Amidst the public speculation of a State Department possibly in disarray, I know that officers at State are still hard at work. One example: I recently received in my email inbox Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statement celebrating Saint Lucia’s National Day. That means that the Office of Caribbean Affairs in the bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs drafted the statement, ran it through the clearance process (which requires that other bureaus with equities approve the statement), and then most likely someone with authorization from the secretary’s office approved it.
Sure, this is hardly high-stakes stuff, but it does indicate that the crucial daily work of U.S. diplomats – helping Americans in trouble across the world, tackling nuclear proliferation, fighting terrorism, issuing visas, running exchange programs, to name a few – is continuing during this particularly tumultuous beginning of a new presidential administration.
But there are signs — budgetary and otherwise — that suggest the State Department is under threat of being sidelined by the Trump White House. For example, there have been no press briefings since Trump took office. Tillerson has been absent from summit meetings between Trump and foreign leaders, and he has made no substantive public remarks during his first three weeks. On top of all of this, the White House has signaled it’s going to make major cuts to the State Department budget to offset a $54 billion increase in defense spending (a boost that is more than the combined 2017 budget request for the State Department and U.S. AID).
State’s new low profile begs an important question: What’s happening to the State Department? Is it being sidelined on purpose (as part of the “deconstruction of the administrative state”) or is Tillerson just getting up to speed, and in due time, State will play its proper role in the shaping of U.S. foreign policy?
Like other agencies and departments across the government, the Trump administration is off to a very slow start in filling senior ranks at the State Department. The Pentagon is also waiting on a number of key leadership positions to be filled, but it did not face the same kind of management purge that happened at State. It’s normal for senior officials – especially political appointees – to leave their posts when a new administration takes office, leaving at least a temporary gap. It’s also natural that foreign service officers serving in senior positions are eventually replaced with people chosen by the new team. What isn’t normal – and has happened very quickly at State – is the letting go of a large number of foreign service officers who are meant to keep the ship afloat during transitions like this.
First, the senior team of career officers running the administrative side of the department – budgets, staffing, visas – were asked to resign. These are the people who make sure that the State Department functions properly, similar to the role of a company’s chief operating officer. When Americans get into trouble abroad, it’s this team that helps. Former State Department Chief of Staff Jon Finer has made clear the important role these dismissed officials play, and how damaging a leadership vacuum can be in these offices.
Second, it appears as though a number of career officers serving as assistant secretaries of state had to leave before replacements were even nominated. These officials shape the vast majority of policy and U.S. engagement with the world. When crises erupt, they’re the ones who make recommendations for the secretary and the White House.When senior foreign officials come to town (which happens a lot), assistant secretaries meet them and convey to them U.S. priorities.They also travel most frequently, serving as a central link between what’s happening abroad and the policymaking process at home.
Finally, the seventh floor – where the secretary and the senior team sits – is basically empty after a series of layoffs. For the last eight years, in addition to the secretary there was a deputy secretary and a deputy secretary for management and resources, an undersecretary for political affairs, and a counselor. This is the secretary’s starting lineup, the folks who represent him within the department and at critical White House meetings where big decisions are hashed out. These are the people who provide some of the most important daily advice to the secretary. As of now, however, there is no nominee for deputy secretary. The undersecretary for political affairs – Tom Shannon, a career foreign service officer – has had to fill in as acting deputy. And just recently the counselor, who takes on special projects at the direction of the secretary, and her staff were moved out of their positions, leaving the office vacant. There are reports that Tillerson may not name a replacement for her.
While many of the above positions have officers in acting roles, those people are often performing two jobs at once. Removing all of these officials upon entering office is damaging not only to U.S. national security, but also for the ability of the new secretary to do his job until new appointees are confirmed.
No Public Communications
With all of these empty positions (plus the Trump administration’s hostile attitude toward the press), it might not seem so surprising that the State Department’s level of communication with the public has also dropped precipitously.
The most conspicuous absence has been the lack of daily press briefings, which stopped the day Trump took office. Traditionally State is the only U.S. government entity other than the White House that conducts a daily briefing. While the White House press secretary will handle a small number of foreign policy questions, the press briefing at Foggy Bottom covers everything from the big issues like North Korea to the nitty gritty of Haitian politics, thanks to questions from reporters from around the world. You can get a sense of issues covered here.
The press briefing is how the United States gets its message out to the world, and the transcripts are pored over in foreign capitals. It’s a critical foreign policy tool that sends signals to friends and adversaries alike. State will apparently be re-starting the press briefings in March, but it’s still unclear whether they will happen daily.
Meanwhile, Tillerson has also shied away from the cameras. Other than his welcome remarks to State Department employees on his first day and a Feb. 23 press conference in Mexico, which strangely did not involve questions from reporters,Tillerson hasn’t given any speeches, hosted any press conferences, or even the regular camera spray remarks. He did make a perfunctory statement after meeting with the Russian foreign minister in Germany.
State’s silence in recent weeks is a vacuum that others are filling. Most countries are out there speaking to the press to shape narratives on issues concerning U.S. foreign policy, leaving the United States playing catch up.
