How to Restore Ethics to the U.S. Department of State

It is hard to overstate the damage that President Trump and his allies both inside and outside of the government have done to America’s foreign policy and international standing. While there are a litany of policy decisions and positions that the next Secretary of State will likely be tasked with reviewing and, in many cases, reversing, perhaps the greatest challenge ahead for America’s foreign policy apparatus will be implementing institutional reform to restore sober and ethical leadership to the State Department. That work demands accountability for the ethical scandals that have occurred at State during the Trump administration and a public commitment to rebuilding the infrastructure, including policy and personnel, that will prevent similar abuses from happening again.

Even in the most corrupt presidential administration in American history, the Trump State Department stands out as demonstrating a shocking lack of institutional controls to prevent individual misconduct and systemic corruption. Even before the Trump administration took power, the top ethics lawyers for President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush respectively warned that President-elect Trump’s choice to run the State Department, then-ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, had potential conflicts of interest that could significantly limit his ability to serve as the nation’s top diplomat. Tillerson ultimately divested his stake in ExxonMobil, but also secured a massive windfall by selling that $54 million stake without paying any capital gains tax, which raised questions on Capitol Hill.  

Tillerson’s successor, Secretary Mike Pompeo, has ignited a multiplicity of ethics scandals. These have included abusing taxpayer funds to orchestrate lavish so-called Madison Dinners with politically-connected allies, using government business to advance his political ambitions, and using staff time to run personal errands for himself and his wife. To make matters worse, Pompeo orchestrated the president’s firing of the State Department Inspector General investigating Pompeo’s potential misconduct, including his role in expediting an $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. 

The ethics infrastructure at the State Department has been further degraded by lower profile moves. For example, in 2019, Secretary Pompeo installed someone with only six years of experience as a practicing attorney to lead the Office of the Legal Adviser which advises the Secretary on “all legal issues arising in connection with U.S. foreign policy and the work of the Department,” including ethics and financial disclosure compliance. While the Office of the Legal Adviser maintains a sub-office dedicated to ethics compliance, which is staffed by able career attorneys, it is vital that the Legal Adviser who has direct contact with Department leadership be able to identify and address ethics issues. Earlier this year, a former senior advisor to Secretary Pompeo and recently retired career ambassador, P. Michael McKinley, warned that the Office of Legal Adviser was “being drawn into political partisanship.” 

In addition, the erosion of diversity within the State Department’s leadership and the Trump administration’s decision to eliminate inclusion training is problematic for a number of reasons, as diversity within institutions provides “checks and balances” for unethical behavior arising from the desire to conform. Executive Director of NYU Law’s Reiss Center on Law and Security,  Rachel Goldbrenner described the State Department’s lack of diversity with the career foreign service and senior agency leadership as a crisis that “has dogged our foreign policy and national security institutions across many years and administrations” but been exacerbated during the Trump years.

Even more damaging to the State Department than apparent misconduct by senior leaders is the systemic politicization of the entire agency. Secretary Tillerson began this political assault from within, using the “Department’s policy-planning staff, which offers the secretary strategic advice, to institute a top-down approach to policy,” according to McKinley. This had the practical effect of “muzzling the bureaus usually tasked with developing ideas independently.” The increasing politicization of the State Department has also led to a brain drain of experts who have resigned in protest, or have been removed or reassigned because they were not seen as sufficiently loyal to President Trump. 

The pinnacle of politicization of the State Department was the Ukraine scandal, in which President Trump, with assistance from agency leadership, withheld federal aid to Ukraine “effectively to coerce the country’s president to investigate” his political rival Joe Biden. More recently, Secretary Pompeo flouted his own ethical guidance after he participated in the Republican National Convention while in Jerusalem on government travel. Pompeo further abused his office by joking at a press conference about our election results and the peaceful transition of power, stating that “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”

These brazen acts of corruption managed to overshadow other political appointees’ misusing their government positions for partisan political activity, such as senior officials repeatedly violating the Hatch Act, as I discussed on these pages in Good Governance Paper No. 1. For example, former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley violated the Hatch Act by using her official Twitter account to retweet an endorsement by President Trump for a South Carolina congressional candidate in 2017. Violations only escalated as we approached the 2020 election, with Ambassador to Brazil Todd Chapman, Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and Secretary Pompeo now all under investigation by the Office of Special Counsel for taking actions to benefit President Trump’s re-election bid in their official government capacity. Secretary Pompeo’s apparent violations have been particularly brazen, including his “vow to use his department’s resources to, at Donald Trump’s behest, find and release Hillary Clinton’s emails before Election Day 2020.” 

State Department leadership also politicized the agency’s responses to congressional oversight by fully cooperating with Repulican Senators’ requests for documents and information related to the politically-motivated investigation into Hunter Biden’s ties to Burisma, while routinely stonewalling oversight requests from the Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on a range of critical issues. 

It will take a monumental effort to, as Rachel Goldbrenner put it, “combat politicization and right the (nonpartisan)ship” at State. Ethics reform will not and cannot be done by one person or institution alone. And it will have to start from the top, which is where it was most corrupted. The State Department will need a qualified and independent Inspector General that can continue the investigations into Secretary Pompeo’s alleged misconduct that were undermined by Mr. Linick’s abrupt ouster. The next Secretary of State must not only pledge to work collaboratively with the Office of Inspector General to root out waste fraud and abuse within the agency and rebuild the agency’s “crippled” FOIA apparatus, but must also work to ensure that a competent acting Legal Adviser is appointed to ensure sufficient gravitas and expertise is brought to overseeing ethical compliance and transparency as a permanent replacement moves through the confirmation process. In addition, the new Secretary should recommit the Department to prioritizing diversity: not only will this shift ensure that America’s diplomats reflect our nation’s citizenry, it will also help to avoid the groupthink that leads to ethical problems. 

In addition to bolstering internal ethics controls within the State Department, there will also need to be robust oversight of the agency from the outside. Specifically, the House of Representatives must select a Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee with the requisite character and oversight experience to ensure an accurate accounting of the misconduct that occurred under Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Pompeo, and to work with the next Secretary of State to address the Department’s policy, ethical, and diversity challenges. Given the rampant corruption that has occurred at the State Department, senior appointed officials are now subject to criminal and administrative complaints before other federal agencies including the FBI and the Office of Special Counsel, which enforces the Hatch Act. Although in some cases these investigations are closed once an official leaves office, a number of the violations were so egregious that they demand further investigation to ensure accountability following the transition to a Biden administration.

The rampant corruption and politicization within the State Department has devastated morale among career staff and undermined our ability to conduct the government’s business. We saw this after the Vatican recently rejected a meeting request from Secretary Pompeo to discuss U.S. priorities regarding human rights abuses in China because it did not want to be perceived as weighing in on America’s presidential election. While the Pope normally avoids meeting with political figures close to an election, Vatican officials more pointedly “accused the Secretary of State of trying to drag the Catholic Church into the U.S. presidential election by denouncing its relations with China.” It is imperative that the State Department address the critical foreign policy issues facing our nation on day one of the incoming Biden administration. However, it will be exponentially more difficult to take the critical, decisive steps necessary to restore our country’s international standing if the Department doesn’t also quickly and thoroughly repair the damage to its ethical infrastructure.

Image: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Donald K. Sherman

Deputy Director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW); Adjunct Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center. Follow him on Twitter (@donaldonethics).