The Chosen: Who Biden Is Putting in Power

by Mike Spies, Jake Pearson, Lydia DePillis, Dara Lind, Jake Kincaid and Rob Weychert

Here’s ProPublica’s running list of Joe Biden’s picks to run the federal government.

Cabinet Positions in the Line of Succession

Secretary of State

Antony Blinken

Pending Senate confirmation

Harvard University (A.B.); Columbia University (J.D.)

Blinken, 58, began establishing his foreign policy bona fides in the ‘90s, when he first served in the Department of State under the Clinton administration. Since then, the New York native has worked extensively with Biden, both as a staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and, during the Obama administration, as deputy secretary of state and as the vice president’s national security adviser. There is little daylight between Blinken and Biden’s policy views, which revolve around consensus-building, strong alliances and upholding commitments such as the Paris climate agreement. Blinken’s work in the private sector, and his ties to a Washington advisory firm and an investment fund, could raise questions about potential conflicts of interest.

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

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Secretary of the Treasury

Janet Yellen

Pending Senate confirmation

Brown University (A.B.); Brown University (M.A., Ph.D.)

Yellen was the first woman to chair the Federal Reserve, a position she held from 2014 to 2018. A highly experienced labor economist, the Brooklyn native has also led the White House Council of Economic Advisers and served as the Fed’s vice chair. In many ways, Yellen, 74, is a pragmatist, raising concerns about ballooning deficits while advocating for government support for businesses and workers during times of fiscal crisis. She’s an ardent champion of the banking regulations that were imposed after the 2008 financial meltdown, making her appealing to progressives such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who called Yellen — who would be the first woman to run the Treasury Department — an “outstanding choice” and “one of the most successful Fed chairs ever.”

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Secretary of Defense

Lloyd Austin

Senate confirmation vote: 93–2

United States Military Academy (B.S.); Auburn University (M.A.); Webster University (M.B.A.)

Austin is a four-star general and the only African American to have led the U.S Central Command. He oversaw the withdrawal of U.S combat forces in Iraq in 2011, a massive logistical undertaking that made Austin especially appealing to Biden, who noted that the next secretary will need to “quarterback” the operation to “help distribute the COVID-19 vaccines widely and fairly.” Austin, 67, maintains a reserved profile, and should he receive Senate approval, the Alabama native would be the first Black man to run the Pentagon. Critics note that, after retiring from the service in 2016, he served on the board of the defense contractor Raytheon Technologies, posing a potential conflict of interest down the line. Austin would also need a congressional waiver to serve as defense secretary, since the law mandates a seven-year waiting period between leaving the military and assuming such a role. General Jim Mattis received such a waiver during the Trump administration, which critics view as a worrisome trend.

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Attorney General

Merrick Garland

Pending Senate confirmation

Harvard University (B.A.) Harvard Law School (J.D.)

Merrick Garland, 68, has served as a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals since 1997 when he was nominated by President Bill Clinton. He was President Barack Obama’s pick for the Supreme court to fill Justice Antonin Scalia’s vacancy in 2016 but Senate Republicans refused to hold hearings for the nominee.

The FBI has said it now faces an increase in violence from domestic terrorist and racially motivated political extremists. As deputy assistant attorney general during the Clinton administration, he oversaw the investigation into the Oklahoma City bombing, as well as the Unabomber and the Montana Freemen, an anti-government militant group that faced off against the FBI in an armed stand-off.

President-elect Joe Biden introduced Garland saying “you don’t work for me” and vowing to restore independence to a justice department he has criticized for being too loyal to the former president.

“As everyone who watched yesterday’s events in Washington now understands, if they did not understand before, the rule of law is not just some lawyers’ turn of phrase, it is the very foundation of our democracy,” Garland said.

Garland is a graduate of Harvard Law school.

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Secretary of the Interior

Deb Haaland

Pending Senate confirmation

University of New Mexico (B.A., J.D.)

Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo people who describes herself as a “35th-generation New Mexican”, would be the first Native American cabinet official in U.S. history. The 60-year-old was previously (along with Sharice Davids) the first Native American woman to serve in Congress; both she and Davids were elected in 2018. In Congress, Haaland has built records on natural resources and Native affairs — two of the biggest responsibilities of the Department of the Interior, which oversees federal lands. While the Trump administration has pushed to expand resource extraction on public land, Biden has pledged to ban oil and gas drilling on federally-owned land and water. Haaland has expressed interest in instead expanding renewable energy production on those lands. She will also be responsible for managing the government’s relationship with federally-recognized tribes — and a history of broken promises and disrespect that continues to have real-world policy implications, most recently when the Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that lands in eastern Oklahoma belonging to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation were still a federal reservation.

