Trump’s State Department Anxiously Awaits its Future
Shaken up and set adrift, a foreign-policy bureaucracy confronts the possibility of radical change.
The flags in the lobby of the State Department stood bathed in sunlight and silence on a recent afternoon. “It’s normally so busy here,” marveled a State Department staffer as we stood watching the emptiness. “People are usually coming in for meetings, there’s lots of people, and now it’s so quiet.” The action at Foggy Bottom has instead moved to the State Department cafeteria where, in the absence of work, people linger over countless coffees with colleagues. (“The cafeteria is so crowded all day,” a mid-level State Department officer said, adding that it was a very unusual sight. “No one’s doing anything.”) As the staffer and I walked among the tables and chairs, people with badges chatted over coffee; one was reading his Kindle.
“It just feels empty,” a recently departed senior State official told me.
This week began with reports that President Donald Trump’s budget proposal will drastically slash the State Department’s funding, and last week ended with White House adviser and former Breitbart head Stephen Bannon telling the attendees of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference that what he and the new president were after was a “deconstruction of the administrative state.” At the State Department, which employs nearly 70,000 people around the world, that deconstruction is already well underway.
In the last week, I’ve spoken with a dozen current and recently departed State Department employees, all of whom asked for anonymity either because they were not authorized to speak to the press and feared retribution by an administration on the prowl for leakers, or did not want to burn their former colleagues. None of these sources were political appointees. Rather, they were career foreign service officers or career civil servants, most of whom have served both Republican and Democratic administrations—and many of whom do not know each other. They painted a picture of a State Department adrift and listless.
Sometimes, the deconstruction of the administrative state is quite literal. After about two dozen career staff on the seventh floor—the State Department’s equivalent of a C suite—were told to find other jobs, some with just 12 hours’ notice, construction teams came in over President’s Day weekend and began rebuilding the office space for a new team and a new concept of how State’s nerve center would function. (This concept hasn’t been shared with most of the people who are still there.) The space on Mahogany Row, the line of wood-paneled offices including that of the secretary of state, is now a mysterious construction zone behind blue tarp.
With the State Department demonstratively shut out of meetings with foreign leaders, key State posts left unfilled, and the White House not soliciting many department staffers for their policy advice, there is little left to do. “If I left before 10 p.m., that was a good day,” said the State staffer of the old days, which used to start at 6:30 in the morning. “Now, I come in at 9, 9:15, and leave by 5:30.” The seeming hostility from the White House, the decades of American foreign-policy tradition being turned on its head, and the days of listlessness are taking a toll on people who are used to channeling their ambition and idealism into the detail-oriented, highly regimented busywork that greases the infinite wheels of a massive bureaucracy. Without it, anxiety has spiked. People aren’t sleeping well. Over a long impromptu lunch one afternoon—“I can meet tomorrow or today, whenever! Do you want to meet right now?”—the staffer told me she too has trouble sleeping now, kept awake by her worries about her job and America’s fading role in the world.
“I used to love my job,” she said. “Now, it feels like coming to the hospital to take care of a terminally ill family member. You come in every day, you bring flowers, you brush their hair, paint their nails, even though you know there’s no point. But you do it out of love.”
Some try to conduct policy meetings just to retain the muscle memory and focus, but, said another department employee, “in the last couple months, it’s been a lot more sitting around and going home earlier than usual.” Some wander around the streets of Foggy Bottom, going for long, aimless lunches. “I’m used to going to three or four interagency policy meetings a week,” the employee added, referring to the meetings in which policy is developed in coordination with other government departments. “I’ve had exactly one of those meetings in the last five weeks.” Even the torrent of inter-department email has slowed to a trickle. The State Department staffer told me that where she once used to get two hundred emails a day, it’s down to two dozen now. “Not since I began at the department a decade ago has it been so quiet,” she said. “Colleagues tell me it’s the same for them.”
