Denis R. McDonough was born December 2, 1969 in Stillwater, Minnesota. Raised in a devout Catholic family, he attended Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, where in 1992 he graduated with degrees in history and Spanish. Next, McDonough traveled extensively throughout Latin America and taught high school in Belize. He then earned a master’s degree from Georgetown University‘s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in 1996.
From 1996-99, McDonough was an aide for the House International Relations Committee, where he focused chiefly on Latin American affairs. In 2004 he worked at the George Soros-affiliated Center for American Progress. That same year, he served as a senior foreign-policy advisor to Senator Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota). After Daschle was voted out of office in 2004, McDonough became legislative director for the newly elected Senator Ken Salazar (D-Colorado).
In 2006 McDonough joined the staff of then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois). In 2007-08, he served as a senior foreign-policy advisor to Obama’s presidential campaign. During this period, McDonough established his reputation as a fiercely devoted Obama loyalist—as exemplified by the following anecdote from The New York Times:
“Mr. McDonough shoveled the driveway and sidewalk of a Davenport, Iowa, couple as part of an unsuccessful effort to woo them into caucusing for Mr. Obama instead of Mrs. Clinton. He spent so much time canvassing his assigned precinct that by the night of the Iowa caucuses he was greeting most of the caucusgoers by name.”
After Obama’s election victory in 2008, McDonough joined the new administration as the National Security Council’s head of strategic communication, where he was responsible for speech-writing and messaging. He later served as National Security Council chief of staff.
A Washington Post profile describes McDonough as “an Obama true believer who keeps an eye on burnishing his [Obama’s] legacy.” The New York Times calls him “intensively protective of the president.” Indeed, McDonough has not hesitated to berate some of the Democratic Party’s leading foreign-policy dignitaries when they have criticized Obama publicly.
“Denis is one of the president’s closest advisers and friends,” says Michéle Flournoy, Obama’s former undersecretary of defense for policy. “There are few people who know the president’s mind as well as Denis…. He’s very good at having a sense of how the president will view something or react to something or where he’s come down on a given issue.” Cheryl Mills, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, calls McDonough “the keeper of the president’s flame.” Helene Cooper of The New York Times writes: “When it comes to national security, Mr. Obama’s inner circle is so tight it largely consists of Mr. McDonough.” Foreign-policy expert Brian Katulis, a close friend of McDonough, says: “When the president needs to pick up the phone and call someone on national security, that someone is Denis.”
Consistent with these assessments, journalist James Mann reports that McDonough was largely the only White House staffer who was kept fully in the loop during preparations for the May 2, 2011 Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Moreover, McDonough was sitting just two seats to Obama’s left in a now-famous photograph of the president and his top aides monitoring that raid.
In his 2011 book, Obama’s Wars, author Bob Woodward reports that Gen. James L. Jones, a former national security advisor under President Obama, viewed Obama’s inner circle of aides—which included McDonough—as a “major obstacle” to the development of an effective U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Jones, who technically outranked McDonough, felt that he was not given as much access to the president as McDonough.
In the aftermath of President Obama’s re-election in November 2012, McDonough blocked efforts by national-security aides to reopen the policy debate about possibly using U.S. sanctions as a means of persuading Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government to halt its bloody crackdown on rebel forces. McDonough justified this unyielding stance by noting, simply, that Obama was confident that the U.S. policy was working.
McDonough’s influence on President Obama was not limited solely to matters of national security. For instance, he helped advise the president on how to handle the 2012 controversy where Catholic institutions complained about the contraception- and abortifacient-coverage mandates that were included in the new “Obamacare” health-care law.
On January 25, 2013, President Obama appointed McDonough as his new chief of staff, succeeding Jack Lew.
McDonough was a key player in a major foreign-policy decision by President Obama in August 2013. During the final week of that month, Obama publicly announced that the U.S. had obtained unimpeachable evidence that the Assad regime in Syria—which for 30 months had been waging a brutal civil war against al Qaeda-linked rebel forces—had recently used chemical weapons to kill more than 1,400 people. Obama further indicated that in response to that atrocity, he was leaning toward attacking Syria (where more than 100,000 people had already died in the war) with a very limited military strike of short duration against certain selected targets—and that he would not seek a congressional vote to authorize such a move. On the afternoon of August 30, the President dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry to make a passionate speech in support of a swift U.S. response to Syria’s “moral obscenity.” Just hours after Kerry’s speech, however, Obama discussed the matter with McDonough and abruptly decided to reverse course, now saying that he would seek congressional approval before taking any military action.
At a J Street event in March 2015, McDonough criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for having indicated, on the eve of his recent re-election, “that a Palestinian state will not be established while he is Prime Minister.” “After the election,” McDonough continued, “the Prime Minister said that he had not changed his position [from his 2009 affirmation that he favored two peoples living “freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect”], but for many in Israel and in the international community, such contradictory comments call into question his commitment to a two-state solution. We cannot simply pretend that those comments were never made, or that they don’t raise questions about the Prime Minister’s commitment to achieving peace through direct negotiations. An occupation that has lasted for almost 50 years must end, and the Palestinian people must have the right to live in and govern themselves in their own sovereign state…. Israel cannot maintain military control of another people indefinitely.”
In truth, Netanyahu had not changed his fundamental position since 2009. The two-state vision he had outlined, however, was contingent upon the emergence of a Palestinian government rejecting terrorism and respecting Israel’s right to exist—things that had not yet occurred as of 2015.