Jake Sullivan is Joe Biden's national security adviser.
His father, Dan Sullivan, worked for a time at the Star Tribune and also taught journalism at the University of Minnesota. His mother, Jean Sullivan, worked as a guidance counselor at Southwest High School, where Jake graduated in 1994.
Jake Sullivan has served as a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was a deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2013 to 2014, as well as director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department from 2011 to 2013. He had a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Both he and his younger brother, Tom Sullivan have worked for Amy Klobuchar.
OpEd with Daniel Benaim
Daniel Benaim wrote a joint OpEd with Joe Biden's National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan titled "America’s Opportunity in the Middle East: Diplomacy Could Succeed Where Military Force Has Failed" dated May 22, 2020.
National Security Action
National Security Action is a progressive advocacy group launched in February 2018 to target president Trump's foreign policy and national security agenda.
Profile at the Star Tribune
- “Dr. Kessler, could we start with you?” said Sullivan, a senior adviser to Biden and a product of Minneapolis Public Schools who’s widely expected to land a top job in the new Democratic White House.
- There was Sullivan on Fox News in September, representing his boss in an interview with Chris Wallace, parrying a question about unrest in American cities by charging President Donald Trump with “pouring gasoline on the fire.”
- These unusually high-profile forays for this consummate insider suggest a new political prominence for Sullivan, an influential counselor to Biden and Hillary Clinton and a leading voice in Democratic foreign policy circles. In 14 years, this Southwest High School graduate and Rhodes Scholar rose from a staff job on Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s first U.S. Senate campaign to the pinnacle of U.S. political power.
- “I think our country would be so well-served by having Jake in a major job,” Klobuchar said this week, calling Sullivan “incredibly talented, incredibly humble, a loyal person in the best sense of the word.” She added he’s “very Minnesotan — someone you can depend on.”
- Sullivan, 43, declined an interview for this story. Informed speculation about Biden’s team has found Sullivan frequently listed as a possible National Security Advisor, a job whose alumni include Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger. But his admirers say he’s qualified for other similarly high-profile jobs.
- “He’s been giving advice to Biden on, I know, not just foreign policy but a number of things,” said Klobuchar, herself seen as a prospect for Biden’s Cabinet.
- Rhodes Scholar
- “Every year, Southwest would produce some very strong students who would go off to the top colleges in the country. Jake, I think, stood out as the best of the best even among that group,” said Dr. Matt Whalin, a classmate of Sullivan’s who’s now an anesthesiologist in Atlanta. “Great sense of humor. Intense, but not in an overbearing way,” Whalin added. “He studied a lot, but that was me as well.”
- Sullivan was one of two graduates of Minnesota high schools out of a group of 32 Americans chosen as Rhodes Scholars in 1997. Former President Bill Clinton, another alumnus of the Oxford-based scholarship, would be a guest at Sullivan’s wedding.
- “I am a dyed-in-the-wool product of the Minneapolis public school system,” Sullivan told the Star Tribune at the time.
- Following Yale Law School and a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Sullivan by his late 20s was back in Minneapolis and practicing law at Faegre & Benson. In 2006, he was playing on a St. Paul curling team with another attorney whose wife, Sara Grewing, was an early staffer on Klobuchar’s first U.S. Senate campaign.
- “I was preparing Amy for debates, and after they’d finish up their curling I would meet up with them,” said Grewing, now a Ramsey County district judge. “Jake and I would just start talking about what we were working on, and I asked Amy to bring him onto the campaign.”
- Sullivan impressed with a wide aptitude for policy and a calm, likable demeanor. No one doubted his commitment: One colleague recalled Sullivan showing up to work at Klobuchar headquarters having come directly from running the Twin Cities Marathon.
- Colleagues said he showed a lighter side too. Grewing recalled his ability to quote Billy Joel lyrics and remember plotlines from the ’90s teen sitcom “Saved by the Bell.” Cynthia Bauerly, another veteran of that campaign and later Minnesota’s revenue commissioner, called Sullivan a conscientious friend who long maintained annual Final Four trips with a group of old friends.
- Klobuchar joined the U.S. Senate at the beginning of 2007 with Sullivan as a policy adviser. His younger brother, Tom Sullivan, also worked in Klobuchar’s D.C. office and is now married to another veteran Klobuchar staffer.
