Chris Coons was flying back from Ethiopia to Washington this week when a staffer showed him a revealing picture on the plane’s radar: His aircraft and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s were about to cross paths over the Atlantic Ocean.
The moment was a metaphor of sorts for Coons’ current role for President Joe Biden. The Delaware Democrat’s close friendship with Biden has already made Coons an unofficial White House envoy in the Senate, but he is now expanding his reach overseas, with the president dispatching the senator to Ethiopia over the weekend for an urgent diplomatic mission.
The move showed that despite Coons’ dashed hopes to serve as Biden’s chief diplomat, he’s emerging as what some sources called a “shadow” secretary of state for a president beset with foreign-policy challenges. He’s a senior member of the Foreign Relations Commitee, but it’s highly unusual for a senator who doesn’t chair a panel to travel internationally on the president’s behalf.
Coons rejects the idea that he is supplanting Blinken. Still, he is embracing the identity that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) described as a “force multiplier” for the president. While Blinken crisscrosses the globe to address an array of diplomatic and national-security issues, Biden can rely on Coons to pinch hit.
“The fact that I am known to have a close relationship with [Biden] helps me deliver a more forceful message,” Coons said of his weekend trip to Addis Ababa, where he met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
“President Biden thought it was important to send someone who could speak for him and deliver a message for him directly,” he added, referring to himself as Biden’s “personal emissary” on this mission.
Indeed, Coons did not hesitate to say yes when Biden asked him to make the long trek to Africa to address the atrocities in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.
Coons delivered a letter from Biden to Abiy and returned to Washington with a response for Biden in-hand. Speaking with POLITICO two hours after landing back in the U.S., his voice hoarse from exhaustion, Coons described the trip as “positive and purposeful.” And there’s already evidence to back that up.
On Tuesday, Abiy admitted — after consistent denials — that Eritrean troops had, in fact, entered the Tigray region, where they are accused of slaughtering and raping civilians. It was a major breakthrough in the long-running conflict between Eritrea and the regional governing party in Tigray, which has sought to overthrow Abiy’s government.
The U.S. has called for Eritrean troops to leave Tigray and for Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, to take responsibility for protecting all his citizens — including the ethnic minorities in that region — after credible reports emerged detailing grisly human-rights violations. Blinken described the massacres earlier this month as “ethnic cleansing,” a claim that the Ethiopian government denies.
Coons’ situation as a stand-in for the Biden administration is unique, dating back to calls he got as early as last fall from foreign officials hoping for access to his fellow Delawarean. It’s one that senators from both parties said Biden should continue to take advantage of.
“You’ve got members of Congress who show an interest in the issue, they can be really helpful,” Graham said. “I think it’s a smart move by President Biden, and I know Chris is very capable.”
Despite the potential for territorial friction between Coons and Blinken over foreign policy matters, none has come up yet. The senator briefed the secretary at length on his way back from Ethiopia and noted that Blinken is “incredibly busy,” having met with Chinese officials in Alaska last week before flying to Brussels for talks with officials from NATO and the European Union.
“So if I’m able to play some small role in advancing our shared priorities,” Coons said, “I’m very happy to.”
Coons was a natural match for the Ethiopia mission, carrying deep ties to the region in addition to a bond with the president. The third-term senator was a humanitarian aid worker in Kenya before he attended law school and has served as the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel’s Africa subcommittee.
A National Security Council spokesperson said that Coons, Blinken and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield “have repeatedly engaged the Ethiopian government, as well as other international partners at the highest levels, to help secure an end to the violence” in Tigray.
Beyond foreign policy, Coons will remain instrumental as Biden tries to push his agenda through Congress. The Senate is set to take up several major bills in the coming months that will likely need support from Republicans, and Coons’ good standing with GOP senators — though it has gotten him in trouble with liberals — leaves him well-positioned to help strike a deal.
“Diplomacy is important to him — international diplomacy, but also, he’s quite a diplomat within the Senate,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said. “And he’s been a good partner.”
That partnership mentality would make Coons an easy choice if Biden ends up having to tap a replacement for Blinken later in his administration. The secretary of state job would come easy to Coons, fellow senators have said, and he would likely get confirmed with 90-plus votes.
It helps that Coons is always happy to talk about international affairs, both with reporters and his colleagues. Senators in both parties quizzed Coons about his trip when he returned to the Capitol on Monday. Coons remained on the floor for around 30 minutes during an evening vote series fielding questions about the situation in Ethiopia.
Despite his grueling travel schedule — Coons guessed he slept for only a total of six hours during the three-day trip — he was eager to stay and chat.
The 57-year-old declined to say whether he expects to conduct similar diplomatic efforts on Biden’s behalf in the future, saying only that that was up to the president.
“I think it is important that the United States more broadly, and President Biden in particular, demonstrate engagement, concern, commitment to resolve the humanitarian and human-rights challenges in Tigray,” Coons said.
But while his Democratic friend remains in the Senate, Cornyn offered Coons a quirky assignment that would be familiar to Tom Cruise fans: “the ambassador of quan.”
Cornyn jokingly bestowed that title on Coons when the two crossed paths in the Capitol this week. It refers to the 1996 movie “Jerry Maguire,” in which Cruise’s agent shows Cuba Gooding Jr.’s NFL star how to seek more than just cold cash.
In the film, “quan” means both coin and communal respect, two qualities that Coons represents these days as a senator-slash-globetrotter for the White House — which explains why Coons quipped back to the Republican that his teasing was “almost literally” correct.