The following is an update of a story from January 26. Originally there was a question of whether the State Department officials had quit or were asked to leave. That question has now been answered.
The world is a dangerous place, and Donald Trump seems determined to do what he can to make it even more so. Diplomatic neophyte Rex Tillerson will soon be in charge at the State Department, and to clear the way for him and the Trump policies he will bring with him, several top officials at State were asked to resign, according to CNN.
The Washington Post is reporting that on Wednesday afternoon, even as Tillerson dropped by Foggy Bottom to start learning his way around, four senior department officials unexpectedly resigned their positions. This is just the latest in what the Post is calling a “mass exodus of senior foreign service officers.” So now we have a man with no experience in diplomacy running State, and he is losing the qualified, experienced people who could help him navigate the treacherous waters of international relations.
The department’s undersecretary for management, Patrick Kennedy, turned in his resignation, along with Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond, and director of the Office of Foreign Missions Gentry O. Smith. The four were not Obama appointees, but were career foreign service officers who had served under both Democratic and Republican presidents.
Those four resignations followed the retirement of Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Gregory Starr, and the resignation of the director of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, Lydia Muniz. Starr and Muniz both left on January 20.
David Wade, who served as the State Department’s chief of staff under John Kerry, said the departures are very unusual. He told the Washington Post,
It’s the single biggest simultaneous departure of institutional memory that anyone can remember, and that’s incredibly difficult to replicate. Department expertise in security, management, administrative and consular positions in particular are very difficult to replicate and particularly difficult to find in the private sector.
There was some question as to whether Kennedy left of his own accord or whether he was pushed out. He was reportedly working with Trump’s transition in the days before the inauguration, and department officials who had been working with him told the Post that he was expecting to stay on in his position. That was put to rest on Friday morning when CNN reported that Kennedy and his three colleagues all received letters from the White House informing them that their services were no longer needed.
One unidentified senior department official said that the four had submitted their resignations previously. That is proper procedure for positions that are nominated by the president and approved by the Senate, called “PAS positions.” But that official also left a hint of what had taken place:
No officer accepts a PAS position with the expectation that it is unlimited. And all officers understand that the President may choose to replace them at any time. These officers have served admirably and well. Their departure offers a moment to consider their accomplishments and thank them for their service. These are the patterns and rhythms of the career service.
To put it another way, “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass.”
As former State Department spokesman Richard Boucher explained, it is typical for high-ranking officials to work with the new administration to see who should continue in their current jobs, or possibly move to other positions. But Trump, ever valuing loyalty over knowledge and competence, wants to start with an empty house that he can fill with his flunkies.
David Wade explained why the hole left by the departure of Kennedy and the others is going to be difficult to fill.
Diplomatic security, consular affairs, there’s just not a corollary that exists outside the department, and you can least afford a learning curve in these areas where issues can quickly become matters of life and death. The muscle memory is critical. These retirements are a big loss. They leave a void. These are very difficult people to replace.
During the weeks and months ahead the Trump administration will have to deal with the nuclear ambitions of Kim Jong-Un, Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, the continuing bloodbath being conducted by Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, Brexit, potential Russian aggression, and so much more. And Trump thinks he can handle all of those diplomatic challenges without experienced people to advise him.
This move potentially puts the U.S. in danger. Trump raised his right hand and swore to protect the U.S. from all enemies, “foreign and domestic.” Removing one of the highest levels of experts from the diplomatic corps may have serious consequences for American security, and should be regarded as a violation of the presidential oath. But don’t expect the GOP to see it that way.
Here is how CNN reported the story on Thursday afternoon: