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Austin taps top State Department adviser as Pentagon chief of staff

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has tapped a senior State Department official and veteran policy hand under successive Democratic presidents as the Pentagon’s new chief of staff, officials said, as the Biden administration races to lock in key defense priorities ahead of November’s elections.

Derek Chollet, who as an aide to Secretary of State Antony Blinken has played a central role in the effort to broker a deal transforming the Middle East, will replace current chief of staff Kelly Magsamen, who is stepping down this month, officials said. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity ahead of an official announcement.

The White House last year nominated Chollet to be the Pentagon’s top policy official, but his nomination became mired in partisan wrangling in the Senate, where Republicans have objected to Pentagon policies authorizing reimbursement for service members’ travel related to reproductive health care, including abortions, and other administration actions.

Austin, in a statement, said he was grateful to Chollet “for taking on this key assignment at such an important moment.”

Blinken described Chollet in baseball terms, calling him a “quintessential five-tool player” whose résumé, including senior Pentagon and National Security Council roles during the Obama administration, had contributed to “a breadth of experience that the rest of us rely on every day.”

Blinken is naming Tom Sullivan, another of his top advisers, to become State Department counselor, a senior position that does not require Senate approval. Sullivan, who is brother to national security adviser Jake Sullivan, will also retain his current position as deputy chief of staff for policy.

Chollet returns to the Pentagon four months ahead of the presidential election, in which Biden faces a tight race that could usher former president Donald Trump into the White House for a second term and potentially derail a host of key administration policies. Trump has questioned some of the administration’s chief defense and national security initiatives, including its multibillion-dollar effort to assist Ukraine in holding off Russia.

A senior administration official acknowledged that a key focus for national security officials in the coming months would be the attempt to “Trump-proof” key priorities. At the Pentagon, that will probably include transitioning some initiatives to multilateral control, for example embedding within NATO a U.S.-led forum that Austin launched after Russia’s 2022 invasion to convene defense leaders on a monthly basis and coordinate arms donations to Ukraine.

Austin, a former Army general, and his inner circle came under intense scrutiny after news emerged earlier this year that he had been hospitalized in intensive care without notifying the White House or the public for several days. Austin later apologized for his secrecy surrounding the episode; Magsamen also faced criticism from Republicans in Congress.

Jeremy Bash, who served as chief of staff to Leon E. Panetta when he was defense secretary, cited a description used by Robert Gates, another former Pentagon chief, who said the defense secretary position really consisted of two jobs: secretary of war and secretary of the Pentagon — the sprawling military bureaucracy that spans scores of disparate agencies and an annual budget of more than $800 billion.

“The chief of staff really has to be an adviser to the secretary on both of those issues, meaning the issues of how the military force of the United States is deployed to deter conflict and win wars, but also how we can rapidly field the capabilities that are going to be necessary for warfare in the balance of the 21st century,” he said.

Chollet previously served as an adviser to an advisory firm, Beacon Global Strategies, that Bash helps lead.

Chollet, in an interview, said he expected the Pentagon to be focused in coming months on priorities including helping Ukraine to position itself as effectively as possible against Russia; strengthening the U.S. military’s posture in the Indo-Pacific region; and assisting ally Israel while attempting to prevent a regional war in the Middle East.

He said the uncertainty about what would occur after November’s elections must not prevent the department from pursuing longer-term goals. “We won’t make any assumptions about what’s coming, but just drive hard to finish the first term with the national defense strategy as our north star, and then go from there,” he said.

Chollet, who began his career in Washington helping former Secretary of State and White House chief of staff James Baker III write his memoirs, said that Baker used to say that “the most important word in the title ‘chief of staff’ was ‘staff.’”

“You want to, most importantly, serve your boss,” Chollet said. “There’s also being the person who helps everything under the boss run better.”

As counselor to Blinken, Chollet has played a leading role in the administration’s response to the conflict in Gaza, accompanying the top diplomat in travel across the Middle East. Along with Barbara Leaf, a top diplomat for the Middle East, he has played a leading role in crafting a proposal — which many outside experts see as a long shot — that would stabilize Gaza after fighting ends, advance a Palestinian-Israeli peace process, and normalize ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. He has also worked closely with top White House official Brett McGurk on a proposed U.S.-Saudi defense pact.

An Israeli official cited Chollet’s role in helping to mitigate the intense strain that the Gaza conflict has fueled between Washington and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We’re talking about a very sensitive period,” the Israeli official said. “There were issues we need to sort out between the two governments and Derek has been very instrumental in bridging differences.”

Officials said that Chollet’s nomination as Pentagon policy czar would not be withdrawn as he assumes the chief of staff role, despite the slim likelihood it will be advanced in coming months. Several Republican senators have vowed to oppose Chollet over the Pentagon’s abortion policy. The Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee meanwhile urged senators to oppose Chollet over his role in the Biden administration’s 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby called on the Senate to confirm Chollet, noting that two key U.S. partners, Israel and Ukraine, are grappling with active conflicts.

“This is exactly the time when you need a Senate-confirmed undersecretary for policy,” he said. “It’s fortunate he will be able to go to the Pentagon and support as chief of staff, but it’s not the same thing.”

Sullivan, who is replacing Chollet at the State Department, has been a constant presence alongside Blinken since 2021. Since the Gaza conflict erupted last fall, a chief focus of Blinken’s top team has been attempting to defuse threats to Israel and improve conditions for Palestinians.

Blinken said that Sullivan had “been by my side for meetings with heads of state, foreign ministers, and other world leaders as we rebuilt our alliances and partnerships, confronted Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, stabilized our relationship with China while standing up for American interests, and worked to build lasting peace, security, and stability in the Middle East.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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