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What Chris Coons tells world leaders about Biden

MUNICH — At least twice this year, Chris Coons has been mistaken for a certain world leader from Germany.

In January, as the junior senator from Delaware walked down bright-white stairs at the World Economic Forum in Davos, whirring cameras and microphone-wielding reporters turned to capture his every move. In an instant they were disappointed; the man who looks remarkably like German Chancellor Olaf Scholz put his hands up and said, “Sorry, I’m not him.”

Last week, in a traditional Bavarian restaurant in Munich, Coons walked out of a private congressional dinner on the sidelines of the world’s most important security conference to speak briefly with me. Eyes immediately lifted from tables topped with beers and schnitzel, a few servers in kitschy garb slowed to catch a glimpse. The practiced politician turned to the curious diners momentarily and joked, yet again, “No, that’s not me. I’m the other guy.”

At both global conclaves, the powerful who gathered behind closed doors had no illusions about the important association that makes this Democratic lawmaker highly sought out and listened to. He’s one of President Joe Biden’s most influential global emissaries, someone who’s mentioned in the same breath as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan or Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Though he may not hold executive power, he’s the closest thing to a direct presidential representative one can find from the ranks of Capitol Hill.

Coons has been Biden’s “other guy” abroad throughout this presidency. To watch the jovial Delawarean operate outside the U.S. is to see him embrace the role of proxy. At the Munich Security Conference this weekend, world leaders flocked to the 59-year-old lawmaker not only to get a sense of U.S. foreign policy — they could also speak to Vice President Kamala Harris or Blinken for that. They sought him out to get a sense of Biden, the man.

“What I bring to the table in talking to folks here, or who are world leaders, is I get one piece of who he is, which is the part that’s connected to Delaware,” Coons said in our interview. That ethos — “The Delaware Way,” Coons called it — is the same one that drives Biden’s style of negotiation: “You’ve got to get something if I’m going to get something.”

In the U.S. and around the world, Coons is talked about as a shadow secretary of State. It’s not just that Biden dispatches him to hotspots or expects to be briefed after the senator’s meetings at global fora. It’s also that Coons is always gladhanding with foreign dignitaries, whether in cramped hotel hallways or glitzy Alpine resorts. He has a gift for showmanship and a warm personal touch, lightly tapping someone when he wants to emphasize a point or he sees their attention slipping.

Back on Capitol Hill, aides like to joke that Coons is constantly hiding from his staff because he’s on the phone with the president so often. It’s a relationship he jealousy guards and curates. He has no problem telling reporters or anyone who will listen that he has the president’s ear.

As a member of a congressional delegation here, Coons gave everyone from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to U.S. combatant commanders his reading of the president’s mindset entering the second year of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The message was simple: Help Ukraine without risking America’s military readiness for future fights — namely should China invade Taiwan — and don’t plunge the U.S. into another foreign war.

‘He writes the checks’

Coons’ role as an unofficial Biden middle-man can create moments of dissonance. At times he shies away from hot-button issues. At other points he makes statements that seem like he’s presenting a wholesale shift in White House policy.

That tension underscores the way this administration runs global affairs. It uses a kind of divide-and-conquer approach, sending the right person for the particular moment. Sometimes that’s having CIA Director Bill Burns secretly jet off to Russia, quietly dispatching deputy national adviser Jon Finer into Equatorial Guinea, or deploying Coons — an Africanist — to Ethiopia to deliver a stern message to its leader.

Coons stresses that he doesn’t speak for Biden or his administration, yet has no qualms sharing what drives the commander in chief. “He gets what the average American wants us to do in Washington in a way a lot of folks there today have forgotten,” Coons said during our interview. In terms of foreign policy, that means taking decisions that help the average person and better the nation’s global standing.

Coons had to factor in that overall guidance when conversations with allies in Munich turned to the potential transfer of Western warplanes to Ukraine. The senator personally supports the idea. He also knows that Biden is against it and is loath to do anything that could embroil the United States in another war.

