Last week ended with White House adviser Stephen Bannon telling CPAC 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.
Julia Ioffe, in a shocking profile of DOS for the Atlantic, spoke to a dozen current and recently departed employees--career foreign service officers or career civil servants-- all of whom painted a picture of a State Department adrift and listless. 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.
Many characterize Trump's foreign policy as being formulated within a “much smaller decision circle.”-- and many State staffers are surprised to find themselves on the outside. “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.”
Many staffers now say they find out what’s going on at State from public media sources. 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. 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.
When Rex Tillerson finally arrived in the building, members of the department had very high hopes for 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 [a lot personnel at State] 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.
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 once publicly 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 [the] future.”
Even 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 in a meeting for answering a question Tillerson asked directly.
Former Newt Gingrich aide and State public affairs senior advisor R.C. Hammond clarified that Peterline was the White House liaison to State, and denied that she had issued such instructions or admonishments, or that the State Department was slow and listless. “The place is humming,” he said.
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 one staffer. “[Unsolicited position] 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.”
“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.”