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Biden picks familiar faces for top roles at FEMA, CIA

President-elect Joe Biden gives a speech at the Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., on Thursday.
President-elect Joe Biden delivers a speech at the Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., on Thursday.
(Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

President-elect Joe Biden is nominating New York City’s emergency department commissioner, Deanne Criswell, to serve as chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and has tapped former CIA Deputy Director David Cohen to return to the same role, which he held during the Obama administration.

The picks, along with a trio of other new nominations confirmed by the Biden team, come as the president-elect is putting a premium on experience, and perhaps familiarity, as he looks to fill out top positions at federal agencies with less than a week to go before his inauguration.

Biden also is tapping former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler to help lead the COVID-19 vaccination drive. Kessler has been serving Biden as a co-chair of his advisory board on the pandemic.

Kessler’s pick comes after Biden on Thursday called the Trump administration’s rollout of COVID-19 vaccines a “dismal failure.” He said he would unveil his own plans Friday to speed up inoculations.

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Criswell, who spent more than five years in top posts at FEMA during the Obama administration, is the first woman nominated to head the agency, whose primary responsibility is to coordinate responses to major disasters inside the U.S. that require federal attention. (Another woman, Nancy Ward, served as FEMA’s acting administrator in the early months of the Obama administration before President Obama’s pick for the job, Craig Fugate, could be confirmed.)

Cohen, who was deputy CIA director from 2015 to 2017, has traveled the world for years tracking money flowing to terror groups, such as Islamic State, and other malevolent actors on the international stage. His work directing the Treasury Department’s intelligence unit earlier in his career earned him the nicknames of “financial batman” and “sanctions guru.”

In 2019, Cohen, who has been leading the financial- and business-integrity group at the law firm WilmerHale, made a cameo appearance on the HBO series “Game of Thrones.”

William Burns, chosen by Biden to head the CIA, built a 33-year career at the State Department under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

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Nominees are required to disclose details of their finances and sign ethics agreements as part of the confirmation process. Once confirmed, federal ethics laws can require the officials to recuse themselves from working on issues that could affect their previous business interests.

Cohen is not a registered lobbyist, but his firm does millions of dollars’ worth of lobbying work each year on behalf of clients that include the Beer Institute, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Walgreens and American Financial Group.

Biden is also nominating Shalanda Young, the top staff aide for the House Appropriations Committee, to serve as deputy director at the Office of Management and Budget, and Jason Miller, who was deputy director of the White House National Economic Council in the Obama administration, to serve as deputy director for management at the agency.

Young brings a wealth of Capitol Hill experience in budget policy — and politics — to the budget office, along with close relationships with powerful House Democrats such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). Miller was steeped in manufacturing policy in the Obama administration, and worked on an update of automobile fuel-efficiency standards.

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Jaime Harrisons has been tapped by President-elect Joe Biden to serve as Democratic Party chairman and is expected to be elected next week.

Biden is also tapping Janet McCabe, an environmental law and policy expert who spent more than seven years as a top official at the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration, to return to the agency as deputy administrator.

“Each of them brings a deep respect for the civil servants who keep our republic running, as well as a keen understanding of how the government can and should work for all Americans,” Biden said of his picks in a statement. “I am confident that they will hit the ground running on Day 1 with determination and bold thinking to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.”

Criswell has served as New York City’s emergency management commissioner since June 2019. In her earlier work at FEMA, Criswell served as the leader of one of the agency’s National Incident Management Assistance Teams and as a federal coordinating officer. In New York, part of her duties included leading the coordination of the city’s emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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She also served as the head of the Office of Emergency Management for the city of Aurora, Colo. Criswell served in the Colorado Air National Guard, including 21 years as a firefighter and deputy fire chief with deployments to Qatar, Afghanistan and Iraq.


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