The Politicization of the State Department Is Almost Complete

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, have weaponized the institution for the Trump administration’s domestic political objectives.

Getty / The Atlantic

I worked at the State Department for nearly four decades, in the later years as a four-time ambassador overseas and as a senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. I have watched as Pompeo and his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, have weaponized the institution for the Trump administration’s domestic political objectives. On October 9, just weeks away from the presidential election, Pompeo announced that he would authorize, apparently at President Donald Trump’s urging, the release of more of Hillary Clinton’s emails. In doing so, Pompeo will have all but completed the politicization of the State Department, arguably bringing it to its lowest point since the 1950s. The damage may be generational.

This transformation started with Tillerson, who came in with the goal of “redesigning” the State Department and with what appears to have been a political agenda to weed out anyone who had served in leadership positions during prior presidential administrations.

Tillerson used the State Department’s policy-planning staff, which offers the secretary strategic advice, to institute a top-down approach to policy, in effect muzzling the bureaus usually tasked with developing ideas independently. He marginalized senior career professionals, often excluding the officers from meetings of department leaders. And as an inspector general report has since shown, Tillerson’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs harassed “career employees premised on claims that they were ‘disloyal.’”

As a result, more than 100 out of some 900 senior Foreign Service officers—including the most visible high-ranking Hispanic, African American, South Asian, and female career officers—were fired, pushed out, or chose to leave the State Department during the first year of the Trump administration.

During his short tenure, Tillerson also reduced or froze the hiring of new civil and Foreign Service personnel. He eliminated or put on hold crucial jobs typically filled by the family members of embassy employees. The State Department also suffered through a record number of vacancies in senior leadership appointments, and dozens of embassies were left without ambassadors—career or political.

I was an ambassador in Brazil under Tillerson. Many of my colleagues, including entry-level officers and those aspiring to become ambassadors, began to openly question whether they would continue to advance.

While Tillerson was slashing the State Department into irrelevance, other actors in Washington in the National Security Council and the White House moved onto the foreign-policy stage.

The State Department was alternately prostrate and fearful when Trump fired Tillerson in March 2018. When I visited the department that summer to meet with Pompeo, Tillerson’s replacement, about a new position, my colleagues spoke to me in whispers, looking around for who might be listening in corridors, the cafeteria, and even their own offices.

Pompeo appeared committed to moving away from Tillerson’s most harmful decisions, and I accepted the position of senior adviser, in which I was expected to give my viewpoints on policy and act as a conduit for the Foreign Service. For the first several months, Pompeo made positive changes. He ended the freezes on family employment and on hiring the next generation of Foreign Service officers. Dozens of career professionals were confirmed for ambassadorships. The functioning of bureaus and the flow of ideas returned closer to the norms of previous administrations. The State Department was back at the policy table. Pompeo said that he would not hold someone’s political leanings against them; he even added Trump critics to special-envoy positions.

The situation began to change in the spring of 2019. In hindsight, the first indication of renewed politicization was the mission to develop a “professional ethos” statement—a common understanding of expectations—for the department. On the surface, the purpose was to inspire employees, but appeared to me to reflect a lack of trust in the workforce. I made clear that I did not see the need for the statement and was not included in further stages of its development. Other colleagues provided input—attempting to leaven the message. Political appointees justified the initiative by describing the Foreign Service as lacking a professional work ethic.

When the ethos statement was finally completed in April 2019, the department hung a large banner showing the statement at the main entrance of the department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. And Foreign Service officers were careful to display it prominently for all to see that they were with the program. One particularly telling line read: “I show unstinting respect in word and deed for my colleagues.” That might sound unobjectionable, but the emphasis on integrity and solidarity began to seem Orwellian as the president’s impeachment proceedings unfolded, and the department turned its back on its own staff.

A second indication of the department’s politicization was the way it handled the investigations into political-harassment allegations under Tillerson. The reports took a long time to emerge, and when they did, they seemed to go easier than expected on the senior political officials in International Organization Affairs accused of hostile work behavior and retaliating against career employees. The IO report did single out the assistant secretary for failing to act on the complaints.

I, among others, thought that the assistant secretary should stand down, but that did not happen. In a town-hall meeting, the deputy secretary and the undersecretary for political affairs reportedly sought to explain away the decision to keep him on, only to worsen morale at home and overseas. The effect of this episode was clear to me: Pompeo was more concerned with protecting political appointees who had harmed their State Department colleagues than he was with supporting the career civil and Foreign Service.

The defining moment in the renewed politicization of the department was the Ukraine scandal, in which the president withheld aid to Ukraine effectively to coerce the country’s president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.

The deputy secretary and the undersecretary for political affairs discouraged and shut down any discussion inside the building of the unfolding scandal. As I detailed in my deposition to Congress, the secretary and other senior State officials sidestepped my efforts to elicit statements of support for colleagues, including Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who were drawn into the congressional investigation and vilified by the White House.

As the impeachment hearings and trial extended, I could draw only one conclusion. State Department leadership, for a sustained period, supported the administration’s efforts to misuse career professionals in Washington and abroad to pursue a U.S. electoral advantage.

I could no longer continue to serve in the department that had failed my colleagues. Before leaving the building on October 11, 2019, a senior official told me that my decision to resign demonstrated that career State Department professionals could not be trusted to support the president’s agenda.

The track record since my departure shows that suspicious mindset. No career official has been nominated to fill an assistant-secretary position. Political ambassadorial nominations are at an all-time high; more than 40 percent have gone to political appointees, as compared with a historical average of 30 percent. The political attendees at Pompeo’s “Madison Dinners,” and the audiences he meets with in his domestic travel, demonstrate the blurring of professional and political lines. In May, Trump fired Steve Linick, the State Department’s inspector general, who was looking into Pompeo’s activities, underscoring how the legal adviser and IG offices are being drawn into political partisanship.

The State Department is also regressing in other ways. At a time of national focus on race and gender inequalities, the departing senior female officials, including the former under secretary for arms control and international security affairs and the former legal adviser, have been replaced by men. No Black Americans fill any undersecretary or assistant-secretary positions, and no one is fully tackling the issue of racism in the department. Reporters covering the State Department have met threatening behavior, including shouting matches and exclusion from foreign travel with the secretary. In the United States Agency for International Development, which operates under the guidance of the secretary, career voices are sidelined. Voice of America’s new political leadership, which reports to Pompeo, is engaged in what appears to be a purge of journalists and managers.

In an interview last week, Pompeo stated very plainly his philosophy on managing a loyal State Department: “There’s always people inside of every organization that aren’t fully on board, on the team’s mission. When we identify them, we move them out of the way. We get them to a different place, and we try to find people only who are committed to doing America’s mission, President Trump’s mission, on behalf of the United States.”

Against this dysfunctional backdrop, Pompeo now threatens to release the Clinton emails, clearly intending to help the president’s reelection campaign. The department’s workforce continues to provide services to our citizens overseas and to support foreign policy in these difficult times. But the State Department is now almost a politicized institution.

The transformation is not irreversible. Career civil servants have raised the alarm about the deep damage that the Trump administration has inflicted on U.S. institutions, including the State Department. The American people will soon make a decision about whether they want to continue down this path. Come Election Day, voters will not be able to say that they did not know.