Brian McKeon, a longtime confidant of President Biden and a top State Department official, will leave the administration by the end of the month in a decision he told colleagues was linked to family obligations, according to a letter to staff obtained by The Washington Post.
McKeon’s responsibilities include the oversight of U.S. embassies and personnel abroad, making him a potential target of Republican-led congressional hearings. But he said his decision was long-planned and not motivated by the GOP’s takeover of the House.
“Part of the job description for senior officials is to engage in hearings, and I did my fair share of that. I didn’t mind it,” McKeon said in an interview.
McKeon has been managing health challenges in his immediate family that will require more of his attention, a senior State Department official said.
His departure shrinks the size of the close-knit coterie of longtime Biden aides serving in the administration. McKeon advised then-Sen. Biden on foreign policy for 12 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Once Biden became vice president, McKeon served in a variety of top roles in the White House and Pentagon.
“After 32 years of service in all three branches of the U.S. government, it is time for me to devote more attention to my family,” McKeon said in his departure letter.
McKeon, like many officials who served in the Obama administration, saw a number of the foreign policy achievements he worked on diminished or reversed during the Trump presidency — but not all.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has singled out McKeon’s role in securing Senate approval for the New START Treaty during the Obama administration, the only remaining nuclear-arms agreement left between the United States and Russia after Trump withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
New START, which caps the size of both countries’ strategic nuclear arsenals to 1,500 each, down from many thousands during the height of the Cold War, is under threat due to the nearly three-year absence of regular inspections mandated by the accord.
Last week, Russia postponed technical discussions over the treaty with the United States, citing Washington’s transfer of weapons to Ukraine as it defends itself from invading Russian forces.
McKeon said he was confident New START would survive the dramatic dip in U.S.-Russia relations because the core of the treaty and its limits on strategic forces are still in place.
“I don’t think the Russians are going to walk away from it,” he said.
Another Trump-era challenge McKeon grappled with was widespread morale issues at the State Department brought on by a hiring freeze and profound distrust between career and political officials that lingers to this day.
“One of the most common things I heard during the transition was PTSD,” said McKeon, using shorthand for post-traumatic stress disorder. “People were just kind of exhausted from both the pandemic and the drama of the previous four years.”
He said the department was still recovering from the hiring freeze and vacancies in career positions, but “we’ve pretty much recovered on the civil service side” and making progress in building back the workforce in the Foreign Service.
Mid-level State Department officials have continued to complain that the department is not creating career paths or promotion opportunities for them, a criticism McKeon said he was aware of anecdotally but said didn’t reflect the department’s “personnel data or attrition data.”
In a statement marking his departure, Blinken credited McKeon with guiding the department’s covid-19 policies and creating a “less risk averse, more nimble” department.
“His commitment to the workforce, and his concern for the safety and physical and mental health of every employee and family member, has made the lives of our people better,” Blinken said.
Across the executive branch, several Biden administration officials have been looking woefully at an onslaught of new Republican congressional inquiries, viewing them as purely partisan and lacking in substance. But a smaller number of officials have headed for the exits than expected so far, a result some officials have attributed to the Democrats maintaining control of the Senate in a surprisingly strong midterm election performance.
McKeon, who has already undergone questioning by Senate and House panels, fielded a variety of questions on Afghanistan from lawmakers, many of which had little or nothing to do with his responsibilities, such as the decision to close down Bagram air base or the forfeiture of U.S. weapons later obtained by the Taliban.
“The fact that I didn’t have anything to do with some of these things didn’t stop members from asking,” he said.
The questions McKeon did face related to his responsibilities involved contingency planning for protection of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul following the military withdrawal and the visa program for Afghans who helped the U.S. military during the two decade-long war.
The 2021 pullout was marked by a devastating suicide attack that killed 13 Americans and roughly 200 Afghans and the unprecedented airlift of more than 120,000 people out of the country.
Republicans have criticized the administration for not processing the documents of Afghan allies and evacuating them more quickly. Democrats contend that the program for processing visas for Afghans languished during the Trump years and was accelerated under Biden.