There was Jake Sullivan on Monday morning, the official first day of the presidential transition, emceeing a nationally broadcast Zoom call with President-elect Joe Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Dr. David Kessler and other members of their new COVID-19 Advisory Board.
“Dr. Kessler, could we start with you?” said Sullivan, a senior adviser to Biden and a product of Minneapolis Public Schools who’s widely expected to land a top job in the new Democratic White House.
There was Sullivan on Fox News in September, representing his boss in an interview with Chris Wallace, parrying a question about unrest in American cities by charging President Donald Trump with “pouring gasoline on the fire.”
These unusually high-profile forays for this consummate insider suggest a new political prominence for Sullivan, an influential counselor to Biden and Hillary Clinton and a leading voice in Democratic foreign policy circles. In 14 years, this Southwest High School graduate and Rhodes Scholar rose from a staff job on Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s first U.S. Senate campaign to the pinnacle of U.S. political power.
“I think our country would be so well-served by having Jake in a major job,” Klobuchar said this week, calling Sullivan “incredibly talented, incredibly humble, a loyal person in the best sense of the word.” She added he’s “very Minnesotan — someone you can depend on.”
Sullivan, 43, declined an interview for this story. Informed speculation about Biden’s team has found Sullivan frequently listed as a possible National Security Advisor, a job whose alumni include Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger. But his admirers say he’s qualified for other similarly high-profile jobs.
“He’s been giving advice to Biden on, I know, not just foreign policy but a number of things,” said Klobuchar, herself seen as a prospect for Biden’s Cabinet.
His Minneapolis roots go deep. His father, Dan Sullivan, worked for a time at the Star Tribune and also taught journalism at the University of Minnesota. His mother, Jean Sullivan, worked as a guidance counselor at Southwest High School, where Jake graduated in 1994.
“Every year, Southwest would produce some very strong students who would go off to the top colleges in the country. Jake, I think, stood out as the best of the best even among that group,” said Dr. Matt Whalin, a classmate of Sullivan’s who’s now an anesthesiologist in Atlanta. “Great sense of humor. Intense, but not in an overbearing way,” Whalin added. “He studied a lot, but that was me as well.”
Sullivan was one of two graduates of Minnesota high schools out of a group of 32 Americans chosen as Rhodes Scholars in 1997. Former President Bill Clinton, another alumnus of the Oxford-based scholarship, would be a guest at Sullivan’s wedding.
“I am a dyed-in-the-wool product of the Minneapolis public school system,” Sullivan told the Star Tribune at the time.
Following Yale Law School and a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Sullivan by his late 20s was back in Minneapolis and practicing law at Faegre & Benson. In 2006, he was playing on a St. Paul curling team with another attorney whose wife, Sara Grewing, was an early staffer on Klobuchar’s first U.S. Senate campaign.
“I was preparing Amy for debates, and after they’d finish up their curling I would meet up with them,” said Grewing, now a Ramsey County district judge. “Jake and I would just start talking about what we were working on, and I asked Amy to bring him onto the campaign.”
Sullivan impressed with a wide aptitude for policy and a calm, likable demeanor. No one doubted his commitment: One colleague recalled Sullivan showing up to work at Klobuchar headquarters having come directly from running the Twin Cities Marathon.
Colleagues said he showed a lighter side too. Grewing recalled his ability to quote Billy Joel lyrics and remember plotlines from the ’90s teen sitcom “Saved by the Bell.” Cynthia Bauerly, another veteran of that campaign and later Minnesota’s revenue commissioner, called Sullivan a conscientious friend who long maintained annual Final Four trips with a group of old friends.
Klobuchar joined the U.S. Senate at the beginning of 2007 with Sullivan as a policy adviser. His younger brother, Tom Sullivan, also worked in Klobuchar’s D.C. office and is now married to another veteran Klobuchar staffer.
Jake Sullivan’s reputation as a policy pro quickly grew in D.C. Democratic circles, and by 2008 he landed the job of deputy policy director on Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign. He followed her to the State Department in President Barack Obama’s first term, and quickly emerged as a point man for sensitive foreign diplomacy.
A trip that Sullivan made to Oman in July 2012 caught the attention of the Associated Press, which reported it as “one of the Obama administration’s earliest known face-to-face contacts with Iran and reveals that Sullivan — who moved from the State Department to the White House earlier this year — was personally involved in the administration’s outreach to the Islamic Republic far earlier than had been reported.”
Hillary Clinton called him a “once-in-a-generation talent” in a statement to the Star Tribune. “His Minnesota roots keep him grounded in the rough and tumble of Washington, and I have no doubt he will prove as invaluable to the next administration as he was by my side.”
In a 2012 speech, Clinton referred to Sullivan as a “potential future president.” In 2015, she read a Bible reading at the wedding of Sullivan and Maggie Goodlander, a D.C. attorney and former Senate staffer.
Sullivan returned as a top adviser on Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid and was seen as a likely National Security Advisor if she’d won. Out of work after President Donald Trump’s victory, Sullivan spent time teaching and also joined a global consulting firm that counted Uber among its clients — a move later scrutinized by the progressive magazine American Prospect. It’s the kind of close attention Sullivan is likely to face as he ascends in the Biden administration.
Sullivan first entered Biden’s orbit as his National Security Adviser in 2013-14, and upon joining his presidential campaign he took on roles that included managing foreign policy working groups that informed Biden’s stances.
The United States “cannot succeed in our foreign policy if we have not invested in our sources of strength at home: in our infrastructure, in our innovation, in our workers, in our immigration system, and yes, in our democracy, tackling issues from the strength of institutions to the ongoing scourge of systemic racism,” Sullivan said in an August 2020 interview with the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank.
His views offer a preview of how the new administration will frame foreign policy as it seeks to rebuild alliances and re-enter global institutions. Sullivan is likely to be at the forefront of that effort — if he ends up in a foreign policy job. But veteran observers see other possibilities.
“He covers the waterfront — not just foreign policy but domestic and economic policy,” said Denis McDonough, a Stillwater native who was Obama’s second-term chief of staff. “He’s a great mind, a curious thinker, and he asks all the right questions.”