/The revenge of the State Department

The revenge of the State Department


In their testimonies, the diplomats have described being sidelined on Ukraine policy as Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and political appointees — apparently at the president’s direction — pursued a “shadow” foreign policy that included withholding some $400 million in military aid to Kyiv. Their boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has attacked the House process as “ troubling” and defended the legitimacy of Giuliani’s efforts.

Overall, the diplomats’ testimonies have bolstered allegations that Trump tried to improperly pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival. But some also used the platform to air long-held grievances about Trump and his aides’ treatment of the State Department’s career staffers, several of whom were demoted or sidelined after attacks by the conservative media.

The defiance has risks: It could deepen the rift between Trump and the State Department while fueling more global confusion over U.S. foreign policy positions. Many of Trump’s top aides view Foggy Bottom as a den of Democratic intrigue — a long- and widely held suspicion on the right with roots in the Cold War.

For now, though, it feels pretty good to hit back.

“People are fed up,” said Laura Kennedy, a former U.S. ambassador who remains in touch with officials in the State Department. “There’s a deep well of resentment that’s just bubbled toward the top.”

There’s also anxiety.

Serving diplomats say the impeachment inquiry has become a constant source of questions from their foreign counterparts and overseas media and that it’s a challenging issue to explain, especially given the State Department’s role.

Former officials say they’re fielding calls from still-serving diplomats worried about their futures. The possibility that the impeachment inquiry could rope in junior diplomats or grow beyond Ukraine and Europe isn’t far from people’s minds. A private Facebook group for foreign service officers considering quitting their jobs has seen a significant jump in membership.

“Lower-level people are still terrified they’ll be wrapped up in this,” a former State official said. “They’re glad to see Masha, Mike and George wave the flag for the foreign service but still not convinced people won’t get screwed.”

“Masha” is a reference to Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who gave a deposition to lawmakers on Oct. 11 under subpoena from the investigating House committees and despite State Department objections. In her opening statement, she decried Trump’s machinations on Ukraine while calling for more support for the foreign service.

Yovanovitch was recalled from Ukraine in May, a few months before her tenure was up, after Trump allies spread rumors that she was biased against the president. In a July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s leader that’s at the heart of the impeachment inquiry, Trump called her “bad news” and said she was “going to go through some things.”

Yovanovitch told lawmakers that, in her 30-plus years as a diplomat, she always stuck to the required ethos of nonpartisanship. She said she was “incredulous” at being recalled over “false claims.” She warned that the State Department is being “attacked and hollowed out from within” and stressed that the repercussions go beyond Foggy Bottom.

The harm will also “come when those diplomats who soldier on and do their best to represent our nation face partners abroad who question whether the ambassador truly speaks for the president and can be counted upon as a reliable partner,” she said in her opening statement.

Yovanovitch was followed on Capitol Hill by two other prominent career foreign service officers: George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary whose portfolio includes Ukraine, and Michael McKinley, who just days ago resigned as a senior adviser to Pompeo. Three other State Department officials — Bill Taylor, now the top U.S. diplomat in Kyiv; Philip Reeker, the acting assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs; and Suriya Jayanti, a foreign service officer based in Kyiv — have been summoned to testify; others could follow.

Kent described being told by a superior to “lie low” on Ukraine policy as Giuliani; the politically appointed U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland; Energy Secretary Rick Perry; and others allegedly ignored established diplomatic paths to pursue questionable interests in Ukraine.

McKinley told impeachment investigators that he resigned in part because of Trump’s attacks on Yovanovitch and Pompeo’s seeming unwillingness to protect career diplomats from political retaliation. McKinley had grown to find the situation “unbearable,” a former colleague told POLITICO.

Like Yovanovitch, Kent testified in defiance of instructions from the White House and Pompeo. Both remain on the State Department payroll.

Hill staffers have indicated that they subpoenaed the diplomats to give them some cover so they could cooperate. McKinley, having resigned from State, testified voluntarily.

A current State official said that, within the department, Yovanovitch and Kent in particular are being viewed with “strong respect and sympathy.” They are seen as “career public servants who became collateral damage in political issues,” the staffer said, adding that there’s a “pretty long line of them in this administration.”

McKinley, too, is viewed in positive terms for testifying, but many career staffers are wondering why it took him so long to resign — Yovanovitch was, after all, recalled around five months ago.

Neither the State Department nor the White House responded to requests for comment on this story. On Thursday, however, Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, took a shot at the diplomats who testified, calling them “career bureaucrats who are saying, ‘You know what? I don’t like President Trump’s politics so I’m going to participate in this witch hunt.’”

Also testifying this month were Sondland, a Trump donor who was named an ambassador despite having no diplomatic experience, and Kurt Volker, a former foreign service officer who took on an unpaid political appointment as a special envoy tasked with shepherding peace talks between Ukraine and Russia. Volker quit the position before testifying.

The inquiry’s revelations have alarmed even the most diplomatic of diplomats.

In a furious essay in Foreign Affairs magazine, William Burns, a highly regarded and famously measured foreign service veteran who now leads the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, turned heads in Washington when he compared Trump’s treatment of U.S. diplomats to the days of communist hunting led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

“The damage from this assault — coming from within the executive branch itself, after nearly three years of unceasing diplomatic self-sabotage, and at a particularly fragile geopolitical moment — will likely prove to be even more severe to both diplomatic tradecraft and U.S. foreign policy,” Burns warned in the essay, which was widely read at the State Department.

Department employees say that in Foggy Bottom and beyond, civil- and foreign-service officers are doing their jobs and there are no work stoppages or visible expressions of protest. For instance, U.S. officials smoothly carried out their duties at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, whose main session last month coincided with Democrats’ launch of the formal impeachment inquiry.

Yet the frustration inside the department has occasionally spilled out into public, even before the Ukraine revelations placed the Trump administration’s unorthodox approach to diplomacy at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.

In August, two foreign service officers announced their departures in tough-worded op-eds describing their deep disappointment with Trump.

One dismissed the belief, widespread among Trump aides, that a deep state exists within the federal bureaucracy that is determined to thwart Trump’s agenda. “If the resistance does exist, it should be clear by this point that it has failed,” wrote the outgoing diplomat, Chuck Park.

The next month, another U.S. diplomat argued in an op-ed that now is the time to stay. “If we all leave when it gets hard, who will be left to champion American diplomacy?” wrote Elizabeth Fitzsimmons, a deputy assistant secretary of State.

Much of the wrath is directed at Pompeo.

State Department employees say they’re furious he hasn’t publicly supported Yovanovitch, who testified that the deputy secretary of State, John Sullivan, admitted to her that she’d “done nothing wrong” but was being recalled anyway. Pompeo declined to discuss Yovanovitch in an interview with POLITICO on Friday.

State Department staffers are also livid Pompeo has framed his resistance to congressional demands for information as being about protecting U.S. diplomats.

Pompeo took over the department in April 2018, after morale had sunk unusually low under Trump’s first secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Tillerson had largely sidelined career diplomats and seemed willing to go along with steep budget cuts Trump proposed for the State Department — cuts Congress has repeatedly blocked.

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