Associates say National Security Advisor Tom Donilon may leave this summer


Several associates tell the Back Channel they believe that National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is planning to leave this summer—several months earlier than previous reports had suggested, and even as the White House said Donilon has no plans to depart.

On the one hand he doesn’t seem to want to leave, but he’s been doing this five long years, one associate, speaking not for attribution, said Friday.

Noting several of Donilon’s recent and upcoming foreign trips and high-profile speeches on Asia and energy, the White House said Donilon’s calendar remains booked into June, including with a late May trip to China.

“Tom has no plans to depart,” NSS spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said by email late Friday. “As you’ve probably seen, he’s fully engaged in managing our national security agenda, from his recent trip to Moscow and major address on global energy, to planning for a trip to China in late May and more upcoming speaking events.”

President Obama recently nominated Donilon’s wife Catherine M. Russell, chief of staff to Jill Biden, to be the next US Ambassador at large for Global Women’s Issues. Some associates suggested a family health issue may be a factor in Donilon’s thinking on how long to stay, but declined to elaborate. The couple have high school age children.

US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice is expected to succeed Donilon as National Security Advisor.

It’s not clear who will be nominated to succeed Rice at the UN—the name the Back Channel has consistently heard is Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, but one official wasn’t certain that Burns wanted to stay. Secretary of State John Kerry would also like to keep Burns, another official said, noting there are too many vacant seats at State for another hole.

Neither Burns, nor Donilon, nor Rice’s office, responded to queries Friday.

While the transition of such a central player in Obama’s national security team as Donilon–-and the resulting shuffle—on the nearer term horizon could seem like one explanation for why several other anticipated senior foreign policy appointments have not yet been announced, foreign policy sources said they did not believe that to be a key factor.

(For instance, the NSC Senior Director for Asia Danny Russell is widely expected to be tapped to be Assistant Secretary of State for Asia; and recent State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland to be nominated to be Assistant Secretary of State for Europe—though neither nomination has yet been announced.)

Kerry announced Friday that veteran diplomat James Dobbins has agreed to serve as the next US Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP).

But sources say that their understanding is that the bigger reason for the delay is what they describe as still somewhat dysfunctional interactions between the White House and Secretary Kerry’s office on the matter, and a White House “power play,” seeking to put its preferred candidates in key spots. According to a variation of this account, Kerry didn’t early on negotiate hard otherwise and so essentially acquiesced to the White House taking the lead on some appointment decisions, and may have since come to regret it.

Other appointment news:

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq Barbara Leaf starts on Monday as the new Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Arabian Peninsula, a State Department official confirmed to the Back Channel. Leaf succeeds Stephen A. Seche, the former US Ambassador to Yemen, who retired from the State Department on Friday with a warm note of thanks to his colleagues.

Brian Katulis, of the Center for American Progress, is expected to be named as a US member to the United Nations Security Council Panel of Experts on Libya arms (pursuant to UNSCR 1970).

Obama’s nominee to be the next US Ambassador to Libya Deborah Jones, the former US ambassador to Kuwait, has her confirmation hearing next week.

Update: This post was updated at 920pm Friday to add the statement from the NSC.