A lot of this, the employee said, is because there is now a “much smaller decision circle.” And many State staffers are surprised to find themselves on the outside. “They really want to blow this place up,” said the mid-level State Department officer. “I don’t think this administration thinks the State Department needs to exist. They think Jared [Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law] can do everything. It’s reminiscent of the developing countries where I’ve served. The family rules everything, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs knows nothing.”
Right now, those I’ve spoken to in the department seem to know very little about what’s going on. The staffer told me that she finds out what’s going on at State from the news—which she spends all day reading because, after years of having her day scheduled down to 15 minute blocks, she has nothing else to do. And even the news itself isn’t coming from official sources. There hasn’t been a State Department press briefing, once a daily ritual, since the new administration took over five weeks ago—though they’re scheduled to resume March 6. These briefings weren’t just for journalists. They also served as a crucial set of cues for U.S. diplomats all over the world about policy priorities, and how to talk about them. With no daily messaging, and almost no guidance from Washington, people in far-flung posts are flying blind even as the pace of their diplomacy hasn’t abated.
“Meetings are happening,” said one American diplomat stationed abroad, “but it is noticeable that we’re not having press briefings, which makes it hard for ambassadors waiting to take cues. We’re able to echo what Mattis, Tillerson, Pence say. But we’re still not there in aggressively promoting president’s agenda.” Other American diplomats, especially those in geopolitically sensitive posts, find themselves going on old, Obama-era guidance because no new guidance has been issued. But “the diplomacy goes on,” said another American diplomat abroad. “People notice every little change in our position,” the diplomat said. “And we don’t always know where the administration is or is going to be, so you operate on old guidance until Washington takes a new position. We’re largely taking our cues from the president, vice president, and Secretary Tillerson’s remarks and from reading the Spicer briefings,” referring to the daily briefings of White House press secretary Sean Spicer. “We are watching the news and seeing how quickly we can get our fingers on the [Spicer] transcripts,” the diplomat said.
When Rex Tillerson finally arrived in the building, members of the department I spoke to had very high hopes for him. People wanted to like him. But his remarks to the staff left many cold, and confused. “He only spoke of reform and accountability,” said the State Department staffer. “He offered no vision of America and its place in the world.” He also spoke of protecting missions abroad, which some read as a gratuitous reference to Benghazi. “It landed like a thud,” said the staffer. “There are all these people whose sole focus is protecting missions abroad. What do you think we’ve been doing for all these years?”
The fact that there hasn’t been a deputy secretary of state nominated, and that many undersecretary slots sit empty, is also unnerving to a bureaucracy used to relying on a strict hierarchy to get things done. “Not having a deputy ... is going to become a problem real soon,” the staffer said. “The world has been pretty quiet but it won’t stay that way.” She and others I spoke to worry about the optics of Tillerson flanked by empty seats during his meeting in Bonn, Germany, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was accompanied by a dozen aides. All these details send signals that other countries’ leaders and diplomats pore over for indications of potential policy changes. “With the Chinese, protocol is policy,” said the mid-level State officer. “We’re sending signals that are potentially damaging the relationship in ways we can’t anticipate.”
It also worries some State employees that Tillerson was unable to name his own deputy. His choice of the neocon Elliott Abrams was vetoed by the White House because Abrams had criticized Trump, and many in Foggy Bottom saw it as yet another signal that they and their secretary were being downgraded. “It’s troubling that his first battle with the president, he lost,” said the State employee. “If he couldn’t even bring in his own staff member, it’s concerning for future issues.”
On Tuesday, Trump confirmed their fears, telling Fox and Friends that there was a reason he wasn’t filling certain government posts: “in many cases, I don’t want to fill those posts. … They’re unnecessary.”
But while senior State appointees have yet to be appointed, other staff has been showing up. The Office of Policy Planning, created by George Kennan after World War II, is now filled not just with Ph.D.s, as it once was, but with fresh college graduates and a malpractice attorney from New Jersey whose sole foreign-policy credential seems to be that she was born in Hungary. Tillerson’s chief of staff is not his own, but is, according to the Washington Post, a Trump transition alum named Margaret Peterlin. “Tillerson is surrounded by a bunch of rather mysterious Trumpistas,” said the senior State official who recently left. “How the hell is he supposed to do his job when even his right hand is not his own person?” One State Department employee told me that Peterlin has instructed staff that all communications with Tillerson have to go through her, and even scolded someone for answering a question Tillerson asked directly, in a meeting.
