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James Jones to step down as national security adviser
"The only advice I could give him is that when he becomes the national security adviser that he finds himself a deputy just like he was to me," Jones said. "You have been the man who has kept the trains running on time, and your energy and your dedication is without equal. And I thank you."
Donilon has run the "deputies meetings" that gather the No. 2-ranking officials from across the national security bureaucracy, turning it into an even more important and influential venue for initial policy decisions and strategy.
"Operationally Tom has been running the National Security Council since the start," the official said. "Jones was kind of a CEO and Tom has been the COO."
During the Afghanistan strategy review last fall, Donilon was credited with overseeing the complicated process, which often pitted the uniformed military against White House civilian advisers over the value of sending additional troops to an increasingly unpopular war that just entered its 10th year.
Like Jones, Donilon also questioned the need for additional forces in the region - a position Obama eventually rejected by sending 30,000 additional U.S. troops in a "surge" that will begin to draw down in July 2011.
Donilon is personally and professionally close to Biden, who argued most forcefully for a strategy in Afghanistan that would rely on fewer troops and more targeted counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda. Donilon's wife, Cathy Russell, serves as chief of staff to Biden's wife, Jill Biden.
Donilon hardly knew Obama before being brought onto his campaign to help him prepare for the 2008 presidential debates. He is also personally close to former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and was on a very short list to fill that post after Emanuel's recent resignation to run for mayor of Chicago.
Jones made clear that he intended to serve no more than two years. But several administration officials said Friday that his departure was accelerated by the publication of Bob Woodward's book "Obama's Wars," which portrayed Jones as a deeply unhappy figure often on the edge of important policy decisions.
By contrast, Donilon is part of a cadre of deputy national security advisers to whom Obama has often turned before more senior administration officials, including Jones, on an array of foreign policy matters.
The practice has concentrated enormous power in the NSC, often to the consternation of the State Department and other foreign-policymaking agencies.
Those deputies include Denis McDonough, a foreign policy pragmatist with Capitol Hill experience and a close relationship with the president. Although Obama was not expected to announce Friday who will replace Donilon as the most senior deputy national security adviser, McDonough, a fierce defender of the president, is the most likely to be elevated.
Along with McDonough, Obama relies on John O. Brennan, a deputy national security adviser who is his chief counterterrorism adviser, and Ben Rhodes, the NSC strategic communications director who has helped write some of Obama's most important foreign policy speeches. Jones often felt overshadowed by those deputies and out of the loop on day-to-day matters.