Biden Taps Historic Nominees As He Begins To Fill His Cabinet : The NPR Politics Podcast President-elect Joe Biden has begun to make his selections for key roles in his cabinet. He announced his picks for secretary of state and the ambassador to the United Nations. And he chose the first Latino to head the Department of Homeland Security, and the first woman for to be the director of national intelligence.

This episode: congressional correspondent Susan Davis, White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, and state department correspondent Michele Keleman.

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Biden Taps Historic Nominees As He Begins To Fill His Cabinet

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Biden Taps Historic Nominees As He Begins To Fill His Cabinet

Biden Taps Historic Nominees As He Begins To Fill His Cabinet

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

LORI: Hi. This is Lori (ph) in Chicago, missing my brother Tyler (ph) in Dallas and waiting for my daily phone call from him on his way to work. This podcast was recorded at...


2:19 p.m. on Monday, November 23.

LORI: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I will still be eagerly awaiting the next phone call from my best buddy. Here's the show.


DAVIS: Oh, best buddies.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: I hope my brother's listening to this because I'd like a call every day.


DAVIS: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: And President Trump continues to refuse to concede the election, but President-elect Joe Biden is moving right along. The transition today announced six picks and some history-making ones to serve in the upcoming Biden administration. They include the first Latino for Homeland Security secretary, the first woman to lead the intelligence community and a new position on the National Security Council to address climate change. It also includes Biden's nominees for two top diplomatic jobs; Tony Blinken for secretary of state and Linda Thomas-Greenfield to serve as ambassador to the U.N. And, of course, we can never talk about the State Department without calling on our friend and NPR correspondent Michele Kelemen.

Hey, Michele.


ORDOÑEZ: Hey, Michele.

DAVIS: So let's start with Blinken. Who is he? And what qualifications does he bring to this job?

KELEMEN: He was deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration under John Kerry. And - but most of all, his qualifications are that he's close to Joe Biden. He was a Senate staffer when Biden was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and so that relationship goes a long way back. And in diplomacy, that really matters, you know, to have a secretary of state who really speaks for the president.

DAVIS: And what about Linda Thomas-Greenfield?

KELEMEN: She's a 35-year veteran of the Foreign Service, so she really, really knows the business. Her most recent job was with the Obama administration. She was the assistant secretary of state for Africa, but she really has a broad experience at the department. She was also director general at some point, and she has an interesting background. She's Black, grew up in the segregated South, so that's an experience that will resonate today, I think.

ORDOÑEZ: Michele, what do these kind of picks mean about the direction that Biden wants to take the State Department?

KELEMEN: I think mostly it's kind of back to professionalism, back to multilateralism. You know, both of these people talk about the need for alliances and the need to rebuild the State Department. You know, in the case of Linda Thomas-Greenfield, she's someone who worked under both Republican and Democratic presidents. Foreign Service officers often point that out - that they're supposed to be nonpartisan, serving America's interests abroad. And I think having someone like that represent America at the United Nations, you know, shows Biden's commitment to having a bipartisan foreign policy and also one that relies on professionals.

ORDOÑEZ: I heard a lot about the rank-and-file and how they were very supportive of her. And, you know, it just kind of reminds me of, like, so many conversations that I've had with, you know, with diplomats and foreign policy experts who, you know, as you note, just kind of were very concerned about kind of, like, the State Department and diplomacy in general, I mean, just, like, kind of the weakening of soft power. I mean, I imagine you've heard this as well. But, you know, many people wrestled with, you know, staying in the administration, you know, feeling unsure whether they were protecting U.S. influence or even contributing to its erosion. You know, a lot of people contemplated leaving state, National Security Council. But, you know, this was something they wanted to do for their life's work, and they never really thought about leaving. But there was really an exodus over the last four years.

KELEMEN: Yeah, including of Linda Thomas-Greenfield - I mean, she was - essentially, she retired, but it's an up-or-out system. And, you know, if you're not going to be hired by the new administration, you have to leave. And I think what - you know, she's been thinking a lot, writing a lot about how you rebuild that. Can you bring some of these people back in? Diversity is another problem. They've lost a lot of Black officers over the past four years, so trying to rebuild that is - has been important to her as well.

DAVIS: There's obviously going to be a lot of contrast between how Biden is going to run things and how Trump has the past four years. But state seems like maybe the best example of that because Biden - you know, as a senator and as a vice president and now as an incoming president, foreign policy has always been sort of his strength, what he prides himself on. And Trump has had - it's - I think it's fair to say a really antagonistic relationship with his own State Department, you know? He viewed it as, in some ways, an enemy of his administration.

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, he called it the deep-state State Department, right?

DAVIS: Exactly.

KELEMEN: And he also, you know, criticized those who testified against him in the impeachment hearing.

DAVIS: Michele, what is morale like at the State Department? We heard so many stories over the past four years that it was pretty low and that there was a lot of contention down below. Certainly, under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, I recall there was a really dramatic exit - former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. I wonder sort of how heavy a lift does someone like Tony Blinken have coming into state to get the department where Biden wants it to be?

KELEMEN: Well, I mean, one of the problems is a lot of people have left. There's been kind of a brain drain. But, you know, these are people who are going to work well with a Secretary of State Blinken or work well with a U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. I mean, these are very well-respected people in the department, and they know them. You know, these are people that are well-known in that foreign policy community.

DAVIS: All right. Let's take a quick break. And when we get back, more on Biden's nominees.

