Biden to tap more Obama vets to fill key national security roles

These positions could be announced as soon as this week along with a larger slate of national security and foreign policy roles.

President-elect Joe Biden and his transition team have begun to fill out top positions on the incoming National Security Council and at the State Department, with key roles like deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of State going to veterans of the Obama administration.

At the State Department, longtime diplomat Wendy Sherman will be nominated to serve as Secretary of State-designee Tony Blinken’s deputy, according to two people close to the transition. Sherman previously served as under secretary of State for political affairs in the Obama administration and was a lead negotiator for the Iran deal.

Sherman is currently a senior counselor at Albright Stonebridge Group, the same firm where Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s pick to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also worked as a senior counselor.

Another veteran diplomat, Victoria Nuland, will be nominated for the role of under secretary of State for political affairs, one of the people said. Nuland also previously served in the Obama administration, as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs.

Nuland and Sherman, who entered academia and the think tank world after leaving the Obama administration, have been outspoken critics of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy — particularly his appeasement of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On the National Security Council, former State Department official Jon Finer will be named deputy national security adviser, the people said, reporting up to incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Finer, a former journalist, joined the Obama White House as a fellow in 2009 and served in various roles throughout Obama’s tenure, including as a foreign policy speechwriter for Biden and a senior adviser to then-deputy national security adviser Blinken. Finer had been working in political risk and public policy at the private equity firm Warburg Pincus, which was co-founded by Blinken’s father, since leaving government in 2017.

The key NSC role of senior director for European Affairs will go to Amanda Sloat, a Brookings Institution fellow who served as deputy assistant secretary for Southern Europe and Eastern Mediterranean affairs at the State Department in the Obama administration. It’s not clear whether Sloat will also oversee the Russia portfolio, which was folded into the European affairs role on the Trump NSC but given its own director under Obama.

These positions could be announced as soon as this week along with a larger slate of national security and foreign policy roles. A person familiar with the transition said the slate will include a diverse set of hires.

Sherman, Nuland, Finer and Sloat did not return requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Biden transition declined to comment.

The picks fit Biden’s pattern to date of selecting experienced alumni of the Obama administration to undo the policies of the Trump era. That includes Trump’s elimination of the position of cyber security coordinator — the Biden White House plans to elevate the role of cybersecurity on the NSC by appointing a career official to serve as a deputy national security adviser on the issue, said two people familiar with the plans. The person will be responsible for managing policymaking on those issues.

Separately, the Biden White House will also fill the role of national cyber director, newly mandated by Congress under the National Defense Authorization Act. The biggest challenge for the new cyber director, a Senate-confirmed position housed within the Executive Office of the President, will likely be managing the fallout from an extensive cyberespionage operation carried out by suspected Russian intelligence officers. The hackers managed to quietly infiltrate more than 200 federal and private sector networks over the course of 2020.

In 2014, a recording of Nuland’s call with Geoffrey Pyatt, then the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, was leaked and set off a diplomatic incident as Nuland spoke derisively about the European Union, including using the f-word as she discussed her preference for working with the United Nations. A spokeswoman for Angela Merkel at the time said Nuland’s comments were “absolutely unacceptable.” The White House and State Department accused Russia of being behind the leak. Russia denied being involved.

Nuland’s nomination could run into some opposition from Republicans due to her involvement, as State Department spokesperson, in crafting talking points for the Obama administration after the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador. But she was questioned extensively about the episode in 2013 and ultimately was confirmed anyway as assistant secretary of State.