President Donald Trump’s decision to dump Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will likely mean further delays in filling dozens of empty posts at the State Department, undermining U.S global diplomacy at an unusually sensitive time.
Foreign governments are already unsure who is shaping American policy, whom they should contact with questions and requests, and how to handle Trump’s often unpredictable, go-it-alone approach to world affairs. The U.S. president recently announced he would hold an unprecedented meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by May; he’s also weighing the fate of the Iran nuclear deal.
Some Trump aides expect Tillerson’s named replacement, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, to scratch one key Tillerson nominee: Susan Thornton, a career diplomat who had been in line to assume the State Department’s top East Asia post, dealing with China and North Korea.
The lag in filling positions is raising concern in Congress, where Pompeo is tentatively scheduled to face his own confirmation hearing on April 12.
Pompeo is expected to visit the State Department on Monday for handover talks with Tillerson, according to an internal readout of a State Department meeting obtained by POLITICO. Top officials there have been told to prepare to brief Pompeo on “hot topics” ahead of his confirmation hearing — although because Pompeo is still running the CIA, “it is unclear how much time Secretary-designate Pompeo will spend in this building prior to confirmation,” the readout said.
Of 163 Senate-confirmed positions for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, 65 positions don’t yet have a nominee, while many nominees have yet to be confirmed, according to congressional staffers. Among the empty slots: the ambassador to South Korea and the assistant secretary of state who oversees the Middle East.
Trump has blamed Senate Democrats for the plethora of empty offices in the State Department and beyond. “Hundreds of good people, including very important Ambassadors and Judges, are being blocked and/or slow walked by the Democrats in the Senate. Many important positions in Government are unfilled because of this obstruction. Worst in U.S. history!” the president tweeted Wednesday.
But Democrats say Trump and his Cabinet aides are the ones at fault, especially when it comes to the diplomatic ranks. “The fact is this administration has failed to nominate critical high-level positions, leaving a void of empowered voices and gaping vacancies in embassies in some of the world’s most troubled regions and in Foggy Bottom,” said New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Friday. “We cannot confirm nominees who have not been nominated.”
Although the White House plays a major role in choosing nominees — and often rejected Tillerson’s choices — Pompeo is expected to review current and potential names for the open jobs at State as he shapes the institution closer to his worldview, which is notably more hawkish than Tillerson’s.
Many believe Thornton, the current nominee to serve as assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, will be the first to go. She appeared before the Senate in mid-February for her confirmation hearing.
Thornton’s critics say she is too soft on China. Steve Bannon, a former White House adviser who advocates a tougher approach to Beijing, publicly bragged about trying to sideline the career diplomat. Bannon was fired before that could happen, and Tillerson, who came to admire Thornton, convinced the White House to nominate her. But Tillerson’s ouster has cost Thornton her champion, and Pompeo has little incentive to back her given Trump’s more hardline positions on China in recent weeks.
But if Pompeo pulls Thornton’s nomination, it would send a demoralizing signal to other career staffers hoping to advance at State. The White House recently rejected a handful of career diplomats that Tillerson had put forth for ambassadorships, according to a State Department official familiar with the matter. The reasoning wasn’t clear.
Modern-era presidents have typically given around 70 percent of ambassador slots to the career diplomats and the rest to political hires, whose ranks often include campaign donors. According to the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats’ union, Trump’s ambassador picks so far have been 61 percent political, 39 percent career.
Given that Pompeo has reportedly been preparing to replace Tillerson for months, it’s possible he already has a list of names for top State slots. And because he has a better relationship with Trump than Tillerson did, he is likely to be more successful in getting the president to sign off on his choices.
Regardless, it can take months for nominees to go through the White House’s vetting procedures and then be confirmed by a Senate Republicans narrowly control, 51-49. That raises the possibility that some top positions may remain vacant into 2019.
Pompeo’s own confirmation is no slam dunk. One fellow Republican, Rand Paul of Kentucky, already has said he opposes Pompeo in part because of his apparent support for “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or torture.
Trump announced Tillerson’s firing via a tweet on Tuesday. Tillerson’s last day in the office is slated to be March 22, although his commission as secretary of state officially ends March 31, according to the internal State Department readout. Tillerson already has delegated “all authorities,” as the readout put it, to the deputy secretary of state, John Sullivan.
In a farewell session with top aides, Tillerson lamented that the department had “failed to modernize its personnel practices and was being overtaken by other agencies,” according to the readout. It was an admission that his efforts to “redesign” State had not achieved much yet. Tillerson said he hoped that Pompeo would keep that initiative going.
A handful of top aides to Tillerson will leave as well, including his chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, and his deputy chief of staff, Christine Ciccone. Those two aides were widely disliked within the State Department for tightly restricting access to Tillerson, which bogged down decision-making.
But one Tillerson adviser is expected to stick around under Pompeo, at least for a few months. Brian Hook, the director of the secretary’s Policy Planning Staff is arguably the second most-powerful person at State, playing a major role in crafting and negotiating policy, often to the detriment of other bureaus at the department. Hook has cultivated solid relationships with close Trump advisers, and observers expect Pompeo to retain Hook for a while for continuity.
A former George W. Bush administration official well known in Republican foreign policy circles, Hook was in Vienna on Friday meeting with foreign diplomats to discuss the Iran nuclear deal. Trump has threatened to withdraw from the deal in May unless new limits are applied to Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, though foreign governments are skeptical that is possible.
There is little love lost for Tillerson at the State Department, where many employees felt sidelined and thought he was to determined to trim staff. At the same time, State workers feel Trump treated Tillerson poorly and fired him dishonorably, and worry about what Pompeo’s hardline views will mean for U.S. diplomacy.
Tillerson sent out a note to State staffers Friday in which he praised their patriotism and hard work. The former ExxonMobil CEO, who had no formal diplomatic experience before taking over as secretary in February 2017, said it had been “one of the great privileges” of his life to serve alongside the State Department staffers. He made no mention of Trump or Pompeo, but he urged department employees to “embrace an orderly and smooth transition process.”
“I am proud of what we have accomplished together,” he wrote. “I am proud of you.”