State Vacancies Proliferate Under Trump Administration
This article was written by our newest collaborator, Reilly Frye.
State Department officials are drafting a memo to be presented through the dissent channel protesting President Trump’s immigrant and refugee ban. The dissent channel, created in 1971 for employees who disagreed with U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, is an important process that “allows state employees to express divergent policy views candidly and privately to senior leadership” without fear of retaliation from higher-ups.
As with the memo sent to former President Barack Obama last summer regarding his Syria Policy, U.S. press tends to cover these stories with fervor, yet no serious policy change comes from the dissent channel. Indeed, former Secretary of State John Kerry evidently supported the position of the dissenting diplomats in regards to the Syria case in private, but in practice he emphasized his commitment to the Obama administration’s policy. Similarly, Ambassador Ryan Crocker openly protested against former President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2002, but acted as his point person in Baghdad shortly thereafter. In fact, the real take-away from this memo should not be its effect on foreign policy, but the current condition of Trump’s Department of State. The number of signatories on the Syria memo was an unprecedented 51 employees; early reports of the Immigration memo cite over 900 diplomats.
Clearly, there is some discord between the White House and Foggy Bottom during this presidential transition.
In regards to reports that officials had submitted a dissent memo, President Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, said dissenters could either “get with the program or they can go,” a threat that diplomats should not take lightly, considering the recent purge of the State Department. Last week, junior officials and top diplomats alike were forced to either resign or be relieved of their duties by Friday. The former undersecretary for arms control and international security, Thomas Countryman, was on a plane headed to a nuclear weapons meeting in Rome when he received the call. Similarly important career diplomats such as Michele Bond and Joyce Anne Barr, assistant secretaries for consular affairs and administration, and Gentry Smith, director of the Office for Foreign Missions, were likewise unceremoniously forced out of their positions.
The departure of so many diplomats is extraordinary in two ways: first, in its abruptness. Normally, the new administration fills diplomatic roles after first allowing a transition period in which the officers from the former presidency brief the newcomers. In some cases—such as with Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State under Obama—senior officials from the former department are even kept on permanently. In preparation for this transition, many Obama Administration diplomats submitted their resignation to Trump before his inauguration. These perfunctory resignations were seemingly ignored until last Wednesday, when many diplomats were suddenly given executive notice to leave by Friday. Daniel Baer, former U.S. ambassador to the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe, even offered to visit Washington to brief the incoming team—especially those who would work on the Ukraine conflict—after he resigned. He was told his input would be unnecessary, however. This abruptness was confusing on such a level that some members of the press falsely reported that the exodus was due to many officers not wanting to work under Trump. It was not until later in the week that reports about the forced resignations surfaced.
The second reason this mass departure is so unique is because successors to the resigned diplomats have yet to be named. The State Department Deputy Secretary of State position is currently vacant, along with many other high-ranking posts. It will take months for successors to be named and then confirmed, guaranteeing empty desks at the top of the department during crucial global arms meetings and other sensitive foreign policy negotiations. And, that’s not to mention a potential increase in difficulties for those U.S. citizens currently abroad. Former Ambassador Laura Kennedy tweeted, “As a career diplomat, I experienced many transitions and never saw anything like this dangerous purge of public servants now underway at State.”5
Sadly, State is not the only department currently short-staffed due to Trump’s new policies. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the new administration have conflicting ideas of who should staff the Pentagon, leaving some senior Defense Department positions unfilled. Senator Martin Heinrich wrote to the Trump transition team saying, “I understand that new administrations, regardless of political party, bring new management and personnel, but…we simply cannot afford to allow national security positions to effectively run on ‘auto-pilot.’ The responsibilities are too important.” Considering the administration’s rhetoric regarding global threats to U.S. interests, vacant national security positions are somewhat shocking.
Theories abound as to why the Trump administration would allow so many important departmental positions to go unfilled. Many contend that this rocky transition points to a complete lack of political affairs knowledge from the new administration; simply put, the mishandling of these positions is due to ignorance. Others contend that the Trump administration calculated for these positions to be empty so that the President would face less backlash when offering controversial plans such as the immigration and refugee ban—perhaps we would see fewer signatories of the aforementioned dissent memo if he had already filled those diplomatic positions. Still others see it as a deliberate debilitation of the State Department, which is set to lose power under this new administration, much like the Environmental Protection Agency.
Whatever the motive, U.S. citizens should keep in mind that Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law, has been acting as the main speaker with foreign governments crucial to U.S. policy, such as Israel and Germany. Perhaps this unprecedented role speaks to a new era—a Trump era—in foreign policy, where national security matters are handled not by the Department of Defense or State, but by senior officials close to the newly inaugurated President.