War Stories

Mass Confusion at the State Department

Even before Rex Tillerson is confirmed, veteran management officials have resigned.

Secretary for Management at the U.S. Department of State Patrick Kennedy testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. about the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, October 10, 2012.
Patrick Kennedy of the State Department testifies on Capitol Hill in October 2012 about the Benghazi attacks.

Jose Luis Magaua/Reuters

On Wednesday, observers of Donald Trump’s presidency were noting an unusual degree of disarray inside the government. That afternoon, a key segment of the government simply vanished.

The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reported that the State Department’s top management officials—veteran Foreign Service officers vital for providing continuity and institutional memory to a new secretary of state and his aides—resigned en masse.

A former senior State Department official told me Thursday morning that, on Jan. 19, the day before Trump’s inauguration (which was also the day he resigned), a member of the incoming president’s transition team told the management officials to leave within 24 hours. “But then,” the former official said, “it seemed common sense had prevailed, and the Trump folks realized they would need people to actually run the institution. So I assumed they were staying for at least a while.”

The officials who left Wednesday are the people who run the machinery of foreign policy through successive administrations, Republican and Democratic. The highest-ranking among them, Patrick Kennedy, had been the undersecretary of state for management for nine years and, by many accounts, was angling to keep that job in the new administration—until he suddenly left, for still-unknown reasons, taking with him Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond, and the director of the Office of Foreign Missions, Gentry O. Smith.

Meanwhile, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, hasn’t yet been confirmed by the Senate. (He cleared the first hurdle, winning the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s endorsement by the slimmest 11–10 margin.) And the department’s second-echelon policy officials haven’t even been nominated.

So, as British Prime Minister Theresa May touches down in Washington on Friday for President Trump’s first meeting with a foreign head-of-state, the proceedings will take place without a functioning State Department.

And as Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced Thursday morning that he was canceling his scheduled trip to Washington, there is no one at State who can make the calls and clean up in the mess with any authority. (The cancellation came after Trump said, in an often-bizarre interview with ABC News broadcast Wednesday night, that if Mexico wasn’t going to pay for his border wall, maybe the country’s president should cancel his forthcoming trip. Trump may have meant the remark as a threat; Nieto took it as an opportunity.)

On paper, the State Department is now run by Tom Shannon, who was John Kerry’s undersecretary of state for political affairs, the third-ranking position. Most of the State Department’s other senior policy officials—the deputy secretary, undersecretary for policy, and assistant secretaries of the various regional and functional bureaus—resigned when Kerry did, if not sooner. So those posts are occupied by deputy assistant secretaries or, in some cases, FSO bureaucrats.

Tillerson has much experience roaming the world and making deals for Exxon Mobil Corp., where he worked for his entire adult life, rising to the top job of chairman and CEO. But he has no experience dealing with U.S. foreign policy except when clashing with State Department officials whose interests differed sharply with his company’s, most notably in Russia and Iraq. If Tillerson is confirmed, which seems likely, he will enter his job with no senior institutional backup and much hostility from mid-level careerists. (In his book, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, Steve Coll portrays Tillerson as holding State Department diplomats in contempt.)

Before his confirmation hearings, which even supporters found unimpressive, Tillerson had been offered a briefing from the State Department, as is customary practice. But Tillerson turned it down—though, according to one former official, it was Trump’s transition team who rejected the offer. Tillerson was left on his own as a result of the same bitterly partisan motives that have driven everything about the transition team—and now, assuming he does take the office, he’s left on his own quite literally.

Across the Potomac River, retired Gen. James Mattis, who has been confirmed as secretary of defense, appears to be holding the line. None of his second-tier officials have yet been nominated either, but he is highly respected in the Pentagon and he has convinced most of the incumbent deputy-, under-, and assistant secretaries to stick around until their replacements are named and confirmed. (The current deputy secretary of defense, Bob Work, may stay for a while longer.)

Mattis and the new CIA director, Mike Pompeo, even seem to have mustered the leverage to derail an executive order that Trump was set to sign on Wednesday resuming operations of CIA “black sites” and at least reviewing U.S. policy on torture, which was ended in 2006 and is currently banned by law. Just hours before the scheduled signing on Wednesday, the New York Times and Washington Post reported in detail on this “draft” order—which stunned Mattis and Pompeo, who had heard nothing about it. In his ABC interview, which was taped early that day, Trump confirmed that he would be signing this order along with two others on building the border wall and barring immigrants from certain Muslim countries. By the time he signed the orders, the one on black sites and torture wasn’t on the table. Press Secretary Sean Spicer denied that the draft in question was a White House order. The order, it turned out, came from the archive of Mitt Romney’s transition team during the 2012 election, with some of the language changed—for instance, “jihadist” became “Islamist.” But it was, without question, White House officials—probably National Security Adviser Michael Flynn or someone working for him—who retrieved the document and tried to revive it.

The episode of the discarded order suggests that, in some circumstances, Trump can be persuaded to ignore his instincts, at least for a while. In the ABC interview, Trump said that he still favored waterboarding, among other methods of extreme interrogation, because he felt that it worked and because some intelligence officials had told him that it worked. However, he added, “I will rely on Pompeo and Mattis and my group. And if they don’t wanna do [it], that’s fine.”

On other issues, though, it’s unclear whether moderating influences will be heard, much less whether they’ll prevail. It’s unclear where those moderating influences would originate. Not from the State Department, because for the moment, for all practical purposes, there is no State Department.