A Former Top DOJ Official's Smooth Landing
John Demers, who served in both the Trump and Biden Administrations, is going back to Boeing—in an interesting new role.
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John Demers, who served as assistant attorney general for the National Security Division (NSD) during most of the Trump Administration and the early days of the Biden Administration, has found his landing spot. He’s returning to Boeing, the aerospace and aviation giant where he previously worked for nine years, in a role created specifically for him. The company announced his hiring internally earlier today.
In his new job, Demers will divide his time between the Law Department and the Government Operations Department. In his legal role, he will focus on regulatory affairs, including environmental, health, and safety (EHS) issues, and compliance concerns, especially ones with a governmental nexus (e.g., compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA)). In his governmental-affairs role, he will work on an array of key policy issues, especially sustainability and cybersecurity—one of the most significant parts of his portfolio during his time at the Justice Department.
Demers will work out of Boeing’s offices in Arlington, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C., and he expects to start sometime in mid-September. His exact title remains to be determined, but his role will be at the vice-president level. On the legal side, Demers will report to Brett Gerry, the company’s chief legal officer and executive vice president; on the governmental-affairs side, he will report to the new executive vice president of government operations. (That hire has not yet been announced; Tim Keating, who held the role since 2008, left in June under mysterious circumstances.)
“Boeing is a well-known place to me, both in terms of its people and as a company,” Demers told me in a phone conversation this morning. “I’m excited to go back.”
As noted by the Los Angeles Times when Demers left the DOJ in June, he was “considered among the most apolitical Trump appointees.” His nomination as NSD head drew bipartisan support and he was confirmed by voice vote, without opposition. After the end of the Trump Administration, he was asked to remain in his role by the Biden Administration—the only political appointee at the DOJ who was asked to stay on post-transition, reflecting the high esteem for him on both sides of the aisle.
In light of his successful tenure at the National Security Division, as chronicled in the Wall Street Journal and L.A. Times, as well as the high demand right now for lawyers with expertise in cybersecurity, Demers had no shortage of post-government opportunities. And he did explore some, mainly in-house. But several factors drew him back to Boeing.
First, he greatly appreciated how Boeing created a new role for him—one that includes policy work, an area of keen interest to him. He didn’t want to return to the company in any role he had held before, and Boeing understood this.
Second, as he knows from his earlier time at the company, the Law Department at Boeing is well respected internally. It has a very good place within the organization—which can’t be taken for granted.
Finally, he continues to find the company and its work extremely interesting.
“The history of Boeing is the history of aviation,” Demers told me. “It’s exciting to look back on that history and also to think about the future.”
“And it’s such a global company—practically everything that happens in the world has some potential impact on Boeing. This was appealing to me as someone who spent the last four years or so thinking about different developments around the world. How does the Iran nuclear deal affect Boeing’s business? What about the U.S. relationship with China?”
He’s especially enthusiastic about working on sustainability. It’s an issue of critical importance to the aerospace, aviation, and defense industries, as well as one of Boeing’s top priorities at the current time.
“How do we make aviation sustainable in the long run? This involves everything from biofuels to making current models more fuel-efficient,” Demers explained. “It requires marrying environmental needs with product requirements and design. There’s a lot of pressure on big public companies right now to lower the environmental impact of their products.”
It’s an interesting—and challenging—time to be joining Boeing. The company appears to be on the path to recovery, but the past few years have involved a lot of turbulence. One of its top commercial aircraft models, the 737 MAX, was grounded in March 2019, after a recurring failure in its Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) caused two fatal accidents. Another model, the 777-200 with a Pratt & Whitney engine, has been grounded for six months—and might not be allowed to fly again until early 2022. And of course the coronavirus pandemic dealt a serious blow to worldwide air travel, crippling airlines—and Boeing, which lost a record $12 billion in 2020.
On the bright side, there’s pretty much nowhere for Boeing to go at this point but up. As Demers joked to me, “If things get better, I can take full credit.”
My conversation with Demers was forward-looking, focused on his new opportunity at Boeing. But I couldn’t help asking him about how he felt about being turned into the fall guy for the big controversy over the DOJ leak investigations (which I wrote about back in June, when I named Demers the Lawyer of the Week). Demers’s previously scheduled departure from the Justice Department occurred right around the time that news of the leak investigations became public, which led some media outlets to inaccurately attribute Demers’s resignation to the uproar.
“This was just a case of bad timing,” Demers told me. “Everyone involved knew that I was leaving at that time. The timing was unfortunate—but I really wanted to take the summer off to spend with my family, and I wasn’t going to change my timing for this.”
And he actually wasn’t upset over the news coverage—even though I think most folks in his shoes would be, especially since he got caught in the controversy only because he agreed to stay on as AAG for NSD into the Biden Administration. Had he left in January like the other Trump appointees, he never would have been dragged into this mess by the media.
“The articles were fine,” he said. “The headlines were not always supported by the articles. Saying that I resigned ‘amid’ the controversy over the leak investigations is literally true, but it infers a relationship that wasn’t there.”
“Overall, it hasn’t bugged me; it is what it is. I think I had a pretty good three and a half year run.”
Indeed. Demers was one of the few DOJ officials to serve in the Trump Administration and emerge with his reputation enhanced rather than diminished. And he feels that he’s leaving the National Security Division in good hands, as he explained when I asked him for his views on Matthew Olsen, the Biden Administration’s nominee to serve as assistant attorney general for the National Security Division.
“I know Matt very well, since we worked together as deputies at NSD from 2006 to 2009,” Demers said. “We had adjoining offices for a couple of years, have remained friends since then, and speak regularly. I think very highly of him, believe he’ll be a good leader for the Division, and expect him to be confirmed soon.”
I asked Demers: would you serve in government again, if given the opportunity?
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” he said. “I truly enjoyed my time at the Department and found it very rewarding.”
“And I was happy to have stayed the extra time to serve in the new Administration. Some folks told me, when the leak investigation controversy erupted, that ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’ But I still thought it was worth doing, and I wouldn’t have changed a thing.”
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He sounds like a good and capable person--what was he doing working with Trump?!