- Clinton staffer
- Jake Sullivan’s reputation as a policy pro quickly grew in D.C. Democratic circles, and by 2008 he landed the job of deputy policy director on Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign. He followed her to the State Department in President Barack Obama’s first term, and quickly emerged as a point man for sensitive foreign diplomacy.
- A trip that Sullivan made to Oman in July 2012 caught the attention of the Associated Press, which reported it as “one of the Obama administration’s earliest known face-to-face contacts with Iran and reveals that Sullivan — who moved from the State Department to the White House earlier this year — was personally involved in the administration’s outreach to the Islamic Republic far earlier than had been reported.”
- Hillary Clinton called him a “once-in-a-generation talent” in a statement to the Star Tribune. “His Minnesota roots keep him grounded in the rough and tumble of Washington, and I have no doubt he will prove as invaluable to the next administration as he was by my side.”
- In a 2012 speech, Clinton referred to Sullivan as a “potential future president.” In 2015, she read a Bible reading at the wedding of Sullivan and Maggie Goodlander, a D.C. attorney and former Senate staffer.
- Sullivan returned as a top adviser on Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid and was seen as a likely National Security Advisor if she’d won. Out of work after President Donald Trump’s victory, Sullivan spent time teaching and also joined a global consulting firm that counted Uber among its clients — a move later scrutinized by the progressive magazine American Prospect. It’s the kind of close attention Sullivan is likely to face as he ascends in the Biden administration.
- Sullivan first entered Biden’s orbit as his National Security Adviser in 2013-14, and upon joining his presidential campaign he took on roles that included managing foreign policy working groups that informed Biden’s stances.
- The United States “cannot succeed in our foreign policy if we have not invested in our sources of strength at home: in our infrastructure, in our innovation, in our workers, in our immigration system, and yes, in our democracy, tackling issues from the strength of institutions to the ongoing scourge of systemic racism,” Sullivan said in an August 2020 interview with the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank.
- His views offer a preview of how the new administration will frame foreign policy as it seeks to rebuild alliances and re-enter global institutions. Sullivan is likely to be at the forefront of that effort — if he ends up in a foreign policy job. But veteran observers see other possibilities.
- “He covers the waterfront — not just foreign policy but domestic and economic policy,” said Denis McDonough, a Stillwater native who was Obama’s second-term chief of staff. “He’s a great mind, a curious thinker, and he asks all the right questions.”
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.
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.
Sullivan held top positions at the State Department and in the Obama White House and playing a key role in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.”
CLW approval of Biden team
From the Council for a Livable World website, December 20, 2020:
- This time next month will be the last minutes of the Trump administration, and like all those who value diplomacy over conflict and competence over chaos, we at the Council could not be more excited. President-elect Joe Biden has been a champion for nuclear risk reduction his entire career. In fact, the Council endorsed him in his first Senate bid in 1972, becoming his first endorsement from a national organization. The Council also endorsed him for President over the summer — our first ever endorsement at the Presidential level.
- So far, we at the Council are optimistic about the selection of many of Biden’s Cabinet picks whose focuses overlap with ours, including Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken, Climate Change Envoy appointee John Kerry, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations nominee Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines, National Security Advisor appointee Jake Sullivan, Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin and Secretary of Energy nominee Jennifer Granholm. We know that not everyone is thrilled about every pick, but we remain confident that the Biden administration will work to reduce nuclear threats, restore morale and purpose at the State Department after four years of damage, and try to rein in out-of-control defense spending.
- Meanwhile, while our team continues to focus primarily on Congressional work, we have met with various members of the Biden transition team to provide our expert analysis and insight on the most critical national security issues we’ll face over the next four years.
"Why Abandoning Paris Is a Disaster for America"
The Obama administration’s brain trust on how Trump’s rejection of the global climate change agreement is a monumental blunder.
BY Daniel Baer, Daniel Benjamin, Hal Brands, Reuben Brigety, Sharon Burke, Derek Chollet, Sheba Crocker, Dan Feldman, Jon Finer, Nina Hachigian, Colin Kahl, Kelly Magsamen, Tom Malinowski, Jeffrey Prescott, Ely Ratner, Vikram Singh, JJulie Smith, Jake Sullivan, Jim Townsend.
June 1, 2017.