Jake Sullivan, Biden's Adviser, Long a Figure of Fascination

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Washington has agelong been captivated by fallen prima narratives, which has made President Biden’s nationalist information advisor a fig of fascination, determination betwixt sympathy and schadenfreude.

Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s nationalist  information    adviser, has told colleagues that helium  is determined not to person  his tenure defined by the bloodshed successful  Afghanistan.
Credit...Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Mark Leibovich

Nov. 30, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON — Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s nationalist information adviser, joined Margaret Goodlander, present counsel to Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, successful a 2015 wedding that seems acceptable successful a distant Democratic utopia. Mr. Biden would soon discontinue arsenic a fashionable vice president, Donald J. Trump was considered a sideshow, and Hillary Clinton was the president successful waiting.

Guests astatine the Yale field that play included a erstwhile president (Bill Clinton), a erstwhile caput of authorities (Mrs. Clinton), a aboriginal caput of authorities (Antony J. Blinken) and a Supreme Court justness (Stephen G. Breyer). The galore erstwhile bosses connected manus had pegged the golden-boy groom arsenic an perfect nationalist information advisor successful the coming Clinton White House — which, astatine 40, would person made him the youngest idiosyncratic to clasp the job.

That prediction proved mostly true, if erroneous successful its electoral presumption astir 2016 and premature by an interlude agelong capable for the White House to crook implicit twice, China to strengthen, a pandemic to rage and the difficulties of the occupation to turn considerably.

So it was connected Aug. 26 that Mr. Sullivan, presiding implicit a briefing connected Afghanistan successful the White House Situation Room, saw Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the caput of the military’s Central Command, crook ashen aft being handed a expanse of paper.

The wide — connected via video from Kabul, wherever the evacuation of civilians was underway — told the country that 4 American work members astatine the airdrome had been killed successful an evident bombing, 3 were adjacent death, and dozens much were injured. There were gasps astir the array arsenic Mr. Biden winced and stared consecutive up for a fewer agelong seconds.

“The worst that tin hap has happened,” the president yet said, according to participants successful the meeting.

It fell to Mr. Sullivan, who ran this regular confab and was seated astatine the president’s contiguous left, to powerfulness done his hourlong agenda. The decease toll yet roseate to 13 U.S. work members.

Washington has agelong been captivated by fallen prima narratives. This has made Mr. Sullivan a fig of fascination successful caller months, thing betwixt sympathy and schadenfreude. His regular ngo of managing a sprawling nationalist information apparatus done simultaneous crises and headaches — increasing tensions with China, healing a rift with France implicit a atomic submarine deal, cyberattacks — has made Mr. Sullivan the look of a overseas argumentation squad that has endured disapproval from galore directions, astir pointedly implicit Afghanistan.

“A stunning catastrophe from opening to end,” Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, called the withdrawal successful an interview, extending his critique to see the Biden administration’s overseas argumentation grounds successful general. “And if I were the president close now, I would deliberation earnestly astir changing rather a fewer radical astir me.”


Credit...Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Mr. Romney did not azygous retired Mr. Sullivan, though galore have, including Brett Bruen, the manager of planetary engagement successful the Obama White House, who wrote an opinion nonfiction successful USA Today calling for him to beryllium fired.

Supporters of Mr. Sullivan spot 2 structural complications to his role. For starters, helium is successful a presumption of tremendous work but circumscribed authority. Condoleezza Rice, a nationalist information advisor and caput of authorities nether President George W. Bush, described the occupation successful her memoir arsenic “rarefied staff.” Mr. Sullivan is besides a merchandise of Washington’s insular overseas argumentation establishment, a cohort whose accepted enactment for muscular U.S. overseas argumentation interventions has fallen retired of favour crossed the governmental spectrum successful the aftermath of the wars successful Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Biden’s furniture picks went to Ivy League schools, person beardown resumes, be each the close conferences & volition beryllium polite & orderly caretakers of America’s decline,” Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, tweeted aft Mr. Biden named his squad past November.

The question is whether Mr. Sullivan, 45, lauded arsenic a “once-in-a-generation intellect” by Mr. Biden and “a imaginable aboriginal president” by Mrs. Clinton, tin retrieve from a messy twelvemonth of overseas argumentation predicaments.

Mr. Sullivan has told colleagues that helium is determined not to person his tenure defined by the bloodshed successful Afghanistan. The situation has receded somewhat since August, allowing him to absorption connected commercialized policy, vigor prices and an planetary proviso concatenation that has helped substance the spike successful inflation.

Mr. Biden’s caller trip to Europe, which Mr. Sullivan was heavy progressive successful planning, allowed the White House to slope immoderate coagulated accomplishments, including a global woody to acceptable minimum firm taxation rates and a climate statement to trim methane emissions. White House officials were relieved aft the planetary uproar implicit the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Mr. Sullivan operated connected an mean of 2 hours of slumber a nighttime for the duration of the three-week crisis successful Afghanistan successful August. He would mull implicit each agelong time during late-night walks location from the White House — his Secret Service item trailed him — and often proceed his meditations astatine location connected a rowing machine. He declined to beryllium interviewed for this article.

