Departure of top State officials fuels concerns about talent loss – Politico
At least four senior career State Department officials who worked under Republican and Democratic leaders have left their posts less than a week into Donald Trump’s presidency, fueling questions about the new administration’s plans for the department and fears of a possible exodus of talent from the Foreign Service.
The State Department’s public relations arm downplayed the departures as routine changes during the early stages of a new administration, but other officials said having so many top managers leave at the same time is unusual, especially when it’s still not clear who will replace them or when.
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The Associated Press first reported the departures of the four: Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary for management; Joyce Anne Barr, assistant secretary of state for administration; Michele Bond, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs; and Gentry Smith, director of the Office of Foreign Missions.
As is standard when a new president takes over, each official had submitted a letter of resignation. But instead of keeping the officials on, as previous administrations have often done to ensure continuity and smooth the transition process, the Trump team accepted the resignations.
The decision suggests Trump wants to clean house in the top ranks of the department. It follows the Trump team’s unusual decision to require all politically appointed U.S. ambassadors to leave their posts by Inauguration Day instead of giving those who requested it a grace period to settle their family affairs overseas.
There was some speculation that the four State officials had quit in protest over the Trump team’s policies, but a senior State Department official told POLITICO that was not the case. “All people at that rank have to submit resignations,” the senior official said. “Their resignations were accepted. It’s not that they were quitting.”
Of the four, Kennedy is something of a controversial legend, one who has been in the Foreign Service since 1973. He’s served as the undersecretary for management since 2007, putting him in charge of everything from facilities to security. Kennedy came under criticism over diplomatic security issues after the deadly 2012 attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner noted in a statement to the media Thursday that the posts being vacated “are political appointments.” Such posts require the president’s nomination and the Senate’s confirmation even if a career officer is the candidate.
“They are not career appointments but of limited term,” Toner said. “Of the officers whose resignations were accepted, some will continue in the Foreign Service in other positions, and others will retire by choice or because they have exceeded the time limits of their grade in service. No officer accepts a political appointment with the expectation that it is unlimited. And all officers understand that the president may choose to replace them at any time.”
Although not yet confirmed by the Senate, secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson has been holding meetings at the State Department in recent days. The mini-exodus occurred on the same day Tillerson paid a visit to Foggy Bottom.
Many in the department are relieved that Trump chose Tillerson because the former ExxonMobil CEO has international contacts as well as experience running a large organization. At the same time, many are also deeply frustrated at the slow pace of the handover from former President Barack Obama to Trump.
Many top positions at the department remain unfilled, and the White House has spent little time consulting with the agency. State Department officials were stunned by foreign policy-related executive orders issued by the president this week that appear to lack legal and practical tenability.
An Obama administration Cabinet source said that while Obama, too, slowed down decisions and put in his own people when first taking office, he and his team did so more “delicately” than Trump and his aides are doing today.
“This is just being done with a little more of a ‘We’ll f— you up’ attitude,” the source said. “It’s the same activity, but with a different attitude.”
It’s too soon to tell whether the Foreign Service will see a mass exodus of talent. Many of the employees appreciate the security involved in a government job. That said, the Foreign Service may struggle to hire top talent in the coming years, especially if Trump tries to cull the federal workforce.
There are questions about whether Tillerson will bring in many of his own hires, perhaps from his oil company days, or whether he will be pushed by Trump and the president’s inner circle to hire people whom they want in senior State Department posts.
One key position will be Tillerson’s top deputy. A number of names have been floated for the role, including former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, who was under consideration for the secretary of state post during Trump’s transition.
The American Foreign Service Association, the union representing diplomats, said the departures appear “to be a large turnover in a short period of time. But it also used the occasion to push the Trump administration to promote more career officers rather than outsiders for top posts.
“The skills that are needed for these positions are exceedingly rare outside the Foreign Service,” AFSA said in a statement. “Given the talent available in our diplomatic corps, we expect that the new secretary will have no trouble finding the right people at State to fill out his senior leadership team.”
Eli Stokols contributed to this report.