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Even Before Mike Pompeo’s Blowup, State Department Insiders Were Feeling Undermined

By Nik Steinberg

On Friday, NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly found out just how sensitive the issue of impeachment has become at the State Department. During an interview, she asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo whether he owed an apology to Marie Yovanovitch, the career diplomat and ambassador to Ukraine who Trump had called "bad news," and then attacked on Twitter when she testified at the House impeachment hearings last fall. “I’ll say only this,” Pompeo responded, “I have defended every State Department official.”

Pressed on when he had defended Yovanovitch, Pompeo repeated the same line; he soon abruptly ended the interview, called the reporter into his private room, and, according to Kelly, profanely chewed her out.

I was not surprised that a question about his relationship with the department set off Pompeo’s tirade, because I had been watching tension build between career Foreign Service officers and the Trump administration since the impeachment hearings began. During Yovanovitch’s testimony, for instance, shortly after Trump tweeted that “everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” my timeline showed dozens of diplomats I knew taking to Facebook and Twitter to express their pride in serving with the ambassador. Having served as a political appointee in the Obama administration State Department, I worked closely with many Foreign Service officers and have seen how careful they are to avoid politics, both for their careers and for the nonideological reputation of the institution. Why, I wondered, were diplomats breaking with convention now?

Since the House hearings, I’ve spoken to more than a dozen career Foreign Service officers, and it has become clear that the impeachment process has had a major collateral effect that reaches well beyond Trump himself. They say it has sharply hurt morale within the department, and in particular has eroded their faith in Pompeo. Many of the interviewees had initially hoped the secretary would rebuild the department after Rex Tillerson’s efforts to strip it down, but they have instead seen Pompeo stand by silently as his employees were sidestepped and smeared. And they worry the loss of bipartisan trust in career diplomats, whom the president and his allies in Congress have cast as “radical unelected bureaucrats,” will inflict lasting damage on the institution’s role in foreign policy-making.

I’ve agreed to keep the interviewees anonymous because of the Trump administration’srecord of harassing or marginalizing public servants they see as questioning their policies.But the people I spoke with serve primarily in senior roles in the department, and almost all have served for over a decade.

The lack of accountability for what they see as the administration’s foreign-policy malpractice, several diplomats told me, has undermined already-low morale at the department, which has seen a striking number of resignations under Trump; seen more ambassadorships go to political appointees, as opposed to career diplomats, than at any time since the Franklin Roosevelt administration; and whose experts have been smeared repeatedly by the president and his inner circle experts as “Obama holdovers” or part of the “deep state.” Today, while Yovanovitch, a respected diplomat, was recalled from her post and subjected to a smear campaign by the president, it looks increasingly likely to diplomats that others, such as Rudy Giuliani or Mick Mulvaney who the interviewees said put their personal interest before the national interest, will face no consequences for their actions.

The officers I spoke to reserved their harshest comments for Pompeo, who at the outset of the inquiry wrote to the House Intelligence Committee pledging to use “all means at my disposal to prevent and expose any attempts to intimidate the dedicated professionals whom I am proud to lead and serve alongside in the Department of State.” His actions told a different story. First, he obfuscated when he was asked, and then later admitted that he had been listening in on the infamous call between Trump and Ukraine’s president. On that call, he stayed mum when both presidents insulted Yovanovitch. Then, Pompeo refused to defend her when the transcript was made public. Ambassador Michael McKinley, a 37-year veteran of the Foreign Service who served as Pompeo’s senior adviser, told the House committees leading the impeachment probe that he tried three times to get the secretary to publicly defend Yovanovitch after Trump’s threats were made public, but Pompeo “did not respond at all.” McKinley ultimately resigned, calling the department’s silence on “unacceptable.”

Diplomats called Pompeo’s failure to stand up for Yovanovitch and other Foreign Service officers in the face of Trump’s attacks “beyond reprehensible” and called his silence on her recall “deafening.” “‘Swagger’ isn’t a word to comes to mind for someone who doesn’t defend an ambassador,” said one officer, referring to the secretary’s cringeworthy branding campaign when he took over the department. Pompeo launched the campaign with an Instagram post that showed him fist bumping an employee under a seal that replaced “Department of State” with “Department of Swagger.”

