18 March 2018

State Department employees have one main reaction to Rex Tillerson’s ouster as secretary of state: “Good riddance.”

Nahal Toosi

President Donald Trump’s decision to fire the top U.S. diplomat sent a wave of hope through a department battered by low morale under Tillerson, who dismissed the expertise of career diplomats and sought to downsize the department. “There is strong sense of relief at State. The last year has been traumatic to put it mildly. It was as though ‘T-Rex’ stomped through Foggy Bottom devouring staff and structures,” said Brett Bruen, a former State Department official. Several current State officials said they also hope to bid farewell to Tillerson’s top aides, including chief of staff Margaret Peterlin and policy chief Brian Hook, whom they criticize for forming a protective and secretive clique around the secretary during his nearly 14-month tenure.

“People see this as a chance for a clean sweep,” said one staffer, who like most others spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid losing his job. “This team has proven itself incapable of managing the State Department.”

Multiple Foreign and Civil Service officers struck an optimistic note about Tillerson’s chosen replacement, CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Many hope that Pompeo’s close relationship with Trump will mean that the State Department will gain more influence with a president who has often sidelined it.

But some sounded more wary, saying that Pompeo has a hawkish reputation and little diplomatic experience.

One recently departed State Department official noted that Pompeo had a reputation in some quarters of the CIA as a political partisan, warning: “If people at State disliked Tillerson, they might downright hate Pompeo.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker said in a statement Tuesday that Pompeo’s confirmation hearing was expected to be held in April.Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, a more popular figure than Tillerson in the department, is expected to serve as acting secretary of state in the meantime.

Despite months of rumors that Tillerson would be fired or simply quit, the announcement Tuesday took many U.S. diplomats by surprise.

It came as Tillerson was returning to the United States from a trip to Africa — a journey that had suggested he planned to stick around for a while. Tillerson cancelled his appearances on Saturday; aides said he had fallen ill. And there were conflicting accounts of when Tillerson learned he would be pushed out; some reports said he didn’t know until he saw a Trump tweet on Tuesday, while others said the president’s chief-of-staff John Kelly had warned him on Friday.

The former ExxonMobil CEO himself had said he would be at the helm of the department through at least 2018. At the same time, Tillerson seemed to have notched some recent wins with a president who’d frequently undercut him; the secretary had been advocating for talks with North Korea long before Trump last week said he’d be willing to meet face-to-face with the country’s leader — although Trump’s decision seemed to catch Tillerson unawares.

Some lawmakers said Tillerson’s rocky tenure was in part due to Trump’s lack of discipline. A number noted that Tillerson had been more hawkish on Russia than Trump. That included this week, when the secretary directly blamed the Kremlin for a nerve agent attack in Britain, while the White House refrained from naming a culprit.

“While I have opposed several of Secretary Tillerson’s decisions during his tenure at the State Department, I don’t believe that President Trump ever gave him the trust, personnel, and resources he needed to be effective as the nation’s top diplomat,” said Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware.

At the same time, there were a host of questions about Pompeo’s approach on a range of policy and management issues.

Tillerson has moved to “redesign” the State Department — an initiative that has come to largely revolve around modernizing technology and upgrading human resources rules. Thanks in part to disagreements with the White house, Tillerson has failed to fill numerous leadership slots at the department, while several of his nominees have yet to be confirmed by the Senate. It’s not clear whether Pompeo will move ahead with Tillerson’s nominees for some of those slots.

Pompeo, too, is more hawkish than Tillerson on some key issues. In particular, the former Republican congressman from Kansas has been a harsh critic of the Iran nuclear deal. While Tillerson has advocated for keeping the Barack Obama-era deal in place, Pompeo is more willing to question its value.

State Department employees, many of whom view the Iran nuclear deal as a major diplomatic achievement, said they hope that Pompeo will at least be more willing to consider their expertise and opinions.

“While Pompeo’s views seem to have expressed a preference for force over diplomacy, my guess is he knows his success is dependent upon the information that comes to him through the building,” one State official said. “I think he’ll rely more heavily on depth of experience across the department than Tillerson ever cared to.”

How Pompeo will deal with the threat from Russia is another open question. The CIA chief has called out Russia over its alleged interference in the 2016 presidential race. But he’s also managed to stay in Trump’s good graces even as the president has downplayed intelligence agencies’ assessment that Russia intervened in the election to help Trump win.

“I sincerely hope he’s not being set up to fail as so many others have been by this White House,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “He’s a former House colleague, and I respect his candor about Russia’s ongoing effort to attack American democracy.”

Tillerson’s insular management style was reinforced by several of his top aides, including Peterlin and Hook, the director of the secretary’s Policy Planning Staff. Hook’s division, which in the past had acted as more of a medium to long-term internal think tank, had taken over many policy roles traditionally left to regional and functional bureaus at the department.

Finding themselves sidelined, many senior diplomats simply quit or retired over the past year. Among the recent departures was Joseph Yun, the special envoy for North Korean issues. The top-ranking career Foreign Service officer in the department, Thomas Shannon, has also announced he will retire.

State employees interviewed Tuesday said they hope that Pompeo will embrace the whole department and its 75,000 employees across the world.

“We all know he’s more comfortable with Trump and vice versa. That’s good,” one senior State Department official said. “We will want to work successfully with him, but we want him to trust us.”

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