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Secretary of Agriculture

Tom Vilsack

Pending Senate confirmation

Hamilton College (B.A.); Albany Law School (J.D.)

Vilsack is perhaps Biden’s most controversial nominee, though as secretary of agriculture he’d be reprising a role he held under President Obama. During his tenure, he oversaw an update to school nutrition standards and focused on programs designed to feed millions of struggling Americans. But civil rights advocates say Vilsack, 70, failed to address discimination against Black farmers, and pushed out a popular Black USDA employee after Andrew Breitbart, the now-deceased far-right provocateur, posted a selectively edited clip of a speech she gave at an NAACP event. Additionally, Vilsack has extensive ties to Big Agriculture. Over the last four years, he’s served as the top official of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a dairy trade nonprofit, at a salary of nearly a million dollars a year.

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Secretary of Commerce

Gina Raimondo

Pending Senate confirmation

Harvard University (B.A.); University of Oxford (M.A., Ph.D.); Yale Law School (J.D.)

Gina Raimondo is the first female governor of Rhode Island. During her tenure she has made the state the fourth in the country to offer free community college for high school graduates; she quadrupled public preschool classrooms; and she brought Rhode Island back from one of the nation’s worst unemployment rates.

Still, her nomination faced criticism from some progressives aligned with Bernie Sanders and unions that had previously opposed her reelection after she changed the state pension system.

Before serving as governor, she founded the state’s first venture capital firm and was general treasurer for four years.

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Secretary of Labor

Marty Walsh

Pending Senate confirmation

Woods College of Advancing Studies at Boston College (B.A.)

Woods College of Advancing Studies at Boston College (B.A.) Marty Walsh, 53, is the well-liked mayor of Boston. He gained political power through his connection to unions. Biden said on the campaign trail that he would be “he most pro-union president you have ever seen.” If confirmed, Walsh will be the first union member to serve as secretary of labor in almost fifty years. At 21, he joined the Laborers’ Union Local 223 and went on to become the president of the Union and later served as the leader of the Boston Building and Construction Trades Council, an umbrella group of 20 local construction unions. His nomination was supported by some of the country’s largest unions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the American Federation of teachers.

As Mayor, he fought for a $15 minimum wage which will go into effect in 2023. Before he was elected mayor of Boston he served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

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Secretary of Health and Human Services

Xavier Becerra

Pending Senate confirmation

Stanford University (B.A., J.D.)

Becerra is returning to Washington after 4 years as attorney general of California (replacing Kamala Harris), where he became a prominent Trump administration critic and sued the federal government over 100 times. The 62-year-old California native served in the House of Representatives for over 20 years, rising to become chair of the Democratic caucus and a close ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. While Becerra played a key role in the passage of the Affordable Care Act while in the House, he lacks direct health-care experience, which concerns some of his critics. There are also questions about how the HHS Secretary will share coronavirus-response duties with the pandemic response team being assembled in Biden’s White House.

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Secretary of Housing and Urban Development

Marcia Fudge

Pending Senate confirmation

Ohio State University (B.S.); Cleveland State University (J.D.)

Marcia Fudge publicly lobbied to be named Biden’s secretary of agriculture and described HUD as a token appointment for Black cabinet members. (Fudge lamented to Politico, “it’s always ‘we want to put the Black person in Labor or HUD.’”) But she was named to lead HUD after Rep. James Clyburn publicly criticized Biden for not naming enough Black leaders to cabinet positions. The 68-year-old Ohioan was elected to Congress in 2008 after serving as mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio. She’ll inherit a department that’s expected to restart an Obama-era push to track and discourage racial segregation in public housing, while dealing with a coronavirus-spurred eviction crisis.

Photo by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

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Secretary of Transportation

Pete Buttigieg

Pending Senate confirmation

Harvard University (B.A.); Pembroke College, Oxford (P.P.E.)