And we're back. And let's talk about homeland security and the intelligence community. Biden has also tapped Alejandro Mayorkas for Homeland Security and Avril Haines to be the director of National Intelligence. Franco, what do we know about these two?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, Haines served in the Obama administration as a national security lawyer and deputy CIA director. You know, she's already been playing a role in the transition. But a big thing about her is that she is going to be the first woman in the job. And this is a very big job that serves as the head of the intelligence community. It was created after 9/11. She'll actually be overseeing 16 other intelligence agencies. It's a big job. Alejandro Mayorkas - he's a Cuban American lawyer who served as deputy secretary of DHS, but he's actually best known for a lead role in implementing DACA when he was the head of USCIS. I actually spoke with Leon Fresco, who was deputy assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice who worked with him. And he said many people thought at the time that DACA would be too much.

LEON FRESCO: Many people thought all of those hundreds of thousands of applications would overwhelm the agency. But in fact, the agency was able to process all of those applications and not slow down its processing times for any other applications. And that was quite an accomplishment at the time.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, another thing going for Mayorkas is that he has already gone through the confirmation process twice, so he's unlikely to have trouble there.

DAVIS: How significant do you think it is that Biden has tapped a Latino for this job, especially because Homeland Security, again, in the past four years, has been at the center of so much of the current president's immigration policies?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, exactly. You know, this is a very key position. Being the first Latino, you know, implementing and managing the nation's immigration policies that most impacts Latinos is a, you know, significant role. And you're hearing already - I'm already hearing from a lot of activist groups who are supporting this, you know, in many ways, because of his work on DACA. But he, you know, like, you know, the next secretary of state, you know, in so many of these roles, a big part of his job is going to be restoring trust in the department. As you note, this department includes Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and a lot of progressives see it as one of the key vehicles for Trump's most aggressive and controversial policies on immigration.

KELEMEN: You know, that's interesting, Franco, because, you know, I've also heard from progressives that they're actually pleased with Tony Blinken, not because of his record of foreign policy but because he's been reaching out to progressives and thinking about a foreign policy that's going to have more support at home. The other interesting thing about all of this is Avril Haines. You mentioned that she's going to be the first woman in this job. I've been talking to some women in national security that are promoting gender parity. And they point out that Biden actually, during the campaign, signed a pledge that he would have gender parity, so they'll be looking at all of these important positions to see where there are. It's possible that he could, for instance, name the first defense secretary - female defense secretary.

DAVIS: Biden has also tapped Jake Sullivan to serve as his national security adviser. That's a name that I sort of associate with Hillary Clinton. I wonder what you know about it, Michele.

KELEMEN: Yeah. He was a longtime aide to Clinton during her time as secretary of state, but then he went to the White House to advise Biden. And he was a key player in the Obama administration's back-channel diplomacy with Iran that - you know, which really kicked off the process that led to the Iran nuclear deal. So while he started with Clinton, he really did move over to work on these other issues and to work very closely with Biden. He's also been writing a lot about foreign policy since then, since he's been out of government. And he was part of this Carnegie Endowment project that went to some Midwestern states to talk to people about how foreign policy affects them, get a better sense of attitude. You know, what more could this Washington foreign policy establishment, which some people call the blob - you know, can really relate to what Americans want and meet their needs.

DAVIS: And one more name that was announced by the transition today is one we all know very well. Former Massachusetts senator, 2004 presidential nominee and former Secretary of State John Kerry will head up a new position on the National Security Council as a climate czar. Michele, what do you think John Kerry wants doing back in government? Why doesn't anyone want to retire?


KELEMEN: Well, remember; you know, it was John Kerry who signed the Paris climate accord. And he had his granddaughter on his lap, and it was this very important moment for him. And so I think this chance for him to be part of the Biden administration's pledge to rejoin that agreement is very important to him. He wants to keep that legacy. He's always one that wants in on the diplomatic action. He's not one to retire and go quietly, so I think this is a - kind of a great fit for him to be back and creating this job. And it gives, you know, a real umph (ph) to their policy of getting back involved in climate diplomacy.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I talked to with, you know, various people close to the transition. And, you know, this, obviously, is a very important agenda item for the Biden team, for President-elect Joe Biden. And the team wanted someone with gravitas, someone like John Kerry, who could walk in the room, you know, speak to heads of state and immediately get their attention. And, you know, he's go - you know, he has that gravitas.

DAVIS: You know, these all seem like very safe picks to me. I saw one tweet that made me laugh from a former aide to Speaker Paul Ryan, who called them delightfully boring nominations. I wonder, if you look at these collectively, what it tells you about who Biden is picking to put in his administration.

KELEMEN: He needs to have a team that can hit the ground running. There's a lot to do. And he needs to have a team that can get through the Senate because it's not clear whether the Republicans are going to be holding on a majority, and you don't want to have a long time getting the team together. It's hard enough for him to do this transition without being allowed into these offices because they - because the Trump administration has not allowed the transition to actually begin. But, you know, you want to get - you want to hit the ground running. And Biden wants to have, you know, support - bipartisan support for his policies.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, he has said over and over again that he is going to be the president for all Americans and that his Cabinet is going to look like the real America. And I think you see that in these picks. And you also see, as kind of Michele's pointing out, you know, his priorities - climate, racial equity, all these issues - immigration - all these issues that are key not only to him but to his, you know, diverse constituency. These are issues that are important to him, and I think you're seeing that reflected in these picks.

DAVIS: All right. Well, that's a wrap for us today. Michele, as always, thanks so much for joining the pod.

KELEMEN: Thanks for having me.

DAVIS: And we'll be back tomorrow to talk about the vote certifications in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Nevada.

I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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