WASHINGTON — When Stephen E. Biegun was sworn in as deputy secretary of state, it was in front of an unusual crowd at the State Department — one that included loyalists to President Trump, but also a mix of Never Trumpers and Democrats.
Denis R. McDonough, President Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff and deputy national security adviser, was there that day in December. So was John D. Negroponte, a former director of national intelligence under President George W. Bush who in 2016 refused to vote for Mr. Trump. There were career diplomats, congressional officials and national security experts from both parties who had worked with Mr. Biegun in his various roles in the Senate, the National Security Council and Ford Motor.
Which gave rise to some crucial questions: How had Mr. Biegun navigated Trump world to land such a senior position, No. 2 at the State Department? Could he calm a simmering revolt among career State Department employees who have accused Mr. Biegun’s immediate boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, of abandoning veteran diplomats and letting the president’s personal political agenda infect foreign policy?
More to the point, would he even survive?
The job is a risk — Washington is full of people who have catapulted from the Trump administration with reputations diminished — but friends say they are betting on Mr. Biegun.
“If anyone can figure out how to navigate it, I think it can be Steve,” said Stephen J. Hadley, Mr. Bush’s second national security adviser.
It helps, friends say, that Mr. Biegun has the even temperament of a man who thrives in the background. Never one to upstage the boss, be it the president or secretary of state, Mr. Biegun is mild-mannered and deferential, the anti-Pompeo.
While Mr. Pompeo is prone to profanity-laced rants, Mr. Biegun is a Republican of another era who projects calm. “He listens,” said Mr. McDonough, who was Mr. Biegun’s Democratic counterpart when the two men served as the chief foreign policy advisers to their parties’ Senate leaders in the mid-2000s.
While Mr. Pompeo has sought to bring back “swagger” to diplomacy, Mr. Biegun is described as a careful negotiator. And while Mr. Pompeo allowed a shadow foreign policy campaign to undermine the United States Embassy in Ukraine, Mr. Biegun has insisted that, in diplomacy, “politics best stop at the water’s edge.”
John R. Beyrle, who was one of Mr. Obama’s ambassadors to Moscow, said that Mr. Pompeo most likely viewed Mr. Biegun as “somebody who could help ameliorate that almost toxic situation” at the State Department.
“So if there is that vacuum or deficit of trust, which I think there is, Steve is well placed to fill it,” said Mr. Beyrle, who worked with Mr. Biegun on the board of the U.S.-Russia Foundation, which promotes entrepreneurship and education with Moscow.
Notably, Mr. Biegun has described Marie L. Yovanovitch, the former American ambassador in Kyiv who was ordered back to Washington and accused of being disloyal to Mr. Trump, as “a very capable foreign service officer.”
Since first meeting Ms. Yovanovitch years ago, when they were both working on Russia policy, “my esteem has done nothing but grown for her,” Mr. Biegun told senators at his confirmation hearing in November.
Colleagues say the secret to Mr. Biegun’s success, so far, is that he gained the trust of Mr. Trump by enabling the president’s bromance with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader. Officials said the president twice considered appointing Mr. Biegun as national security adviser, but made him the chief envoy to North Korea instead. In that job Mr. Biegun has tried to move talks between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim forward when other administration officials wanted to shut them down.
Mr. Biegun also declined to join the so-called Never Trumper movement in 2016, putting him among a relatively small number of Republicans with high-level foreign policy experience who were not blacklisted by the White House after Mr. Trump won the presidential election.
“He’s friends with Republicans and Democrats, he treats people well, he knows how to operate in Washington, he knows the think tanks, he knows the press, he knows the diplomatic community,” said John B. Bellinger III, the State Department’s former top lawyer who worked with Mr. Biegun on Mr. Bush’s National Security Council.
Born in Detroit to a large family — more than 30 relatives attended his December swearing-in ceremony — Mr. Biegun was in high school in Pontiac, Mich., when a history teacher wrote the word “czar” on the chalkboard in the Cyrillic alphabet. He was immediately fascinated and went on to study Russian at the University of Michigan.
