Biden unveils national security team and vows change from Trump era

‘America is back.’ Joe Biden unveils his national security team including John Kerry as climate czar – with promise of radical change from Trump era and welcome for refugees

  • President-elect Joe Biden unveiled his national security team 
  • ‘It’s a team that reflects the fact that America is back,’ Biden said
  • He made clear his intention to do away with Trump’s ‘America first’ philosophy 
  • Biden touted diversity of his national security team, which includes two women and African American and Latino minorities
  • All his picks have ties to Obama administration and decades of government experience 

President-elect Joe Biden unveiled his national security team on Tuesday, declaring ‘America is back’ and ready to lead the world, demonstrating the changed diplomatic tone his administration will take compared to President Donald Trump’s. 

Biden named his staff for the nation’s security first, stressing the importance of the positions, but additional Cabinet picks are expected to be announced in the next few weeks. 

‘It’s a team that reflects the fact that America is back,’ the president-elect said as his six choices stood behind him on a stage at The Queen theater in downtown Wilmington, spread out in order to socially distance and wearing face masks. 

President-elect Biden’s National Security Team

Antony Blinken, Secretary of State

Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of Homeland Security

Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations

Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor

John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate

He said his choices – which include the first woman to lead the intelligence community and the first Latino to lead the Department of Homeland Security – are ‘ready to lead the world, not retreat from it. Ready to confront our adversaries, not reject our allies. And ready to stand up for our values.’

In his remarks, Biden got in a dig at Trump’s ‘America first’ policy that took more of an isolationist approach to global affairs.

‘In calls from world leaders in the weeks since we won this election,’ he said, ‘I’ve been struck by how much they are looking forward to the United States reasserting its historic role as a global leader.’

Biden has spoken to leaders of America’s major allies, including the United Kingdom, France, Israel, Canada, India, the European Union and NATO.

He touted the diversity of his team, which includes Avril Haines as the first female Director of National Intelligence; Alejandro Mayorkas as the first Latino to head the Department of Homeland Security; Linda Thomas-Greenfield, an African-American who grew up in segregated Louisiana, for his U.N. Ambassador; and the nation’s first ever principal on the National Security Council to fight climate change – a position to be held by former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

But one thing they all have in common is ties to the Obama administration – Biden’s way of signaling to the world of a return to more predictable diplomatic engagement.

Joe Biden unveiled the six members of his national security team

In his remarks, President-elect Joe Biden got in a dig at President Trump’s ‘America first’ policy that took more of an isolationist approach to global affairs

The posts to be held by Kerry, Sullivan and Haines do not require Senate confirmation. 

The Biden team kept to COVID protocols during the event. A staffer ran up a set of stairs onto the stage to wipe down the podium between each person’s remarks. Biden and his team wore face masks except when they spoke – although a few people forgot their mask on the podium when they were done and had to return to retrieve it.

Here’s the Biden national security team: 

JOHN KERRY – Special Presidential Envoy for Climate

Kerry, who served as secretary of state under Obama and the Democratic Party nominee in 2004, is to be Biden’s climate czar. The two men are longtime friends. They overlapped for years in the Senate and share a focus on international issues.

Kerry also helped negotiate the Paris Climate Accord as well as the Iran nuclear deal, which both became targets for President Trump.

He will be Special Presidential Envoy for Climate and will serve on the White House national security counsel. 

John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate

‘For the first time ever, the United States will have a full-time climate leader who will participate in ministerial-level meetings — that’s a fancy way of saying they’ll have a seat at every table around the world,’ Biden said in his remarks. 

He touted Kerry’s credentials for the job and their close, personal relationship.

‘The world will know that one of my closest friends — John Kerry — is speaking for America on one of the most pressing threats of our time,’ he said. 

Kerry praised Biden for his commitment to the environment and for his pledge to return the United States to the Paris Climate Accord on the first day of his presidency.

‘You’re right to rejoin Paris on day one, and you’re right to recognize that Paris alone does not get the job done,’ he said. 

Kerry’s new position does not require Senate confirmation. 

TONY BLINKEN – Secretary of State 

Biden noted Blinken, one of his longtime advisers, comes from a family of ‘immigrants and refugees’ that include ‘a Holocaust survivor who taught him to never take for granted the very idea of America as a place of possibilities.’

Blinken worked for Vice President Biden before moving over to become Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser and then the administration’s deputy secretary of state. 

Tony Blinken, Secretary of State

He plays in a Parisian jazz band and is married with two young children.

In his remarks, Blinken thanked his family, including his father Donald, the former U.S. ambassador to Hungry, and his mother Judith Pisar, who was a major figure on the New York arts and social scene.

And then he told the story of his step-father, a Jew who survived a concentration camp as a child.   

‘My late step-father, Samuel Pisar, was one of 900 children in his school in Bialystok, Poland, but the only one to survive the Holocaust after four years in concentration camps,’ he said.

‘At the end of the war, he made a break from a death march into the Bavarian woods. From his hiding place, he heard the rumbling sound of a tank. Instead of an Iron Cross, he saw a 5- pointed White Star.’

‘He ran to the tank. The hatch opened. An African American GI looked down at him. He fell to his knees and said the only three words he knew in English that his mother had taught him: God Bless America. The GI lifted him into the tank, into America, into freedom.’

Blinken concluded: ‘That’s what America represents to the world, however imperfectly.’ 