In meetings inside the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, Coons said, he made sure to shift the conversation from “chasing shiny objects” to other possible assistance. “Wars are won or lost on logistics,” the senator said.

While foreign officials note that speaking with Coons isn’t the same as speaking with Biden, the general conclusion is that it’s better to be on Coons’ side than not. No one wants him to relay negative or indifferent views to the president. They’d rather he be an envoy for their views than an opponent.

“He’s another way in,” a European official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to the press.

Back in September 2021, senior French officials flocked to Coons after the announcement of a nuclear submarine deal between the U.S., Britain and Australia known as AUKUS. The French were stunned and livid. The deal annulled an existing contract for France to supply the Australians with their subs. Emmanuel Macron called his ambassador home from Washington in protest, while his emissaries worked with the Delaware senator who co-chairs the Congressional French Caucus to defuse the crisis.

He relayed France’s grievances to the White House and the White House’s position back to France. At a particularly fraught time in the bilateral relationship, Coons didn’t lose friends on either side. French Ambassador Philippe Étienne has since traveled to Delaware multiple times just to trade notes with Coons. During Étienne’s retirement party on Feb. 8, it was Coons who delivered the congratulatory speech.

On Capitol Hill, Coons has another source of foreign policymaking power. He chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee’s panel on State and foreign aid funding and takes his control over purse string role seriously.

“People think all the foreign officials come to him as the Biden whisperer, but really it’s because he writes the checks,” a Senate Democratic aide said.

Biden’s man in Congress — and in the world

Coons is regularly discussed as the person who would succeed Blinken if he moves on. It’s an open secret that he hoped to be America’s top diplomat at the start of the administration, and he has since told colleagues he could still be secretary of State, perhaps in a second Biden term.

Any time he’s asked about his future plans, his face contorts into a full-blown wince, the displeasure and unease visible. He’ll muster a rehearsed response, as if he were reading from a written statement.

“The people of Delaware hired me to be a senator,” he told me in Munich. “One day, when the president and I talked after the election, he said to me ‘I need you in the Senate because I need someone who’s going to help build bipartisan solutions,’ and I respect that and appreciate the chance to continue serving.”

Such comments don’t end the speculation. After all, he never says “I don’t want the job.”

A senior Republican Senate aide added that a Coons nomination to succeed Blinken in Foggy Bottom would be a “no brainer” for confirmation. “Because of that ‘Delaware Way,’ senators on the other side of the aisle go to him,” the staffer said. “He has a reputation of being approachable and engaged. He wants to be helpful.”

Coons attributes that sense to what he heralds as a “hard-earned and well-deserved reputation for bipartisanship.”

“I’m happy to help be a bridge,” he added.

His colleagues offered myriad examples of Coons reaching across the aisle. One story came up repeatedly.

In April 2018, then-CIA director Mike Pompeo was going through the confirmation process to be secretary of State. He didn’t have the votes for a positive referral from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee even in a Republican-led Senate. All the Democrats plus Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) opposed the nomination and then-Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) was away giving a eulogy at a friend’s funeral.

There was talk of Isakson flying back to D.C. — and leaving the ceremony — to help Pompeo and Donald Trump avoid an embarrassing setback. Coons, who had picked Isakson as his Republican mentor eight years earlier, changed his vote to “present” to save his friend the painful trip.

That episode, Republicans say, was a quintessential Coons moment, one that has helped him win over those across the aisle. It’s made the senator the “bridge” he wants to be.

“He helps communicate the Hill’s position to the administration, what’s important, what members are thinking. He plays an invaluable role,” the senior Republican staffer said.

Five years later, in a hotel lounge in Munich, Coons recounted that he had expected other Democrats to also change their votes to accommodate Isakson. Isakson had earned that decency and not changing the vote would only delay Pompeo’s confirmation, not sink it. If he had any regrets, it was that he didn’t warn Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the committee’s top Democrat, about his planned action.

