Interpreting foreign policy

Interpreting foreign policy

Whether it’s his day job or free time, there is a certain symmetry to David Adams’s life.

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Kenya, Vietnam, South Sudan and the Republic of Korea are just a few of Adams’s clients at the Podesta Group, where he has served as a principal for the last two years.

“It is a lot of running around, to be honest,” Adams said about his weekday job.

On weekends, he engages in cultivation of another kind: a vineyard he and his wife bought in 2012 in Linden, Va.

“This week was planting week. We put in about 4,500 new vines. At this point, we have about 10 acres under cultivation,” he said, adding that it’s not open to the public.

During the week, besides meetings at the office, Adams spends his time meeting clients and heading to Capitol Hill to advocate on their behalf.

His nearly 30 years of government experience, including work for Congress and the State Department — has prepared him well for explaining the rationale behind policy decisions.

“We’re interpreters, essentially, especially for the foreign governments, because Washington is sometimes something that they don’t understand well. Why did the department make that decision? Why did Congress do that?” Adams said.

He laughed. “I don’t speak any other languages, which was always something I thought is a drawback in this line of work.”

Hailing from Newtown, Conn., Adams came to Washington for a graduate degree in comparative politics at American University in the 1980s. While still in graduate school, he got his first taste of Capitol Hill as an intern for the now-defunct House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service.

Former Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), who served in Congress for 30 years and retired in 2013, gave Adams his first job.

Within a few years, Adams had already made his mark.

Hanging on his office wall at Podesta Group are two frames that display bills he worked on that were signed into law in 1990. One was designed to close the gap in pay between federal worker and the private sector, and the other sought to make it easier to manage the Thrift Savings Plan, a retirement plan for federal employees.

Adams spent 24 years on Capitol Hill, which included stints on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittees that focused on Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Then in 2009, a few months after Clinton was confirmed as secretary of State, Adams was invited to work for her in the Obama administration.

He was a member of Clinton’s senior team and attended the 8:45 a.m. daily staff meetings, which he compared to a “graduate seminar” in which he only had two or three minutes to inform the secretary about the top agenda items of the day on Capitol Hill.

“She’s tremendous. I think the thing that you see in her is she’s enormously smart,” Adams said of Clinton. “She’s amazing, almost always the best prepared person in the room, if not always. She’s funny, she’s warm.”

On his second day at the State Department, Adams was asked to prepare Clinton for a congressional hearing where she would testify the following day. It was the committee he worked for the previous week.

“She comes in and she’s got this huge book; it’s got to be 300 or 400 pages in a three-ring binder of stuff,” Adams said. “She flips open the book and [says], ‘On page 101, I’m not going to say that.’ She flips to 248 and says, ‘Is this our policy? If it is, that’s stupid, we’re going to change it.’ ”

Clinton had digested the entire prep book, Adams said, and tabbed pages.

“That was my first impression of her: She really just consumed information,” he said.

In that job, Adams still spent more than half of his time on Capitol Hill.

Among his accomplishments, he was instrumental in the confirmation of 122 State Department nominees and in getting a round of sanctions against Iran through Congress in 2010.

A few years later, backdoor negotiations began with Iran over scaling down its nuclear program. The Obama administration is hoping to strike a final deal with other world powers and Iran over the nuclear program by the end of June.

Congress has paved the way for an up-or-down vote on the deal, but Adams believes President Obama could still do some things unilaterally.

“He has a certain amount of latitude,” he said. “There are certain sanctions he can remove by executive order. But there’s a fair amount in place by law that won’t be removed if Congress doesn’t agree to everything on the table.”

When the Benghazi attacks occurred in September 2012, Adams said it felt “like a death in the family.” Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the assault on the U.S. compound in Libya.

“The secretary’s guidance was to be responsive to the Congress, and we tried really hard to be responsive to the Congress,” Adams said about the reaction to the attacks. “We didn’t always satisfy them in terms of the timeliness or the adequacy of the response, but we thought we were providing the information that they needed in order to conduct the investigations that they were pursuing.”

Adams was part of the team that prepped Clinton for a few Benghazi-related hearings in 2013, but left the State Department and the government before they began.

As for the pursuit now to dig deeper into the government’s response to the incident, Adams said, “Congress has its own motivations.”

And as for Clinton’s private email account at the State Department, Adams said he “never thought about it.”

“Her email came up as H and I knew who that was. I never thought about email or whose system it was,” said Adams, who declined to comment further.

Despite his passion for foreign policy, Adams predicts the 2016 presidential election will not be centered on it except for when Clinton’s opponents attack her record at the State Department.

“I’m not sure it’s top of mind for people who go to the polls in 2016,” he said. “At the end of the day, I think people think about how I’m going to be better off, how am I going to make ends meet, and how am I going to be able to afford college for my kids.”

While Adams said he would consider offering advice to the Clinton campaign, if asked, he added that he likes his current job and is good at it.  And he has a goal of transitioning to working full-time at the vineyard within the next decade, he said.