Tom Donilon, according to a New York Times profile, is as much a political operative as a foreign affairs director. The Times declared Donilon a "longtime political operative" who has been identified for releasing politically expedient, classified information to bolster President Barack Obama’s image before an election.
Donilon served as deputy to Gen. James Jones when he was Obama’s first national security adviser. The Times reported that after Obama recruited Donilon to help with debate preparation against John McCain in 2008. Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel "made sure he became deputy to" Jones.
Emanuel, himself a long-time Democratic insider, then "tried to enlist Mr. Donilon to succeed him as chief of staff," but Donilon had his sights set on Jones’s position, to which Obama appointed him when Jones retired.
Donilon has complicated relationships with current and former Obama administration officials, according to the profile, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Further, the Times said this about his relationship with the military:
Mr. Donilon made enemies at the Pentagon during the debate over sending more troops to Afghanistan. He suspected the military of trying to manipulate the new president; the military suspected Mr. Donilon, who never served in uniform or visited Afghanistan, of substituting politics for strategy.
His links to Democratic politicians run far back: he worked in Carter’s White House, helping him win his party’s nomination in 1980 on the convention floor; he worked on Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in 1988; and he then served as chief of staff for Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State.
Despite working for Obama, who consistently rails against financial deregulation, Donilon appears to have advocated for and benefitted from such deregulation earlier in his career. During former President George W. Bush’s years in office, Donilon worked for the financial giant Fannie Mae, which, after his departure, helped trigger the 2008 financial meltdown and the Great Recession. Donilon, according to the Times, "was part of a management that lobbied Congress against tighter regulation."
After Fannie Mae collapsed and the federal government stepped in to save the institution, Donilon continued to collect pension payments from the federally backed lender, totaling $148,000 in 2011 while working for Obama.
Despite having a reputation for "trains-on-time proficiency," Donilon "remains a famous worrier." Some at the State Department refer to him as "the bed-wetter," the Times said.
Donilon apparently resents his reputation for being a political operative. The Times reported:
When an aide said half-jokingly that Washington still viewed Mr. Donilon as a political operative, he replied bitterly, ‘Fourteen years in foreign policy and I’m a political guy. O.K. I ran the State Department but O.K.’
Obama trusts Donilon, however, as demonstrated by Donilon’s appointment to the top security adviser spot. The two men apparently think quite similarly, according to Donilon’s former boss Joe Biden.
"Tom knows where the president wants to go. Tom knows when the president wants to go left, straight, up or down," the Vice President said.