Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s ouster made him the last casualty in an exodus of senior officials and long-term foreign service professionals that has weakened the department under his tenure.
For those who watch the agency, Tillerson’s exit was an ironic coda to a reign that lasted just over 13 months and was characterized by the steady departure of talent and the depletion of some of the agency’s most experienced and senior staff.
The agency that CIA Director Mike Pompeo is now likely to inherit saw morale crater in the last year, as Tillerson launched on a redesign driven by an apparently arbitrary goal of a 30 percent cut in staff. Career regional experts were frozen out of the decision-making process as the former Exxon Mobil CEO insulated himself within a small cocoon of staff he brought with him.
Frustrations were compounded by the White House’s apparent disregard and lack of respect for the agency.
Some diplomats chose to leave rather than represent President Donald Trump, saying his values didn’t reflect their own, whether on immigrants, tariffs, the US role in the world or race relations, particularly in the wake of protests and white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year.
And as Foreign Service officers streamed toward the exit, the administration left dozens of positions unfilled, many crucial to tackling foreign policy challenges. It has been slow to name candidates to posts even has Trump has hurled blame at Democrats on Twitter for the vacancies. Meanwhile, key ambassadorships in countries like South Korea, Cuba, Jordan and Saudi Arabia remain empty.
Making matters worse, several envoys have recently resigned or signaled their intent to resign, including Ambassador to Qatar Dana Shell Smith, Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson, Ambassador to Panama John Feeley and the top diplomat in charge of North Korea policy, Joseph Yun.
Morale at a ‘real low’
“It’s no secret that morale and direction at the State Department is at a real low and it has been throughout most of Secretary Tillerson’s tenure,” said Jeff Rathke, a former Foreign Service officer who’s now a deputy director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “In that regard, I think Secretary Tillerson has been a very unsuccessful secretary of state as a leader and manager of the US foreign affairs agency.”
Rathke pointed to a sense of “aloofness and antipathy between career professionals at the State Department” and Tillerson and his inner circle.
Trump sent Tillerson packing, along with his senior staff and Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Steve Goldstein, at a time when the nation faces multiple foreign policy challenges, including an attempt to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal that is straining ties with allies in Europe and an unprecedented summit with North Korea’s leader set for May.
Lawmakers sounded the alarm about the impact, particularly given the looming challenge with North Korea.
“It’s not only the absence of a secretary of state, we now have the absence, of course, of an ambassador in Korea, a special representative for North Korea,” Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “There’s been a hollowing out at the State Department. So the President will not have the type of talent he should have around him as he enters into these negotiations. I don’t think it bodes well for these talks.”
Asked whether he blamed Trump or Tillerson for the situation, Cardin said, “I blame the President.”
“I think this is a reaction to the person who’s in the Oval Office – concern about his lack of interest in diplomacy, and his failure to fund the State Department at the level it needs to be funded,” said Cardin. “I think that message was received loud and clear by a lot of people who devoted their life to public service and diplomacy.”
Feeley, the former ambassador to Panama, wrote in a scathing March 9 Washington Post op-ed that he was leaving his position because “the traditional core values of the United States, as manifested in the president’s National Security Strategy and his foreign policies, have been warped and betrayed.”
Feeley wrote, too, that the President’s equivocal reaction to white supremacists protesting in Charlottesville made him realize he could no longer represent Trump “personally and remain faithful to my beliefs about what makes America truly great.”
Tillerson ‘set the place on fire’
Among some staffers at the State Department, there is outright anger over what Tillerson has done to the department. “It’s like he fired everyone and then walked out the door,” said one longtime employee. “He set the place on fire.”
It’s an anger that extends to Trump.
“It’s the devaluing of diplomacy,” said the staffer. Trump “thinks, ‘Why do I need to consult with the secretary of state on this gambit?’ Whether there’s an ambassador in Seoul, whether there’s a [deputy chief of mission], it doesn’t matter to him, it doesn’t matter to those guys.”
On Sunday, Trump placed the blame for vacancies at the State Department squarely on Senate Democrats, tweeting, “The Democrats continue to Obstruct the confirmation of hundreds of good and talented people who are needed to run our government…A record in U.S. history. State Department, Ambassadors and many others are being slow walked. Senate must approve NOW!”
In fact, the average confirmation time for Trump’s State Department nominees has crept up in recent months, with about a dozen passing the 100-day mark and one – Doug Manchester, the nominee to be ambassador to the Bahamas – waiting over 300 days. However, Senate Democrats deny they are to blame, noting that Trump has yet to nominate candidates for many of the open positions and that Republicans control the Senate.
Over the weekend Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who’s the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, launched into a series of tweets, slapping back at the President, stating that, “you are the problem,” and asking why Trump has not yet nominated picks for some 30 vacant positions.
“Where is the nominee for Ambassador to South Korea? Where is the nominee for Assistant Secretary for African Affairs? Where is the nominee for Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs?” Menendez blitzed out in a tweet storm that challenged the President on multiple empty slots at State and in embassies worldwide.
CNN has found that Trump has been slower to nominate State Department officials than his recent predecessors, naming people to 83 State Department posts in the first year of his administration, compared with 127 by President Barack Obama.
Trump slow to nominate
With the departure of Goldstein, the agency has only one sitting official in that important senior tier – Undersecretary for Political Affairs Tom Shannon, who plans to retire later this year. Four additional undersecretary positions are vacant, with nominees in the pipeline for two. Of the agency’s six regional bureaus, only one – Europe – has a Senate-confirmed head.
Tillerson had insisted the agency had qualified career diplomats picking up the slack in all these empty positions.
“I don’t lose a wink of sleep over the fact that we may not have our nominees in the position because we have very capable, skilled, career diplomats ready to step up and serve in those positions,” Tillerson said at a recent news conference before his ouster.
Rathke said Pompeo’s close relationship to Trump might improve the outlook within the department and among the demoralized foreign and civil service staff.
“Pompeo seems to have a better knack for harnessing the abilities and talents of his career staff, so it’s possible he’ll be able to rally the troops at the State Department and generate a stronger sense of a coherent mission,” Rathke said. “There’s nowhere to go but up when it comes to the management of the State Department.”