President-elect Joe Biden’s first round of personnel announcements last month featured some members of his national security team, but notably missing were his picks for defense secretary and CIA director.
The Biden transition team had also made clear to allies early on that they hoped to roll out an economic team along with the public health team with the most urgency.
But while Biden did name key members of his economic team earlier this week including Janet Yellen for Treasury secretary, announcements regarding his public health team – including his choice to lead the Health and Human Services Department, a position that will be hugely important as the Biden administration tries to contain Covid-19 – are still outstanding.
Another other top appointment still to come is that of attorney general.
Multiple people familiar with transition discussions said in recent days that all of these yet-to-be-announced positions are being held up, at least in part, by furious discussions – and lobbying – taking place about racial diversity in the Biden’s administration.
The defense secretary appointment is a prime example. As CNN has previously reported, veteran Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy was once seen as a lock for the position.
However, she was not a part of Biden’s first round of national security team announcements in November, and multiple sources say she has perhaps, more than anyone else, gone dramatically from being seen as a shoe-in for a top job to now being in limbo. Behind the hold-up is racial diversity in Biden’s top Cabinet positions.
“They’re absolutely not going to have the top four cabinet positions be White,” one person familiar with transition discussions said – a reference to the four Cabinet positions of secretary of state, treasury secretary, defense secretary and attorney general.
There was a domino effect of sorts after Tony Blinken was named secretary of state, sources said. Before Election Day, there was a good amount of speculation that Susan Rice, Obama’s former national security adviser who is Black, could get that role.
But when Democrats did not take control of the Senate last month and the job ultimately went to Blinken – followed by the Treasury role being given to Yellen – the Biden team came under even more scrutiny and pressure to ensure that there are non-white individuals named to the remaining top roles like defense secretary, attorney general and HHS secretary.
Another example: Biden is said to be a big personal fan of Alabama Sen. Doug Jones and likes the idea of naming him to be his attorney general, but that’s now also complicated by the fact that both Blinken and Yellen are White.
As we’ve reported, racial diversity is emerging as a key factor in the Health and Human Services secretary appointment as well, with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus publicly calling on Biden to choose New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Those lawmakers are also pushing Biden to choose either California Attorney General Xavier Becerra or Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez to serve as the US attorney general.
Meanwhile, the NAACP said it had asked for a meeting with Biden and Harris so they can discuss the importance of civil rights and diversity issues being adequately represented in the new administration. Earlier this week, the president of the group told CNN that they had not heard back about their request.
In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Biden said Thursday that he will keep his repeated promise to create an administration that looks like America.
“When it’s all over, people will take a look and say, I promise you, you’ll see the most diverse cabinet, representative of all folks, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ, across the board,” Biden said. He said they planned to meet with the NAACP on Tuesday.