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President-elect Biden firming up Cabinet choices

20171108 In this Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, file photo, former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke, left, and former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen attend a ceremony awarding them both with the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
20171108 In this Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, file photo, former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke, left, and former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen attend a ceremony awarding them both with the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin, AP

WASHINGTON - President-elect Joe Biden intends to name his longtime adviser Antony Blinken as secretary of state, according to three people familiar with the matter, setting out to assemble his Cabinet even before Donald Trump concedes defeat.

The president-elect’s team also will nominate former Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen for treasury secretary and Alejandro Mayorkas as his homeland security secretary, a move that could make the Cuban American and former federal prosecutor in California the first Latino and first immigrant to serve in the Cabinet post.

In addition, Jake Sullivan, formerly one of Hillary Clinton’s closest aides, is likely to be named Biden’s national security adviser, according to two people familiar with the matter. An announcement is expected Tuesday, the people said.

The announcements came the same day federal money was released to Biden’s transition team, a move signaling at least partial acceptance of the Democrat’s win by the current administration.

Biden’s incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain said Sunday the president-elect would be making his initial Cabinet announcements on Tuesday, but he declined to specify which positions would be filled first. The people familiar with Biden’s selections asked not to be identified because he hasn’t yet made the announcements.

Both Sullivan, who is 43, and Blinken, 58, served stints as Biden’s national security adviser when he was vice president.

State is regarded as one of the most prestigious Cabinet posts. The secretary of state is the nation’s top diplomat, conducting meetings with foreign leaders across the globe.

The president’s national security adviser is one of the most important and powerful jobs in the White House, leading a staff of dozens of experts drawn from the government’s military, diplomatic and intelligence agencies who develop U.S. foreign and military policy.

Blinken and Sullivan did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A Biden spokesman declined to comment.

Blinken has been regarded as one of the leading candidates to run the State Department. After serving as the vice president’s national security adviser, he was elevated to deputy secretary of state under President Barack Obama.

When Biden was a senator, Blinken served as his staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before leaving to work on Biden’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Following the Obama administration, Blinken co-founded WestExec Advisors, a political strategy firm, with a top Obama-era Pentagon official, Michele Flournoy.

Janet Yellen

Yellen was the first woman to run the Fed and, if confirmed by the Senate, would make history as the first woman to run the Treasury Department. The Biden transition team did not respond to a request for comment, but The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and other publications reported the choice.

Yellen is an economist who would immediately face the challenge of guiding the nation’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. And, depending on the outcome of Georgia’s two Senate runoff elections in January, she may have to do so working with a GOP-controlled Senate that could oppose additional stimulus measures.

On the other hand, some economists have predicted a robust economic recovery once the pandemic has been brought under control. With recent vaccine announcements generating hope that most economic activity could return to normal next summer, Yellen could oversee a major rebound.

Yellen garnered bipartisan Senate support for her nominations to the Fed board in 1994 and 2011, and for her promotion to chairwoman in 2014. Thanks to her tenure on the Fed, she has relationships with senators on both sides of the aisle. That experience also means she has worked with other nations’ finance ministers and international trade officials.

Yellen was a Fed governor from 1994 to 1997, then chairwoman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers under President Bill Clinton. She went on to serve as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco from 2004 to 2010 before returning to the Fed board under President Barack Obama.

She would be expected to reverse some of the deregulatory bent of the Treasury Department over the past four years.

Speaking at George Washington University in February, Yellen said the nation’s growing debt was “completely unsustainable,” a statement that might worry progressives who prefer robust stimulus. Those comments predated the COVID-19 pandemic and trillions of dollars of additional federal spending. Yellen has since made multiple comments endorsing aggressive fiscal measures to prop up the economy.

At the same talk, Yellen criticized the Trump administration’s focus on the U.S. trade deficit with China and called the retaliatory tariffs with China a “wash” but said that “the United States has real issues in terms of its trade relations with China, and many valid concerns that are certainly on the table for discussion.”

Biden promised last week that his pick would please both wings of the Democratic Party, but Yellen’s nomination pleased moderates more.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., reportedly lobbied for the position and would have been the preferred choice of progressives. Warren tweeted Monday that Yellen would be an outstanding choice. “She is smart, tough, and principled. As one of the most successful Fed Chairs ever, she has stood up to Wall Street banks, including holding Wells Fargo accountable for cheating working families,” Warren tweeted.

Yellen, 74, got her doctorate from Yale University and has taught at the University of California, Berkeley. She has authored numerous papers with her husband, George Akerlof, a Nobel Prize-winning economist now at Georgetown University.

Alejandro Mayorkas

Mayorkas, who was born in Havana, grew up in Los Angeles and attended the University of California, Berkeley. He began working for the government as an assistant United States attorney in the Central District of California, specializing in white-collar crime, and went on to become the youngest U.S. attorney in the country, according to the Biden transition announcement.

“When I was very young, the United States provided my family and me a place of refuge,” Mayorkas tweeted shortly after the announcement with a brand-new account reading: “DHS nominee for Joe Biden.” “Now, I have been nominated to be the DHS Secretary and oversee the protection of all Americans and those who flee persecution in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones.”

Under the Obama administration, Mayorkas was a primary architect of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and a primary negotiator of the thaw in then-frozen U.S.-Cuban relations.

Biden adds Mayorkas to his growing list of picks for national security and foreign policy-focused Cabinet posts.

“We have no time to lose when it comes to our national security and foreign policy,” former Vice President Biden said in a statement Monday. “I need a team ready on Day One to help me reclaim America’s seat at the head of the table, rally the world to meet the biggest challenges we face, and advance our security, prosperity, and values. This is the crux of that team.”

Even without the delay to the transition, the task facing Mayorkas is a daunting one: steering a behemoth of a department - the federal government’s third-largest with some 240,000 employees - away from being used as a political tool to achieve Trump’s central campaign promise of restricting immigration, in almost the opposite direction.

Biden has promised to reverse many of Trump’s immigration policies. Mayorkas likely will face the confirmation process in a Republican-majority Senate, as will Biden’s nominees for roughly 1,000 other positions in the incoming administration that need Senate confirmation, pending the outcome of Georgia’s two Senate races.

Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, praised the “historic nomination” of Mayorkas - and noted that the caucus is urging that Biden pick four more Latinos for his Cabinet.

“We share the Biden-Harris transition team’s goal to create the most diverse administration in U.S. history,” Castro said in a statement.

Opponents are likely to point to a 2015 Homeland Security Inspector General report that found Mayorkas “exerted improper influence” in assisting companies with obtaining employment visas, a finding which he has disputed.

But the Biden transition announcement noted that Mayorkas has been confirmed by the Senate three times already. He has served in the top post at USCIS, the Homeland Security agency administering the legal immigration system, as well several years as deputy chief of the department under the Obama administration.

Mayorkas helped lead the department’s response to Ebola and Zika under President Barack Obama. Both Biden and his picks so far have made clear that the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic will be the most urgent priority.

Notably, Biden has not explicitly committed to ending a controversial authority that Trump’s officials say they were given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention amid the pandemic that allowed them to effectively close the border and turn away hundreds of thousands of migrants, including asylum seekers and unaccompanied children. A judge recently barred the Trump administration from expelling lone immigrant children without due process or access to humanitarian protections under U.S. law.

CDC officials said they rejected the policy as political and not based in public health.

Mayorkas most recently practiced law in the private sector for Los Angeles-based O’Melveny & Myers and WilmerHale in Washington, D.C.