Other than the fact that both were lobbyists, in choosing Thomas E. Donilon to take over as national security adviser, President Barack Obama could not have selected someone more different in terms of background from his predecessor, James L. Jones. Whereas Jones was a former military general, Donilon has been described as a “backroom technocrat” who has served as political advisor to numerous Democrats. Donilon did spend several years with the State Department during the Clinton administration—experience that supporters played up to demonstrate Donilon’s qualifications for the job. He also spent the first 20½ months of Obama’s presidency as Jones’ deputy.
Born in 1955 in Providence, Rhode Island, Donilon attended La Salle Academy, before earning his Bachelor of Arts degree from Catholic University in 1977. Hunter S. Thompson’s book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, which exposed the dark underbelly of the 1972 presidential race, inspired Donilon to go into politics.
His entry into Democratic politics began in the Carter White House, where he worked as an intern and served in the Office of Congressional Liaison.
In 1980, Donilon, then 24, worked at the Democratic National Convention and helped derail Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s (D-Massachusetts) last-minute bid for the presidential nomination.
After Carter lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan, Donilon helped Carter transition back to private life. He also lectured on politics at Catholic University. In 1982, Donilon was technical advisor to the Commission on Presidential Nominations which drafted the nomination rules for the 1984 campaign.
Four years later, he served as campaign coordinator for Walter Mondale’s bid for the Oval Office.
In 1985, Donilon earned his law degree from the University of Virginia, where he was a member of the school’s Law Review. That same year he served as general counsel to the Democratic National Committee’s Convention Site Selection Committee and as co-chairman of the Technical Advisory Committee to the party’s 1988 Rules Commission.
But he remained interested in helping get Democrats elected to the White House. During the 1988 contest, Donilon first advised Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) before going on to help his party’s nominee, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.
Donilon joined the law firm O’Melveny & Meyers in 1991, serving on the firm’s governing committee, heading its strategic counseling practice and advising companies and their boards on a range of “sensitive governance, policy, legal and regulatory matters.” His work included serving as a registered lobbyist for mortgage giant Fannie Mae.
But he couldn’t resist being involved in White House affairs, and served as a senior counsel on President Bill Clinton’s 1992 transition team. The following year, he was named chief of staff to Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
In 1996, he became assistant secretary of state for public affairs. He visited more than 50 countries in those positions and worked on several major foreign policy initiatives, including the Balkans peace negotiation, the expansion of NATO and the relationship between the U.S. and China.
Donilon left the State Department three years later to accept an executive vice president position at Fannie Mae. He remained at the mortgage company for six years (1999-2005), during which he was accused of exaggerating the health of Fannie Mae’s balance sheet and trying to thwart an investigation into accounting irregularities. Not only did he interfere with an audit by the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO, but also tried to launch a separate investigation into OFHEO itself. During the years 2000-2003 he eceived more than $7 million in compensation in the form of cash payments and stock awards.
He left Fannie Mae in 2005 to return to O’Melveny, and provided advice to powerful clients like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup.
He also was chosen as a member of the House and Senate Majority’s National Security Advisory Group, which assesses U.S. performance on national security issues.
Donilon was invited to join Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, but chose instead to help his old friend Joe Biden seek the nomination, by serving as an adviser on Iraq. When Biden dropped out of the race, Donilon endorsed Obama and helped with the preparations for Obama’s debates with Republican candidate John McCain.. He then served on Obama’s transition team for the State Department, and later became deputy national security adviser on the day Obama was inaugurated, a position he held at the time of his nomination to become national security adviser in October 2010.
According to Bob Woodward’s book, Obama’s Wars, Donilon’s former boss, Jones, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had problems with him. Jones complained that Donilon never bothered to travel to Iraq or Afghanistan to assess the situation there firsthand He has since been to Afghanistan), and Gates reportedly said Donilon would be a “disaster” as national security adviser. Some of the clashes may have been policy-related, as Donilon is said to have opposed Obama’s decision to increase troop levels in Afghanistan, a strategy that was promoted by Gates and Jones.
Donilon’s wife, Cathy Russell, serves as chief of staff to Joe Biden’s wife, Jill. Donilon’s brother, Mike, is a lawyer and political consultant who has served as counselor to Vice-President Biden.