“I should have talked to him, and that was a mistake on my part,” he said. “I have apologized to Sen. Menendez for my misreading and the awkward position I put him in.”

Coons then choked up, fighting back tears before continuing to speak. A year before that SFRC hearing, he had received a call at 3 a.m. that his father had died. Coons had two votes that day, “and he was going to be dead whether I stayed and cast the votes or whether I got in the car.” Coons went to the Senate chamber, but Sen. Mike Rounds saw his distress and the South Dakota Republican offered to vote in a way that wouldn’t change the outcome with the Delawarean gone.

“Part of what informed my sense that we should be kind to each other was Mike Rounds being kind to me,” Coons said.

‘I have my own mind’

Coons does sometimes break with Biden on foreign policy — even if he does so in a diplomatic way.

Most notably, he was skeptical of withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Whenever he was asked afterward if Biden handled the drawdown and evacuation well, he never said “yes.” Instead, he would say that there was “plenty of time for pointing fingers” after the ordeal was over. It wasn’t lost on some inside the administration that Coons distanced himself from the president during its most high-profile debacle.

He has never been fully on board with the Biden administration push to revive the Iran nuclear deal, arguing that it needs to include more limits on Iran. And though Coons is supportive of sending weapons to Taiwan ahead of a possible invasion by China, he threw a wrench in the process by seeking answers on how the U.S. would pay for it all.

He’s also prone to gaffes — big ones — that can be damaging to the administration given his reputation as a proxy for the president. Last April, he told an audience at the University of Michigan that it was time for U.S. officials to start talking about sending troops into Ukraine.

“We are in a very dangerous moment where it is important that on a bipartisan and measured way we in Congress and the administration come to a common position about when we are willing to go the next step and to send not just arms but troops to the aid in defense of Ukraine,” he said. “If the answer is never, then we are inviting another level of escalation in brutality by Putin.”

He walked back the comment a week later, tweeting that “I’m not calling for U.S. troops to go into the war in Ukraine.” But Coons, according to some of his allies, regretted the statement that made it seem like the administration floated a trial balloon through him.

Coons doesn’t shy away from examples of his disagreements with the administration on foreign policy. He embraces them.

“That’s a recognition that I have my own mind,” he said defiantly, sitting up straighter in his chair inside the U.S. delegation’s dedicated room. He said he learned from watching Biden’s 36-year Senate career that lawmakers should act independently of the White House and speak their own truth. If that helps or hurts the administration, so be it.

“Biden often will repeat that same point: You’ve got to make up your mind. You’ve got to do what you think is right,” Coons said.

There’s no indication that Coons’ occasional independence has soured his relationship with Biden. Earlier this month, the president used an address at the National Prayer Breakfast to single out his longtime friend, the holder of a divinity degree.

“I thought it was really incredible what you said, Chris. You said, ‘Let’s continue the practice of the ministry of presence.’ … Being present not just for yourself but for one another. That’s what’s expected of those of us in public service,” Biden preached.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who was at the event, was impressed by the “spiritual life lesson” Coons seems to have imparted on the president. “I think he has significant influence both formally and informally,” he said.

Coons sees that influence with Biden as something he’s earned.

He encouraged Biden to run for president as an antidote to Donald Trump, and his congressional colleagues thought he was crazy for backing a septuagenarian prone to repeating old stories and making gaffes. Biden wasn’t woke enough or wouldn’t govern as a progressive, they’d tell him.

Coons doesn’t say he feels vindicated in backing Biden, though he claims many of his colleagues are “surprised” with his performance. “The Delaware Way” works, he proclaims, and it’s helped get him and Biden into the influential positions they’re in now.

“I hope it’s clear I’m having fun,” he said. Coons then walked down the stairs to speak on yet another foreign policy panel. On the way, he didn’t need to raise his hands to explain who he was. Those outstretching their palms recognized him as Biden’s “other guy,” not the other “other guy.”

Jonathan Lemire, Marianne LeVine and Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.

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