A rising star in the Democratic Party, Department of Transportation nominee Pete Buttigieg is widely seen as having solidified Biden’s nomination by suspending his own campaign and endorsing Biden just before Super Tuesday. The 38-year-old former mayor of his native South Bend, Indiana – popularly known as “Mayor Pete” – proved to be a prodigious fundraiser during the Democratic primaries, resonating with many voters drawn to the first openly gay major presidential candidate. Buttigieg pitched himself as a data-driven technocrat who solved municipal problems with technology and had a unique worldview shaped by his time as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan. Critics pointed to his work for the global consultancy firm McKinsey and his apparent inability to connect with minority voters, an image compounded by his rocky relationship with Black residents in South Bend.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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Secretary of Energy

Jennifer Granholm

Pending Senate confirmation

University of California, Berkeley, (B.A.); Harvard University (J.D.)

Granholm, a native of Canada, was the governor of Michigan during the first half of the Obama administration, and worked closely with then-Vice President Biden to revitalize the auto industry. But she’s especially known for her vocal advocacy of alternate energy technologies. As governor, she was an avid proponent of electric vehicles, arguing that their development was an economic necessity for her state. In a recent op-ed for The Detroit News, Granholm, 61, said investment in clean energy “creates good jobs, builds resilience against future shocks and supports the middle class through this unprecedented time.”

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Secretary of Education

Miguel Cardona

Pending Senate confirmation

Central Connecticut State University (B.A.); University of Connecticut (Ed.D.)

Miguel A. Cardona, 45, had a fast rise to his nomination to Biden’s cabinet. Just over two years earlier, he served as assistant superintendent in a school district with fewer than 9,000 students. As the first Latino commissioner of education in Connecticut, he reopened 70% of schools in the fall and pushed to provide technology for students forced to study from home.

Cardona has emphasized addressing achievement gaps. He chaired a legislative task force that studied the issue, and his dissertation focused on closing the achievement gap for students studying English as a second language.

He was born in a Meriden housing project, the grandchild of a Puerto Rican tobacco farmer. Cardona learned English in the public school system. By 28, he was Connecticut’s youngest school principal.

In a speech accepting the nomination, Cardona proposed to turn the COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity to address long-standing disparities.

He will be responsible for implementing Biden’s ambitious education plans, which include getting a majority of schools open in the first 100 days, tripling federal funding for low-income schools and free public college.

Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

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Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Denis McDonough

Pending Senate confirmation

St. John’s University (B.A.); Georgetown University (M.S. in Foreign Service)

Denis McDonough is neither an armed forces veteran nor an experienced hand at the Veterans Administration. His experience — like many top Biden picks — goes back to the Obama White House. The 51-year-old Minnesota native served as President Obama’s chief of staff from 2013 to 2017, and before that, he was the Deputy National Security Advisor to the 44th president. Before joining the Obama campaign in 2008, McDonough was a staffer for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Defenders argue that his executive branch experience will help him lead a sprawling department that’s often struggled to provide effective care to veterans, but veterans’ groups are concerned that a nonveteran secretary will have trouble building trust in the department.

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Secretary of Homeland Security

Alejandro Mayorkas

Pending Senate confirmation

University of California, Berkeley (B.A.); Loyola Marymount University (J.D.)

Mayorkas has extensive experience at the Department of Homeland Security; he was the department’s deputy secretary during Obama’s second term, after leading U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency responsible for legal immigration to the U.S. A Cuban immigrant, the 61-year-old started his federal career as a U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, where he won attention for a compassionate approach to a traditionally law-and-order job. Mayorkas is expected to face confirmation questions about his role in an Obama-era scandal in which he helped influential Democrats secure green cards for wealthy immigrants; Mayorkas and his defenders note that he subsequently changed the process to prevent abuse. He could also face opposition from immigration hawks for his role in the creation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

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Cabinet-Rank Positions

Chief of Staff

Ron Klain

No Senate confirmation required

Georgetown University (B.A.); Harvard Law School (J.D.)

Biden’s pick for his chief of staff, Ron Klain, is no stranger to the job — he’s just not yet done it for the president. After running judicial nominations in the Clinton White House, he became chief of staff to Attorney General Janet Reno, and then assumed the role for then Vice President Al Gore. In the 2000 campaign, he ran the Florida recount for Gore. After that failed, Klain returned to private practice and to a venture capital firm run by Steve Case, the founder of AOL. He did another turn in government in 2009, when Biden allowed him to reprise the chief of staff role, which he left in 2011. In 2014, President Obama tapped him to run the federal government’s response to Ebola. Now 59, he’s viewed as deeply centrist, but with enough experience and relationships in Washington to advance whatever agenda Biden adopts.

