Tall and slim, with deep-set eyes and short gray hair, McDonough was pictured sitting two seats to Obama’s left in a now-famous photograph of the president surrounded by top aides as they monitored the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
In his book “Obama’s Wars,” The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward reported that Gen. James L. Jones, a former national security adviser, considered Obama’s tight circle of aides, including McDonough, a “major obstacle” to developing coherent Afghan policy.
One person who worked closely with McDonough described in an interview with The Post frustration about his handling of meetings on the U.S. drawdown in Iraq, saying it became increasingly clear that Obama and McDonough already had decided to leave no residual forces in the country in 2012 despite ongoing internal debate.
More recently, some national security aides have lobbied since the November election to reopen the policy debate about U.S. sanctions on Syria to see if there is more the administration can do to stop the bloody government crackdown on rebel forces. But McDonough has blocked the attempts, saying the president believes U.S. policy is working, said the administration official who requested anonymity.
McDonough is known to carry White House notecards in his pockets, whipping them out to scribble messages during meetings and passing them around the room. Most of the notes are policy questions, but some can be mocking insults, said one official who has attended the meetings. He also is not averse to cursing at those who frustrate or anger him.
“The White House is a pressure cooker,” said Shawn Brimley, who served as director for strategic planning at the NSC from 2011 to 2012. “If he sees people hedging or a cover-your-[rear] mentality, he calls that out. It’s never personal.”
Jeffrey Bader, a former senior director of East Asian affairs at the NSC, said McDonough coordinated the massive U.S. response to the Japan tsunami in the spring of 2011. At one point, naval officials at the U.S. base in Yokosuka argued that the radiation threat was much more severe than the Japanese government had disclosed, setting up a potential diplomatic crisis.
Bader called McDonough at 2 a.m. and McDonough immediately sprang from bed and arranged for a scientific laboratory analysis of radiation levels that showed the Navy’s assessment was inaccurate.
“At 5 a.m., he gave the answer to stand down,” said Bader, now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It was politically difficult because we couldn’t be seen not standing behind the safety of American citizens or going against the Navy.”
McDonough’s influence extends beyond national security. A devout Catholic, he has served as something of an informal Obama counselor on religious matters, such as during last year’s debate over the White House’s handling of contraception rules under the new health-care law.
Some female staff members have said Obama’s inner circle of male advisers, including McDonough, acts like a jocular boys club that has excluded women. The issue has flared anew in recent weeks with the nominations of four white men to Obama’s Cabinet.
But Flournoy said McDonough has an empathetic side. She recalled requesting a high-level meeting, only to call him later that night asking to postpone after her son broke down in tears because she would have to miss a school event.
McDonough rescheduled and later presented her a goody bag filled with White House candy and a personal note for her son that said, “Thanks so much for sharing your mommy.”
“That was one of the most lovely things anyone has done for me in my time in government,” Flournoy said. “The human side of Denis really came through.”