It’s not just low morale. Almost everyone I spoke with also thought that the central role of the Foreign Service in the impeachment process is bad for the institution. For one, most said, Foreign Service officers’ participation in the hearings and coverage of the proceedings hasn’t changed anyone’s mind—not on impeachment, and not on the trustworthiness of career diplomats. If anything, they noted, for the president’s supporters in Congress and the general public, the hearings just provided more evidence of a “deep state” conspiracy. That was evident when the president’s baseless claim that career diplomats Ambassador William Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent were “Never Trumpers” was echoed by Trump’s defenders across the conservative media. More alarmingly, it was reflected in the report produced by the Republican minority staff of the three House committees involved, which also concluded, without evidence, that the impeachment inquiry was “based on the accusations and assumptions of unelected bureaucrats who disagreed with President Trump’s policy initiatives and processes.”

This lack of trust is worrisome for the career officers I spoke with, because the State Department’s influence on foreign policy depends on having the trust and confidence of whichever party is in office. When one of the two major parties begins to see the foreign service as partisan, one diplomat told me, “the whole system breaks down—not just for this president, but for presidents to come,” as the White House stops relying on, or even seeking, the department’s expertise.

Several diplomats told me that as soon as impeachment process concludes, they expect the administration will take more aggressive steps to exclude them from the policymaking process, such as further limiting access to meetings where key decisions are made and to readouts of the president’s calls. One senior diplomat worried that if Trump is reelected, he would “punish” the department by pushing for investigations like the one Attorney General William Barr is conducting into the FBI over its decision to examine the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia. “Will they suddenly be looking at my WhatsApp messages or the fact that I’ve had a conversation like this one?” the diplomat asked.

Many of the people I spoke with saw parallels in our current moment to one of the darkest periods of the State Department’s history: McCarthyism. During that time, a number of Foreign Services officers were blamed for having “lost China” to the Communists, something McCarthy and his acolytes blamed on their Communist sympathies.

After our first correspondence, a Foreign Service officer sent me a link to an April 1953 issue of the Foreign Service Journal, which contained a “Memorandum by the Secretary of State in the Matter of John Carter Vincent.” The secretary at that time was John Foster Dulles, and Vincent was one of the most prominent “China hands,” as the group of experts came to be known. By 1953, Vincent had been investigated and cleared three times by the State Department’s Loyalty Security Board, only to then be subjected to a review by a separate Civil Service Loyalty Review Board, which found, by a one-vote margin, a reason to doubt his loyalty. In the public memo primarily directed at Foreign Service officers, Dulles wrote that he did not question Vincent’s loyalty, but he did find in Vincent’s policy advice “a failure to meet the standard which is demanded of a Foreign Service Officer of his experience and responsibility,” and gave Vincent the choice of resigning or being fired. Vincent resigned.

Dulles never clarified which advice of Vincent’s fell short of the Department’s standard, but history has shown his counsel—like that of the other China hands smeared by McCarthy—to have been spot on, accurately forecasting the rise of the Communists and the brittleness of the U.S.-backed Chiang Kai-shek regime. Vincent died in 1972, before his reputation was rehabilitated.

Diplomats today are concerned about the risk of the mounting loss of expertise at the State Department, which is one of the lasting lessons of the purge of the State Department’s China hands during the McCarthy years. Not only did a generation of bright, dedicated public servants like John Carter Vincent see their careers derailed and reputations destroyed based on unfounded accusations in that era, but the evisceration of the State Department’s expertise on Asia was a key factor in the United States’ growing entanglement in the war in Vietnam, as many of the individuals whose knowledge and experience would have led them to question such engagement had been forced out. What decisions taken today could lead the United States down a similarly perilous path, because experts like Yovonovitch or Taylor—or any of the countless of other experts who quit or were pushed out—are no longer at the table when important decisions are made?

Despite these concerns, not a single officer I spoke with was planning to leave the department. On the contrary, the crucible of impeachment has provided a clarifying sense of purpose for many of the people I spoke to. Several said the hearings underscored the importance of diplomats like them serving as guardrails against the misuse of U.S. foreign policy and fighting to preserve a nonideological Foreign Service. One diplomat, sensing a renewed sense of pride in the embassy where he served, said he saw “a bit of extra spring in the step” among officers there. Shortly after George Kent appeared before the House Intelligence Committee, Foreign Service officers arrived at a staff meeting he chaired in Washington with paper bowties taped to their collars.

The Foreign Service officers I spoke with are still committed to serving their country and still believe they can do so—even if it’s not in the way they imagined when they joined. Multiple diplomats told me they were learning how to more effectively push back against policies they disagreed with as they were being hashed out; another told me he had made a point of telling staff at his embassy to take seriously their mandatory whistleblower training and underscored why such protections are critical. “I stay in the service because I feel like I can still make a difference and advocate within the bounds of the service, even if that’s often from preventing bad things from happening,” a diplomat with over 15 years’ experience told me. “I haven’t been asked to sacrifice my integrity. I won’t do it. That’s the day that I’ll say I can’t continue.”