Peterlin did not respond to request for comment, but former Newt Gingrich aide and State public affairs senior advisor R.C. Hammond clarified that the malpractice attorney was the White House liaison to State, and denied that Peterlin had issued such instructions or admonishments, or that the State Department was slow and listless. “The place is humming,” he said.
He and his staff pointed me to, among other people, Christiaan James, who is the Arabic-language spokesperson for State’s bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. He is busy; he spends a lot of time fielding questions from the Arabic-language press. “Even though we haven’t had a press briefing since January, we still get a lot of inquiries,” he said. “There’s still a lot going on, and we have to respond.” In the absence of a press briefing, staffers are now winging it, trying to interpret for their questioners what the American president meant when he seemed to toss overboard the idea of a two-state solution. “This actually came up yesterday,” James said. “An Egyptian channel wanted me to go on air and talk about this.” So, using the “two pages of guidance” put out by the press officer on the Israel-Palestine desk, James told them that, whatever the two sides agree on, “the United States is committed to finding a solution to this, that we’re going to be involved in the process. It’s about telegraphing that the U.S. is committed and not getting into the nitty gritty, and talking in more general terms until something more specific gets developed.”
Michelle Bernier-Toth, who runs overseas services for American citizens abroad, meanwhile continues to monitor the world for crises that might affect U.S. citizens and make consular services for them even more efficient, but she told me that she didn’t need guidance from the White House or even the Secretary of State. “What we do, we just keep on doing it,” she told me. “We’re very much a heart that keeps going. The consular side is law-based, so that’s our guidance.”
A State Department public-affairs officer was on the line with us when we talked. Another public-affairs officer was also on the line when I spoke to Paco Palmieri, a career foreign service officer and the acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Palmieri has had plenty to keep him busy, from Tillerson’s meeting with the Brazilian foreign minister in Bonn, Germany to his trip to Mexico, but he is an acting assistant secretary and he doesn’t know how long it will take for a political appointee to take his place. “Sometimes as an administration gets started, it takes some time to get a definitive answer but that just means you work harder to get to it,” he told me. “Every transition is unique.” Then the public affairs officer hustled him off to his next meeting.
According to the other people I spoke to, though, Tillerson seems cut off not just from the White House, but from the State Department. “The guidance from Tillerson has been, the less paper the better,” said the State Department staffer. “Voluntary papers are not exactly encouraged, so not much information is coming up to him. And nothing is flowing down from him to us. That, plus the absence of undersecretaries and assistant secretaries means there’s no guidance to the troops so we’re just marking time and responding.”
Many in the State Department openly acknowledge that the department is bloated, that it is at times inefficient and redundant. But they don’t understand why the culling is being done in such a crass and indiscriminate manner. “They didn’t talk to anyone, they didn’t ask them what they did, they just told them to look for other jobs,” said the mid-level officer of the seventh floor dismissals. “Nothing will make you a libertarian faster than working in the federal government,” said the State staffer. “There are inefficiencies, there needs to be reform. They certainly have a right to staffing, or lack of staffing,” the staffer said of the new administration. “But doing it without an analysis of where the inefficiencies are, the cutting just won’t be rational or effective. It just creates ill will.” The last month, the staffer said, “has been a very deliberate stress test.” “There seems to be no effort to benefit from the knowledge and expertise of people who are here, who just want to help,” said the mid-level officer. Instead, they see the White House vilifying them as bureaucrats no one elected, and it all seems, the mid-level officer said, “symbolic of wanting to neuter the organization.”
“This is probably what it felt like to be a British foreign service officer after World War II, when you realize, no, the sun actually does set on your empire,” said the mid-level officer. “America is over. And being part of that, when it’s happening for no reason, is traumatic.”