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Earlier this month, President Obama announced that Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon would replace National Security Adviser James Jones.
Earlier this month, President Obama announced that Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon would replace National Security Adviser James Jones. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
When Tom Donilon officially assumes the role of national security adviser to President Obama next week, it will be a rare emergence into the spotlight for a man who has spent decades as an influential player behind the scenes.
Donilon has been deputy national security adviser to the Obama administration for the past two years, and he was a foreign policy adviser to the Obama presidential campaign before that. But as a young political operative, he cut his teeth in the world of raw Democratic politics.
Tom Donilon (center) walks with outgoing National Security Adviser James Jones at the White House after President Obama announced that Donilon would replace Jones. After advising the Obama campaign on foreign affairs, Donilon was named deputy national security adviser in 2009.
"In two previous presidential campaigns, Tom Donilon has been a delegate hunter, rounding up delegates for President Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984," NPR's Linda Wertheimer said on All Things Considered 18 years ago. That 1992 interview marked Donilon's only appearance on NPR in more than 30 years, and it revealed how deeply immersed Donilon was in the intricacies of how to win a Democratic presidential primary.
"If a delegate is interested in talking to your candidate, you set up the conversation," he explained. "You establish a relationship with your delegates. They become part of your team." Donilon even described sending birthday cards to delegates who had not yet decided which Democrat to support in a primary race.
Building Foreign Policy Expertise
At that point in his career, Donilon had no experience in national security. But one year later, in 1993, he joined the State Department during the Clinton administration.
"His service as chief of staff to the secretary of state really required him to become an expert [in foreign policy]," says former Clinton White House spokesman Mike McCurry, who served with Donilon at the State Department.
"He had to prove to everybody in the State Department that even though he had a political background, he was as smart as they were in policy," McCurry says. "He did that and frequently was the guy who knew more about the background of our policy in the room than anybody who was a career foreign service expert."
Time In The Private Sector
Donilon left government midway through the 1990s to work for a private law firm. In 1999, he changed jobs again. For six years at the height of the housing boom, Donilon worked for the housing giant Fannie Mae as senior vice president, general counsel, and later executive vice president for law and policy. In essence, he was Fannie Mae's chief lobbyist.
"Tom Donilon was a very important executive and part of the inner circle," says Stephen Blumenthal, who was deputy director and later acting director of the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, the federal office that regulates Fannie Mae.
As deputy national security adviser, Tom Donilon (left) met with Chinese President Hu Jintao (right) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing during a September 2010 visit to China.
As deputy national security adviser, Tom Donilon (left) met with Chinese President Hu Jintao (right) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing during a September 2010 visit to China. Feng Li/AP
Blumenthal's office published a 340-page report slamming the decisions that led to Fannie Mae's implosion. The report explains that while regulators wanted to require Fannie Mae to keep more capital on hand, Donilon's team successfully pushed Congress to block those requirements.
"But of course when the economic crisis hit, the companies had to be put into conservatorship because the losses were such that it wiped out their capital," Blumenthal says.
Blumenthal doesn't blame Donilon for Fannie Mae's collapse, but neither does he absolve him.
"[Donilon] certainly has responsibility in that he was an enabler. He carried out the instructions of [CEO Franklin] Raines, he carried out the strategic decisions of Mr. Raines, and those are the decisions that killed the company," Blumenthal says. "So of course, in carrying them out at that level of being an executive, you're not just a soldier under orders. You're a part of the decision-making team, and he certainly would have had some responsibility."
That may be one reason President Obama never nominated Donilon to a job that requires Senate confirmation. It would have been a political firestorm.
Instead, after advising the Obama campaign on foreign affairs, Donilon became the president's deputy national security adviser.
A New Working Relationship
According to Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars, Donilon pushed for smaller troop increases for Afghanistan and a more tightly focused mission there. The back-and-forth with the Pentagon was apparently contentious, with Donilon filling the bad cop role. That did not endear him to the secretary of defense. The book quotes Defense Secretary Robert Gates as saying a promotion for Donilon would be a "disaster."
When President Obama announced that promotion, Gates quickly backtracked. "I have, and have had, a very productive and very good working relationship with Tom Donilon, contrary to what you may have read," Gates said. "I look forward to continue working with him."
That new working relationship begins next week.