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Director of the Office of Management and Budget

Neera Tanden

Pending Senate confirmation

University of California Los Angeles (B.S.); Yale Law School (J.D.)

A fixture of establishment Democratic politics, Tanden, 50, got her start in Bill Clinton’s White House, and then signed on for Hillary Clinton’s senatorial campaign in 2000. In 2003, she played a key role in the founding of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, which has served as both a policy development shop and a landing pad for Democrats while they were out of power. In 2011, after a stint in Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services, she succeeded John Podesta as the think tank’s president. Since then, she has gained a reputation as a sometimes-combative defender of center-left policies, firing off a steady stream of tweets against critics on both the right and the more progressive left.

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Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency

Michael Regan

Pending Senate confirmation

North Carolina A&T State University (B.S.); George Washington University (M.P.A.)

Regan would be the first African American to lead the EPA, where he served as an air quality specialist during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Addressing environmental racism would be a key element of his work, along with prioritizing policies to combat climate change and support clean energy. Currently, Regan runs the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, a position he’s held since 2017. Over the last three years, Regan, 44, has championed science and boosted morale at his agency, two actions he’ll be tasked with repeating at the EPA, whose role as a regulator was severely diminished during the Trump administration. In January 2020, he negotiated an agreement with the utility Duke Energy involving the excavation of 76 million tons of submerged coal ash, the largest ever agreement of its kind.

Photo by Chuck Liddy/The News & Observer via AP

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Trade Representative

Katherine Tai

Pending Senate confirmation

Yale University (B.A.); Harvard Law School (J.D.)

An unusual pick as someone who built her career as a staffer rather than as a politician or a business executive, Tai, 46, comes to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative after six years as a trade counsel to Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee. She served as the committee’s main emissary during hard-fought negotiations with the Trump administration over replacing the North American Free Trade Agreement. Democratic Senators and members of Congress advocated for Tai’s nomination, which would make her the first woman of color to lead the office. She is also a fluent Mandarin speaker, and before moving to Capitol Hill served for three years as head of USTR’s China enforcement office. The experience should serve her well as the Biden administration tries to pick up the pieces after an intense trade war that reverberated across the world and deeply disrupted American businesses.

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Ambassador to the United Nations

Linda Thomas-Greenfield

Pending Senate confirmation

Louisiana State University (B.A.); University of Wisconsin-Madison (M.A.)

A 35-year State Department veteran, Thomas-Greenfield, 68, was the ambassador to Liberia and rose to Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of African Affairs before being pushed out in 2017 as part of Trump’s purge of career foreign service officials. She then joined the Albright Stonebridge Group, leading the consulting firm’s Africa practice, before coming on board Biden’s transition team. As U.N. ambassador, the Louisiana native will be charged with repairing relationships frayed by years of antagonism from the Trump administration, starting by rejoining institutions like the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accords.

Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images

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Administrator of the Small Business Administration

Isabel Guzman

Pending Senate confirmation

University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business (B.A.)

Isabel Guzman served under President Barack Obama as a senior official at the Small Business Administration, and since then she has coordinated California’s economic recovery plan for the coronavirus pandemic.

Twenty-two percent of small businesses closed during the pandemic. Small-business owners of color were disproportionately affected.

The SBA played an important role in pandemic response through the Paycheck Protection Program. Guzman will be responsible for administering the program, which was reauthorized by Congress.

Guzman previously ran a small business herself and was an adviser for ProAmérica Bank, one of the first Latino founded banks in Los Angeles.

She is the first Latina added to the cabinet by Joe Biden.

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Other Top Positions

Director of National Intelligence

Avril Haines

Senate confirmation vote: 84–10

University of Chicago (B.A.); Georgetown University Law Center (J.D.)

A onetime Baltimore bookstore owner, Avril Haines is President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to direct the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, making her the first woman to serve in that capacity if confirmed by the Senate. The Georgetown Law alumna, 51, first worked closely with then-Senator Biden in 2007, when he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee while she was detailed there from the State Department. She subsequently served as a deputy director of the CIA and as a deputy national security adviser at the White House under President Barack Obama. Critics have noted her work overseeing Obama-era drone strike programs as well as her oversight of a CIA review panel that found no agency employees should face discipline after accusations that they spied on Senate investigators. This year, she co-authored a piece in Foreign Policy cautioning against the politicization of intelligence, writing that if Americans can’t rely on the U.S. intelligence community to tell the truth “U.S. national security will suffer, perhaps catastrophically.”

