Days after lawmakers called for one of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s top staffers to be disciplined for allegedly refusing to comply with a State Department investigation into claims of political vetting and retaliation, CNN has obtained emails that appear to shed more light on an alleged attempt to remove a career employee from her role.
The emails, which include members of Tillerson’s inner circle, are being examined as part of the ongoing State Department Inspector General’s investigation into alleged vetting and retaliation against career diplomats by Trump political appointees.
Tillerson’s deputy chief of staff – Christine Ciccone, who now works in legislative affairs at the Department of Homeland Security – is seen in the messages forwarding an article from the Conservative Review containing misinformation about a career State Department official to a White House liaison and Matthew Mowers, a senior White House adviser now at State.
She wrote, “know you are looking into this– wanted to make sure you saw this article.”
And of the official being scrutinized by the new administration, an Iran expert who had worked in government since the George W. Bush administration, Ciccone asked, “Is this person one of the four who refused to shake [Tillerson’s] hand the first day he started?”
Tillerson’s chief of staff Margaret Peterlin also forwarded the same article. To which Mowers responded: “Thanks. We’re working with Brian (Hook, who was then Tillerson’s head of policy planning) on how best to organize his team and have discussed where Sahar, a career employee detailed to that office previously, may be of best use to the agency if not in (policy planning).”
The allegation, according to members of Congress who called for the investigation, is that these Trump appointees worked to remove or reassign career employees, who they viewed as opposed to Trump’s policies, from certain positions.
The official they are discussing in the emails viewed by CNN is Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, who had worked in the Obama administration on the Iran nuclear deal.
Before Tillerson arrived, she had been assigned to a prestigious special detail in State’s policy planning office. But once the Trump administration took over, that assignment was suddenly cut short by three months, and she was moved back to the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. She has since taken an unpaid leave of absence, for a position at Harvard University and to complete a PhD.
Ciccone has denied that there was vetting going on. Mowers did not comment on the emails, and Peterlin could not be reached.
But a source close to one of the people whose communications are under scrutiny told CNN such email chains have been cherry-picked, leaked to Democratic members of Congress and do not reflect the entirety of communications. The source said there are additional emails that have not been made public that show some of the Trump appointees trying to make sure they “did the right thing.”
A senior Democratic aide, however, criticized the widespread circulation of such articles and unfounded rumors about career diplomats like Nowrouzzadeh.
“Singling her out and smearing her – she’s a career diplomat. They also said things like, she was born in Iran. She wasn’t born in Iran.”
The aide added, “Of course incoming administrations have freedoms in staffing. That’s why they can appoint assistant secretaries and others. But things like this, this person’s work was supposed to be in policy planning, regardless of administration. Yet her detail there was curtailed.”
Last week top Democrats on the House Oversight, House Foreign Affairs, and Senate Foreign Relations committees called for Ciccone to be disciplined, alleging she has refused to be interviewed in the investigation over political vetting, calling it “outrageous” and accusing her team of stonewalling.
Ciccone emphatically denies this, telling CNN she is willing to sit down with investigators, and that her attorney has been in touch with them. “I have never refused to interview with the OIG. In order to cooperate, I proactively asked for materials from my tenure so I can be helpful in the OIG’s process,” she said. “I take their responsibility and mine seriously, and look forward to the opportunity to address the false implication that there was anything other than professional and appropriate management of personnel decisions.”