Biden announces historic picks for foreign policy and national security Cabinet posts

Biden has tapped the first Latino to lead DHS & the first woman to serve as DNI.

November 23, 2020, 5:07 PM

President-elect Joe Biden rolled out his first Cabinet nominations Monday afternoon, a history-making group of advisers who will help guide his administration's foreign policy and national security agenda, including the first Latino to lead the Department of Homeland Security and the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence.

Biden announced his plans to nominate a slate of close advisers and former Obama administration officials to fill key roles in his cabinet, including former Deputy Director of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas as secretary of the department, along with former Deputy national security adviser and Deputy CIA Director Avril Haines as director of national intelligence.

Jake Sullivan, a longtime Biden aide who served as national security adviser to Biden as vice president, will take on the same title -- but now to a President Biden.

Biden's longtime foreign policy adviser Antony Blinken will also be nominated to serve as secretary of state and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a career diplomat, was chosen as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. ABC News previously reported the two were expected to fill the roles.

Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield, right, testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Jan. 9, 2014.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP, FILE

Former Secretary of State John Kerry will also have a role in the Biden administration. Kerry, who helped negotiate the Paris Climate Accord and often appeared as a surrogate for Biden in the 2020 campaign, will serve as a special presidential envoy for climate -- a new top-level role.

"We have no time to lose when it comes to our national security and foreign policy. I need a team ready on Day One to help me reclaim America's seat at the head of the table, rally the world to meet the biggest challenges we face, and advance our security, prosperity and values. This is the crux of that team," Biden said in a statement announcing the nominations.

Biden's picks outline the first look at officials who will populate the highest echelon of the Biden administration, moving ahead with key staffing decisions as the Trump administration continues to stall his transition efforts, with General Services Administration Administrator Emily Murphy continuing to withhold any ascertainment of Biden as president-elect.

In an interview on ABC's "This Week," Biden's incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain said the GSA's actions had a "definite" impact on the transition, including on their nomination's process.

"We're not in a position to get background checks on cabinet nominees. And so there are definite impacts. Those impacts escalate every day and I hope that the administrator of the GSA will do her job," Klain said.

Vice President Joe Biden delivers remarks while attending a roundtable on countering violent extremism at the White House, Feb. 17, 2015, as Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas listens.
Gary Cameron/Reuters, FILE

Biden's slate of nominees feature a diverse set of backgrounds -- a nod to Biden's long-held commitment to create an administration that "looks like America."

"These individuals are equally as experienced and crisis-tested as they are innovative and imaginative. Their accomplishments in diplomacy are unmatched, but they also reflect the idea that we cannot meet the profound challenges of this new moment with old thinking and unchanged habits -- or without diversity of background and perspective. It's why I've selected them," Biden said in a statement announcing his nominations.

Mayorkas, who was born in Cuba and came as a refugee to the United States with his family when he was a baby, would be the first Latino and immigrant nominated to lead DHS, the agency that oversees immigration and border policies.

"When I was very young, the United States provided my family and me a place of refuge," Mayorkas said in a tweet reacting to his nomination. "Now, I have been nominated to be the DHS Secretary and oversee the protection of all Americans and those who flee persecution in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones."

Haines, too, will make history as the first woman tapped for the top position in the Intelligence community.

Avril Haines, former deputy national security advisor and former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Jan. 14, 2020, in Washington.
Win Mcnamee/Getty Images

Thomas-Greenfield is the second African American woman to be nominated as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, which Biden will elevate to a Cabinet position in his administration. Trump's first U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley was a member of his Cabinet, but the position was demoted with current ambassador Kelly Craft -- a move both Presidents Bush made as well.

"My mother taught me to lead with the power of kindness and compassion to make the world a better place. I've carried that lesson with me throughout my career in Foreign Service -- and, if confirmed, will do the same as Ambassador to the United Nations," Thomas-Greenfield tweeted Monday.

The career diplomat previously served as the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, U.S. ambassador to Liberia and director-general of the Foreign Service, whose rank and file have enthusiastically supported her nomination -- the first Foreign Service officer in the prominent diplomatic role since 2004.

The picks also signal the importance of the foreign policy and national security will play in a Biden administration -- something the president-elect previewed during the campaign discussing the need to restore America's standing on the world stage after four years of the Trump administration. When asked Monday why he decided to roll out his national security team first, Biden told reporters "because it's national security."

In July, Blinken said the "first step" of a Biden presidency would be "revitalizing these (U.S.) alliances, revitalizing these partnerships, reasserting that America values them and that we want to be engaged in them or with them to work together to tackle these hard problems."

A close Biden confidante and Kerry's deputy at the State Department, Blinken is seen as a calm, collegial diplomat who's won praise from Democrats and some Republicans. But his confirmation as deputy secretary was a close vote, with only two Republican senators supporting him -- and he's already seen some criticism from progressives for his consulting business during the Trump years.

Still, he has the ingredients to make a strong top U.S. diplomat, according to Richard Haass, who served at the agency under several Republican presidents: "A relationship with his boss that allows him to speak truth to power and the authority to speak for his boss," as well as "knowledge of the issues and the State Department."

The announcement of Kerry's role, especially as a member of the National Security Council, also signals the significant focus Biden is expected to put on climate change as a national security threat and economic opportunity.

Kerry, who succeeded Biden as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has made climate change his defining issue, especially after helping to negotiate the Paris climate accord, which Trump formally withdrew the U.S. from the day after the 2020 elections.

"I'm returning to government to get America back on track to address the biggest challenge of this generation and those that will follow. The climate crisis demands nothing less than all hands on deck," Kerry tweeted Monday.

This report was featured in the Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.

"Start Here" offers a straightforward look at the day's top stories in 20 minutes. Listen for free every weekday on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, the ABC News app or wherever you get your podcasts.

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