Meet New Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan ’85

John J. Sullivan succeeds Antony Blinken ’88 as the nation’s number two diplomat.

John J. Sullivan ’85 headshot

For John J. Sullivan ’85, getting confirmed as deputy secretary of state shared one major similarity to being a law student—lots of studying. To prepare for his appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and one-on-one meetings with senators, Sullivan said he reviewed and synthesized “enormous briefing binders” from the State Department. It reminded him, he said, of “a massive law school final exam.”

“I still use the skills that I developed in law school,” Sullivan added in an interview a few days after his 94–6 confirmation in May. “The tricks I learned and the way I did things, I still do the same way—whether it’s for a meeting or other activities where I’m given lots of information and have to be prepared to answer questions, and some of those questions I may not be given in advance.”

The second number two

Sullivan succeeds Antony Blinken ’88 as the nation’s number two diplomat. He said the Columbia Law School connection was made after his nomination, when he met Blinken and other former deputy secretaries. Sullivan called Blinken—who received the Law School’s highest honor, the Medal for Excellence, last year—“a good guy and a friend.”

“We’re starting a tradition here of Columbia law grads serving as deputy secretary of state,” he joked. 

But Sullivan’s continued connection to Columbia isn’t just through his career; it’s also familial. A 1981 graduate of Brown University, he met his wife, Grace Rodriguez ’86, a litigation partner in King & Spalding’s Washington, D.C., office, during law school; both were editors on the Columbia Law Review staff. And his daughter plans to attend Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs next year.  

A record of public service

Sullivan has worked for almost 30 years at the law firm Mayer Brown, but, in between, he also held government posts in two prior Republican administrations. His first federal post was at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, where he worked on opinions related to the 1990–1991 Gulf War. Under President George W. Bush, Sullivan served as deputy general counsel at the Defense Department, then as deputy secretary of the Commerce Department. 

Working on national security issues during two wars without controversy, Sullivan gained a reputation as a manager, not a policy warrior. He was selected for the number two job at the State Department by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after helping the former ExxonMobil chief prepare for his own confirmation hearing in January.

In this new role, Sullivan will have a full plate. He was confirmed as President Trump roiled relations with the Germans and other NATO allies during a foreign trip (which Sullivan categorized as “very successful”) and will also assist in a reorganization of the State Department pushed by Tillerson. Sullivan will have a hand in both matters. Due to Tillerson’s desire to have just one deputy, the job combines what had been two posts during the Obama administration: deputy secretary of state, focused mostly on policy, and deputy secretary of state for management and resources.  

Recently, Sullivan said he spoke to former Supreme Court Justice David Souter, for whom he clerked as a young law grad. The conversation—about legal matters at the State Department, which Sullivan didn’t specify—drove home how, in his first days on the job, many matters he confronted “have been infused with legal issues” and “benefit from a having a lawyer’s eye look at them.”  

“It’s something that I bring to the table,” he said.


Posted on June 6, 2017