What role is Rex Tillerson playing?
While Tillerson wasn’t confirmed until week two of the new administration, he doesn’t appear to be working hard to make his presence known now that he’s in office. Beyond the lack of public remarks, Tillerson missed the first three summit meetings between Trump and foreign leaders: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (though he met with Netanyahu separately).
While his acting deputy Tom Shannon substituted for him in these meetings, it’s very odd for a brand new secretary to miss these key meetings, especially for someone who has no foreign policy experience and most likely does not have prior relationships with these leaders. Plus,being present at a meeting with the president shows foreign leaders – and the public and the State Department staff – that the president trusts and listens to you. While the White House and State Department will often tussle over who gets to attend meetings with the president, repeated absences by the Secretary of State – whatever the reason – is not good for the secretary, or for the State Department.
It may very well be the case that Tillerson is a cautious leader, and that his lack of experience is causing him to lay low until he’s fully up to speed and well versed in the issues. His trips to Bonn for the G20 foreign ministers meeting and to Mexico with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly show that he’s getting out there to do the job. But his low profile so far won’t help him in the rough and tumble interagency politics of the U.S. government – not to mention the bruising battles that are sure to ensue with the press.
Sidelined by the White House?
Each of the above problems, while concerning, could theoretically be explained. Each one on its own poses a challenge for conducting U.S. foreign policy, but isn’t necessarily devastating. It’s the combination of all of these together that provoke the question: Is the White House trying to sideline the State Department?
There are strong signs this could be the case.
Donald Trump’s disdain for diplomacy is no secret. He’s just about the least “diplomatic” person you could imagine and has repeatedly said that the United States has the wrong people negotiating on behalf of the country. Trump has, on numerous occasions, derided President Barack Obama’s engagement with countries like Cuba and Iran. Now, Trump tweets out the equivalent of diplomatic grenades on a regular basis with little consideration for how they will impact U.S. interests, let alone with input from his secretary of state.
Trump too seems enamored of the military, surrounding himself with generals in his cabinet and to lead the National Security Council. This compounds a problem years in the making in which U.S. foreign policy is increasingly being militarized – from providing its own foreign military assistance to governments to rebuilding war-torn countries to press-savvy generals spinning public narratives on their own.
Unlike the Defense Department, where Secretary Jim Mattis was allowed to keep an Obama appointee as deputy secretary until a replacement is confirmed, that hasn’t been the case at the State Department. There have been zero nominations for state department positions. That includes Trump reportedly nixing Tillerson’s choice for his deputy, Elliot Abrams, supposedly for criticizing Trump during the campaign. There have been no announcements of appointments to senior positions like director of policy planning, spokesperson, or counselor, none of which require Senate confirmation.
And then there’s the dissent memo incident. When a formal, internal state department memo – signed by a thousand diplomats – criticizing Trump’s immigration executive order became public, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer notoriously said, “These career bureaucrats have a problem with it? I think they should either get with the program or they can go.” This attitude seemed to reinforce an earlier report that Tillerson had not been aware of the executive order on immigration before the president signed it.
These are all distressing signs of a State Department that is at best rarely being consulted on major issues. At worst, it’s a sign that State is being intentionally excluded and hamstrung.
“Deconstruction of the Administrative State” at State?
There’s one final possibility to explain what we’ve seen at State so far, and it’s the most disturbing, and possibly likely,explanation: the Trump administration wants to gut it, like the rest of the federal government, minus the military.
This would seem like an extreme accusation if one of the president’s top advisors hadn’t made the argument publicly last week. At this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon said one of the administration’s goals was the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” He proceeded to make clear that, “If you look at these cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason and that is the deconstruction.”
While Tillerson’s lack of foreign policy experience makes it difficult to know his own views on this, his opening remarks to State Department employees included a conspicuous section talking about the need to make “changes to how things are traditionally done in this department.” Talking about “what processes should be reformed” sounds more like a CEO being brought in to re-organize (or downsize) a company than the nation’s top diplomat outlining his vision for U.S. foreign policy.
The desire by some to reduce the size and influence of the State Department is not new. The State Department (along with its sister agency, USAID) has long been a primary target for conservatives and deficit hawks railing against supposedly wasteful spending on foreign assistance. It’s an easy target in Congress largely because its budget has no obvious constituency that can complain when it’s cut. If President Trump wants to take aim at the size of the State Department’s bureaucracy (which is tiny compared to the Defense Department), it would not be much of a leap from where many Republicans already are.
It’s always worthwhile to try to make the department more efficient, as many past secretaries have, including Secretaries Hillary Clinton and John Kerry with the newly established Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Reviews. But gutting the agency would deal a massive blow to U.S. national security in more ways than one can comprehend. As Mattis once said, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.” Massive budget cuts would also mean Tillerson would immediately lose credibility in the building and hamstring his own ability to get things done.
It’s very early in Tillerson’s tenure, but the early signals aren’t encouraging, and starting out in the hole means it will be that much more difficult to climb out.