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‘We just go to Jake’: How a Southwest High grad became Hillary Clinton’s go-to guy

Hillary Clinton calls Jake Sullivan discreet, earnest and brilliant. And if she wins the White House, he will likely land in the West Wing.

President Barack Obama, far right, talking with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, center, and then-Deputy Chief of Staff to the Secretary of State Jake Sullivan at the US-ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 2012.
White House/Pete Souza

In November 2012, Jake Sullivan was invited to lunch in Myanmar with President Barack Obama. Obama asked him for a history of the country. It was a set-up, a test, but one that Sullivan — two weeks shy of 36 at the time — had prepared for nearly all his life.

His parents kept a globe in the middle of the kitchen table when he was growing up at 51st and Queen, a few blocks from Lake Harriet, in southwest Minneapolis. “For being in a place that’s landlocked, Minnesotans have a real sense of the wider world,” he says. “Teachers, friends, neighbors — everywhere I went in Minnesota, people put their heads up and looked out to the horizon.” 

His father worked for the business side of the Star Tribune before becoming a professor in the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and his mother also worked in education. Dinner, Sullivan says, meant he and his four siblings “coming back from some sports or music practice, gathering around a big tub of pasta, and spinning the globe.” As fingers flashed from country to country, his parents would elucidate the politics there. 

“They made a point of showing us that being on top of what’s happening in the world is important to being a good citizen,” Sullivan says. “By the time I was 10 or 13, I’d learned the world capitals.”

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By the time Obama turned to him for a history of Myanmar, Sullivan had been to 112 countries. He had become one of Hillary Clinton’s closest advisers —“the one person” anyone needed to know at the State Department, the powerful diplomat Richard Holbrooke once reportedly said, “loved by everyone in the institution.” Sullivan was the go-to guy. “If it’s important, we just go to Jake,” another colleague put it. Jake. Like any real celebrity, recognized by a single name.

Now, he is once more working for Clinton. If she manages to win the White House, Sullivan will likely land in the West Wing. Either way, he and the values he brought from Minnesota to Washington are already reshaping the global political landscape.

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Sullivan’s family moved to Minneapolis from Vermont when he was ready for the fourth grade, and he grew up playing pickup hockey at Lynnhurst Field and Lake of the Isles. The Sullivan kids were competitive: His sister became All-Ivy League in soccer; a younger brother became a barefoot kicker at Yale. Almost every year for more than a decade now the siblings have met up at the Final Four — without tickets — and tried to squirrel their way in. 

Sullivan became a debate and quiz bowl champion at Southwest High School, where he headed the student council and was voted “most likely to succeed.”

“I thought the idea of grappling with ideas and advocating for positions based on those ideas was an exciting prospect,” he says. “I didn’t think I would do it anywhere else.”

In fact, he’s never stopped. As an undergrad at Yale, he placed third at the national debate championship. As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, he became the top seed in the world debate championship. Four years out of Yale Law School, he prepped Clinton for debates during her 2008 presidential campaign. When Clinton dropped out, he did the same for Obama.

He worked with Clinton when she was secretary of state, becoming her deputy chief of staff and then, at 34, the State Department’s youngest-ever director of policy planning. In 2012, she secretly dispatched him to Oman to begin nuclear negotiations with Iran — a deal he saw through to its remarkable conclusion last year.

If his smarts carried him up the diplomatic ladder, a kind of Minnesota nice kept him there. “A core lesson is don’t be a jerk,” he says. “Of course it’s the right thing to do to be a good person and care about your neighbor, colleagues, and people less fortunate. But I’ve also found that if you want to advance your career and make an impact, you need people who are going to be your champion, and that means showing them that you’re not just in it for yourself.”

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Sullivan has plenty of champions. They helped set up the Myanmar lunch. And shortly after that trip, Obama called Sullivan from Air Force One to persuade him to take a job in the White House, as Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, the only opening at the time that would get him into the West Wing’s inner circle. 

He accepted in early 2013, becoming yet another Minnesotan in Obama’s orbit, alongside Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides of Duluth (“true blue Minnesota roots,” Sullivan says) and Stillwater native Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff (“Denis and I have a longstanding debate over whether Stillwater or southwest Minneapolis is the better place to grow up”). 

Nice guys, all of them. “Being fundamentally decent and honest and willing to put others before yourself — that’s necessary for being an effective policymaker,” Sullivan says. “In the real world, answers may not be clear cut, there will be messy choices, and you’re not going to be able to construct a policy response in a neat and tidy way. Being able to listen to other people, even as you stay true to your principles, that’s how you actually succeed.”

Hillary Clinton began to rely on him more and more. Of her most scrutinized emails, the majority are exchanges with Sullivan, and last fall he spent nine hours being grilled by the House Benghazi committee, emerging with a smile. (His inquisitors called him “professional” and “fact-focused.”) 

In her book “Hard Choices,” Clinton calls him discreet, earnest and brilliant. Indeed, she asked him to review chapters of the book before publication. When Sullivan got married last summer at Yale, where he has been teaching at the law school since leaving the White House in 2014, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power gave a toast. Clinton gave a Bible reading. 

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Profiles of Sullivan almost always have a disclaimer, that he declined to comment, or wasn’t made available, or, in at least one case, replied with a single word: “Ugh.” His work, by necessity, has been behind the scenes. But that may be changing.

He is once again Clinton’s sparring partner and foreign-policy adviser. In late January, a couple of weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the Clinton campaign released a video featuring him, characteristically dressed in a blue button-down shirt, calmly arguing that Bernie Sanders’ views on Iran amount to endangering Israel. 

He hasn’t ruled out running for office himself someday, possibly in Minnesota. He thought about it shortly after law school, when he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, returned home, and briefly worked for Faegre and Benson before signing on with Sen. Amy Klobuchar — the connection that led to Clinton. He was considering it again before President Obama called. 

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“Minnesota is exactly the kind of place that anyone, whether they have ties there or not, should be impressed with as a thriving community in every respect,” he says, sounding as much like a politician as a diplomat. 

His wife is from New Hampshire and his boss may become the most powerful person in the world, but he feels tugged to Minnesota. After all these years, and all the miles, he still has a 612 phone number. “There will always be a gravitational pull,” he says. 

Minnesota at Large is a occasional series featuring Minnesotans who are making an impact outside the state.