Photo by Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

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Director of the Central Intelligence Agency

William Burns

Pending Senate confirmation

La Salle University (B.A.); Oxford University (M.A, Ph.D.)

William Burns, a career diplomat, is an unexpected pick for CIA director, a post many thought would go to a member of the intelligence community. Many career intelligence officers floated for the role were deemed unacceptable by Senate Democrats because they supported CIA torture programs.

Career intelligence officers such as Norman Roule applauded the pick, suggesting he will be well-received at the CIA.

Burns rose to the highest rank in the U.S. Foreign Service over a 33-year career spanning five administrations. Having served in both Democratic and Republican administrations, Burns promised to deliver intelligence without partisanship.

Burns served as U.S. ambassador to Jordan and Russia, as well as the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. His work has won him the highest civilian honors from the Pentagon and the intelligence community, as well as three Presidential Distinguished Service Awards. Burns most recently led the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, America’s oldest international think tank.

Photo by Soe Than WIN/AFP via Getty Images

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Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission

Gary Gensler

Pending Senate confirmation

University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School of Business (B.A.) ; (MBA)

Gary Gensler is both a Wall Street insider and a feared regulator. Before becoming chairman of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, he was a banker at Goldman Sachs. Under Obama, he faced fierce opposition from Wall Street for his reforms to the $400 trillion swaps market, which contributed to the 2008 crash, as well as overhauls to increase transparency in the derivatives market. He levied heavy fines on those responsible for the LIBOR manipulation scandal, in which bankers at large institutions colluded to manipulate interest rates and make them favorable to trading activities at their institutions.

Gensler was also the CFO of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

He is currently a professor at MIT, where he researches new financial technologies.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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National Security Adviser

Jake Sullivan

No Senate confirmation required

Yale University (B.A.); Yale Law School (J.D.); Oxford University (MPhil)

A key member of Biden’s “brain trust,” Jake Sullivan has been tapped to serve as the president’s national security adviser, where he’ll lead the National Security Council at the White House. The 44-year-old Yale-educated lawyer has advised Democratic power brokers on foreign policy for years: He was a top aide to Hillary Clinton at the State Department, negotiated with the Iranians for President Obama and advised Biden on national security when he was vice president. At the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank, Sullivan has written that U.S. foreign policy should be shaped with the middle class in mind, including in the negotiation of multinational trade agreements and pandemic planning. He has also advocated for hawkish foreign policy approaches that rely on American intervention, including arming Syrian rebels and soldiers in Ukraine.

Photo by Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

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White House Counsel

Dana Remus

No Senate confirmation required

Harvard College (B.A.); Yale University (J.D.)

Dana Remus will lead the White House’s legal team under Biden after serving as his campaign’s general counsel during the 2020 election. Remus is close to former President Barack Obama — she was a White House ethics lawyer and general counsel to the Obama Foundation after he left office. Obama, in turn, officiated her wedding.

Remus launched her career as a clerk for conservative Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito Jr.

Previously she was a professor at University of North Carolina Law School, where she specialized in ethics.

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Press Secretary

Jennifer Psaki

No Senate confirmation required

College of William and Mary (B.A.)

Jennifer Psaki will serve as Biden’s press secretary, becoming the most visible public face of an all female communications team. Besides a brief stint at a New York-based public affairs company, the 42-year-old Connecticut native has largely worked as a party operative and communications specialist for Democratic candidates and elected officials. She did two stints in the Obama White House, serving from 2015 to 2017 as the White House communications director and earlier as a spokeswoman for then-Secretary of State John Kerry. She’s worked on campaigns for governors, served as a communications director for a congressman and was a regional spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

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Mike Spies is a reporter based in ProPublica’s New York City newsroom.

Jake Pearson is a reporter at ProPublica, covering the business interests of Trump Administration officials.

Lydia DePillis covers trade and the economy.

Dara Lind covers immigration policy for ProPublica in Washington, DC.

Jake Kincaid is a freelance reporter covering politics in the U.S and Latin America.

Rob Weychert is an editorial experience designer at ProPublica.