis on a traditional definition of U.S. national security: tanks and missiles, grand summits and spy satellites.
The “major focus” of the Biden NSC’s work, at least initially, will be on beating the coronavirus pandemic and restructuring the NSC to make public health a permanent national security priority, Sullivan said. China will also be put on notice, he added.
“The way you actually make sure this doesn’t happen again is by sending a very clear message to China that the United States and the rest of the world will not accept a circumstance in which we do not have an effective public health surveillance system, with an international dimension, in China and across the world going forward,” Sullivan said. A key theme Sullivan repeatedly returns to is the restoration of alliances and partnerships that were neglected or spurned under Trump.
“Unlike the policy of the last few years, we will be able to rally the rest of the world behind us” on key foreign policy and national security issues, such as pressuring Iran to come back into compliance with the nuclear deal so that the U.S. can reenter negotiations, Sullivan said.
He is similarly optimistic about one of his loftiest goals: “to rally our allies to combat corruption and kleptocracy, and to hold systems of authoritarian capitalism accountable for greater transparency and participation in a rules-based system.”
That effort will need to begin at home — as has been well documented, the world’s kleptocratic regimes depend heavily on money laundering networks that commonly extend into Western centers of global finance like New York and London, aided by lax incorporation rules in places like Delaware.
But as one former Obama administration official put it, the hardest task for Biden and by extension Sullivan will be cleaning up the “shattered glass” left by the Trump administration, along with an international community that has grown weary of the whiplash induced by America’s political dramas.
“It’s a different world now,” said Ambassador Dennis Ross, a veteran diplomat who worked with Sullivan in the Obama White House. “But Jake brings experience and personal relationships that are indispensable.”
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