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS – Secretary of Homeland Security 

Mayorkas,a Cuban American, is a former deputy secretary for the department and will be the first Latino to lead it.

‘While DHS affects everyone, given its critical role in immigration matters, I am proud that for the first time ever, the Department will be led by an immigrant, a Latino, who knows that we are a nation of laws and values,’ Biden said.

Alejandro Mayorkas, director of Homeland Security

The president-elect also wished him a happy birthday. 

‘And one more thing — today is his birthday,’ Biden said. 

‘Happy birthday. He’s 21,’ he joked. 

Mayorkas pledged to restore moral at the department, which has seen several chiefs move through its halls during the Trump administration and struggled with Trump’s desire to keep illegal immigrants from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

‘The Department of Homeland Security has a noble mission: to help keep us safe and to advance our proud history as a country of welcome,’ he said.

‘There are more than 240,000 career employees who selflessly dedicate their talent and energy to this mission. Many risk their lives in doing so. I would be honored to return to the Department and support these dedicated public servants in fulfilling their responsibilities and realizing our country’s greatest hopes, all in partnership with the communities we serve.’

He could be one of the more difficult confirmations for the Biden team. When he was deputy secretary every Republican senator voted against his confirmation and he was only confirmed because Democrats controlled the chamber at that time. 

A former U.S. attorney, President Obama nominated him to be the Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that administers the legal immigration system.

But, during his tenure, Mayorkas was repeatedly accused of political favoritism when granting ‘Green Cards to wealthy foreign investors’ – an issue that could come up in the confirmation process. 

AVRIL HAINES – Director of National Intelligence 

Haines will be the first woman to hold the position, which does not require Senate confirmation.

Biden described her as ‘Brilliant. Humble. Can talk literature and theoretical physics, fixing cars, flying planes, and running a bookstore cafe, in a single conversation — because she’s done all of that.’

Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence

Haines praised the intelligence community repeatedly in her remarks. That group took a beating in the Trump administration when the president railed against them for what he called ‘spying’ on his 2016 campaign and casting doubt on their findings that Russia influenced the 2016 election.

‘We have worked together for a long time, and I accept this nomination knowing that you would never want me to do otherwise — that you value the perspective of the Intelligence Community and that you will do so even when what I have to say may be inconvenient or difficult. I assure you there will be those times,’ she said to Biden.

And then she added: ‘To our intelligence professionals, the work you do — oftentimes under the most austere conditions imaginable — is indispensable. It will become even more complex because you will be critical to helping this administration position itself not only against threats such as cyber attacks, terrorism, and the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons but also those challenges that will define the next generation — from climate change, to pandemics, and corruption.’

She has a colorful employment history.

In the 1990s, she ran an independent book store in Baltimore that was known for having an unusual collection of literary offerings, local writers, erotica reading nights, and small press publications.

The store hosted a number of literary readings, including erotica readings, which became a media focus when she was appointed by Obama to be the Deputy Director of the CIA. 

After graduating high school, Haines traveled to Japan for a year and enrolled in Kodokan, an elite judo institute in Tokyo. While attending the University of Chicago, Haines worked repairing car engines at a mechanic shop in Hyde Park. In 1991 Haines had taken up flying lessons in New Jersey, where she met her future husband, David Davighi. 

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD – U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations  

Biden noted her long tenure of 35 years in the Foreign Service and her Louisiana roots. 

‘The eldest of eight. Her Dad couldn’t read or write, but she says he was the smartest person she knew. First in her family to graduate from high school, then college, with the whole world literally ahead of her, as her Dad and Mom taught her to believe,’ he said.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations

And Thomas-Greenfield described her ‘gumbo diplomacy’ approach to foreign affairs.

‘Mr. President-elect, I’ve often heard you say how all politics is personal. That’s how you build relationships of trust and bridge disagreements and find common ground,’ she said.

‘In my thirty-five years in the Foreign Service across four continents, I put a Cajun spin on it. It’s called Gumbo diplomacy. Wherever I was posted around the world, I’d invite people of different backgrounds and beliefs to make a roux, chop onions for the holy trinity, and make homemade gumbo — my way to break down barriers, connect with people, and start to see each other on a human level: a bit of lagniappe as we say in Louisiana,’ she added. 

Her return to public service is something of a triumph.

In 2017, when she was a deputy secretary of state, she was terminated by the Trump administration as part of a purge of career officials.

In her remarks, she voiced the philosophy of the Biden administration: ‘I want to say to you: America is back. Multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back.’ 

JAKE SULLIVAN – National Security Adviser

Sullivan served as Biden’s national security adviser when Biden was vice president. His position does not require Senate confirmation.

Jake Sullivan, National Security Adviser

‘We need to invest in our people, sharpen our innovative edge, and unite the economic might of democracies around the world to grow the middle class and reduce inequality — and do things like counter the predatory trade practices of our competitors and adversaries,’ Biden said of what he tasked Sullivan with doing. 

In his remarks, Sullivan noted that Biden tasked the team with  ‘putting people at the center of our national security. The alliances we rebuild, the institutions we lead, the agreements we sign — all of them should be judged by a basic question: will this make life better, easier, safer, for working families across this country? Our foreign policy has to deliver for these families.’

His wife Maggie served as a senior adviser to the late Senator John McCain. 

Sullivan worked for Hillary Clinton in the State Department and was an adviser to her 2016 campaign.  

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