Mr. Biegun lived in Moscow in the early 1990s, when he worked for the International Republican Institute, which promotes democracy with some funding from the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development. But he mostly developed his national security credentials on Capitol Hill — first as a top Republican staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later to Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, then the majority leader — and at the White House as a top aide to Condoleezza Rice, who was the first national security adviser in the Bush administration.
He traveled to Russia as a vice president at Ford, negotiating new business ventures, but also took time off to briefly advise Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 2008. That position, according to colleagues, revealed his ability to maintain patience under pressure and to avoid a condescending tone — even when having to explain the most basic foreign policy axioms to his boss.
In his new job, Mr. Biegun will also remain the lead negotiator with North Korea — a dual role, he has said, that elevates “the priority on North Korea to the deputy secretary position, and I think that’s very important.”
But the diplomacy has fizzled since Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim abruptly left a summit meeting in Vietnam a year ago, unable to agree on a path for denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. Critics say the Trump administration was too willing to keep the talks going — and the president too eager to meet with Mr. Kim — even as North Korea was busily building up its arsenal.
Mr. Biegun was not only trying to negotiate with the North Koreans, but he was also engaged in a behind-the-scenes fight with Mr. Trump’s national security adviser at the time, John R. Bolton, who believed Mr. Biegun was pursuing a useless mission.
“This idea that they can be coaxed into giving up” their nuclear program “was flawed from the start,” Mr. Bolton said on Monday in remarks at Duke University.
Still, Joseph Y. Yun, a career diplomat who negotiated with North Korean officials until he retired in March 2018, said Mr. Biegun’s new status could convince Pyongyang that the United States was serious enough about restarting the discussions that it had promoted one of its most senior officials to devote to the details.
“It’s a very good signal to North Korea,’’ said Mr. Yun, who retired in part out of frustration with the State Department’s diminished role in the talks. “This will elevate the negotiations.”
Mr. Biegun’s greatest challenge, however, is the diplomatic morass of Russia and Ukraine.
No one senior official has run the policy since Mr. Bolton left the White House as national security adviser in September, and few have been eager to embrace the portfolio.
But Mr. Biegun has told colleagues he is eager to try to resolve Russia’s undeclared war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. The conflict has killed more than 13,000 Ukrainian troops and civilians and threatened Kyiv’s sovereignty since it began in 2014, the same year that Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.
Ukrainian officials have anxiously looked to Washington for more help as Kyiv broadens talks with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to ratchet back tensions. Mr. Pompeo visited Kyiv last month to signal continued American commitment to Ukraine. But the country’s leaders have not yet been invited to meet with Mr. Trump at the White House, even though the president has been acquitted of impeachment charges that he demanded that Ukraine announce an investigation into his political rivals before releasing security aid for Donbas.
Eric Rubin, a former ambassador to Bulgaria who is now president of the union that represents career diplomats, noted that during his Senate confirmation hearing, Mr. Biegun committed to work “to bridge whatever divides may exist” at the State Department.
“This is not an easy time for our country or our profession,” Mr. Rubin said. “We wish him well.”
Mr. Biegun faces another source of tension with the 2011 New START arms control treaty with Russia, which drove American and Russian nuclear arsenals to their lowest levels in nearly 60 years. The treaty is set to expire in February 2021, and people who have spoken to Mr. Biegun believe he wants to extend it. But Mr. Trump and his aides have signaled repeatedly that they intend to let the treaty expire unless it can be broadened to include other nations with strategic weapons, chiefly China — and the Chinese are not interested.
In his confirmation hearing, Mr. Biegun summed up his approach in a single line that somehow conveyed both optimism for diplomacy and cleareyed realism about the Trump administration’s view of the world, given its “Make America Great Again” mantra.
“I’ve long thought America was great,” Mr. Biegun said.
Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com