“There was nary constituent that I sent an email to Jake astatine 2 oregon 3 successful the greeting during those weeks wherever helium didn’t respond immediately,” said Samantha Power, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

She pointed retired that Mr. Sullivan did not person the luxury of focusing connected 1 pulverization keg astatine a time. “While to the remainder of the satellite determination was 1 searing situation unfolding successful Afghanistan,” Ms. Power said, “Jake was astatine the aforesaid clip liable for spearheading U.S. argumentation connected everything from cyberattacks and an earthquake successful Haiti to violent threats.”


Credit...Doug Mills/The New York Times

The astir communal defence of Mr. Sullivan implicit Afghanistan was that Mr. Biden was determined to get out, and fast, and it is the nationalist information adviser’s relation to transportation retired the president’s wishes. By astir accounts, Mr. Sullivan supported the pullout, and, according to aggregate officials asked galore questions astir its haste, peculiarly the abrupt closing successful July of the Bagram Air Base.

The unruly and tragic withdrawal prompted overmuch rebuke, not slightest from allies who complained that they had not been consulted. Mr. Sullivan has pushed backmost hard connected this, insisting that allies were kept informed astatine each measurement and suggesting that they were upset with Mr. Biden’s conclusion. “I deliberation the existent contented is that galore allies disagreed with the effect of the decision,” Mr. Sullivan told reporters successful Brussels successful June.

Ultimately, though, the concern successful Afghanistan reflected the world of a occupation that often involves much harm power than decision-making. “The nationalist information advisor is simply a classical high-responsibility presumption with constricted existent power,” said John Gans, a overseas argumentation historiographer and the writer of “White House Warriors,” astir the past of the National Security Council.

Brent Scowcroft, who was a nationalist information advisor to Presidents Gerald R. Ford and George H.W. Bush, would marvel astatine the assortment of issues that fell nether the nationalist information umbrella. Mr. Scowcroft, who died past year, held the occupation decades earlier nationalist information advisers had to interest overmuch astir things similar clime change, ransomware attacks oregon Twitter.

“I’ve told this to Henry Kissinger,” Mrs. Clinton said successful an interview. “In a satellite of societal media and billions of cellphones, helium could ne'er person snuck disconnected to China.”

Colleagues qualify Mr. Sullivan arsenic ambitious and intense, but not successful the obnoxious mode of a Washington type. “The highest compliment that I tin wage a idiosyncratic is that they’re a bully quality being,” Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said successful an interview. “I judge that Jake is simply a bully quality being.”

A thin erstwhile marathon runner, Mr. Sullivan wears sagging grey suits that (he insists) erstwhile acceptable him. Friends picture him arsenic polite, funny and Midwestern successful temperament, with beardown allegiance to his autochthonal Minnesota.

“Reject cynicism,” helium said successful a commencement code astatine the University of Minnesota School of Public Affairs successful 2013. “Reject certitude. And don’t beryllium a jerk. Be a bully guy.”

Mr. Sullivan has been known to dabble successful eclectic hobbies, specified arsenic competitory velocity walking. He erstwhile played connected a curling squad successful St. Paul.

He grew up successful a middle-class vicinity of Minneapolis, 1 of 5 high-achieving siblings. His parent was a teacher and a librarian, and his begetter worked connected the concern broadside of The Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Mr. Sullivan attended Yale, Oxford (on a Rhodes scholarship) and Yale Law School, and was a clerk for Justice Breyer. He became 1 of Mrs. Clinton’s closest advisers erstwhile she was caput of state, stayed connected successful the Obama medication arsenic nationalist information advisor to Mr. Biden erstwhile helium was the vice president, and rejoined Mrs. Clinton arsenic the elder argumentation advisor connected her 2016 run for president.

Mr. Sullivan told colleagues that helium felt a load of the work for Mrs. Clinton’s nonaccomplishment to Mr. Trump, but helium was not amazed by the result. He had grown alarmed that the temper successful the state was acheronian and anxious, and that voters seemed much receptive to Mr. Trump’s “America First” connection than the Clinton run had appreciated.

“How bash we lick for this basal and increasing part successful our nine that gets to issues similar dignity and alienation and identity?” Mr. Sullivan asked successful a speech to Yale Law School students successful 2017, arsenic reported by The Washington Post. “How bash we adjacent inquire the question without becoming the disconnected, condescending elite that we are talking about?”

In a unusual crook of events, immoderate critics of Mr. Biden’s overseas argumentation accidental it includes definite hallmarks of the Trump administration. Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council connected Foreign Relations, wrote successful Foreign Affairs that the Afghanistan withdrawal was “America-first unilateralism successful practice” and that Mr. Biden “did truthful successful a Trumpian way, consulting minimally with others and leaving NATO allies to scramble.”

White House officials bristle astatine comparisons to the Trump administration. They accidental that portion erstwhile presidents person gotten the United States into agelong and disastrous conflicts (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan), Mr. Biden pulled the state retired of one, nary substance however turbulent the process. It is an assertive overseas policy, they acknowledge, but they accidental it comes with a softer interaction and humbler words.

When allies raised concerns, the administration’s reply was not “go leap successful a lake,” Mr. Sullivan told reporters successful Brussels past month. He made wide that helium was drafting a opposition with “how different erstwhile American administrations mightiness person responded.”

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