When and if Rex Tillerson is confirmed as secretary of state, he’ll arrive to a Mahogany Row that is unusually quiet. On Wednesday, as the Associated Press and Josh Rogin of The Washington Post report, several top officials at the State Department resigned their posts.
They include Patrick Kennedy, who had been the undersecretary of management since the George W. Bush administration, as well as Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond, and Gentry Smith, who directed the Office of Foreign Missions.
Longtime AP diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee points out that it’s not unusual to have top appointees resign at the change of administrations. Rogin fills in some context: Kennedy had been working closely with the Trump transition team and had been seeking to keep his job, though his hopes were fading. The abrupt resignations at this stage in the transition seems to have come as a surprise. They are made all the more important because Trump has not made any nominations for State positions beyond Tillerson, to say nothing of hearings of confirmation votes.
Early on, rumors suggested that John Bolton, the superhawk and former ambassador to the United Nations, would be named as Tillerson’s No. 2, to assuage fears about the former Exxon CEO’s lack of diplomatic experience. But the Bolton trial balloon seemed to sink over concerns voiced most loudly by Senator Rand Paul. The need has perhaps lessened, as Tillerson’s nomination, once viewed as somewhat shaky, has firmed up, with Senator Marco Rubio’s support effectively clinching his confirmation.
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The resignations are not, primarily, a political story. They will further the impression among Trump’s critics that his administration is a chaotic mess staffed, when it’s staffed at all, by greenhorn newcomers. But the mass of voters don’t tend to get all that excited about internal managers at the State Department, especially since Trump and other Republicans have spent years railing against bureaucrats, and particularly bureaucrats who served under Hillary Clinton. If you think Foggy Bottom has been a disastrous mess, then house-cleaning might be a good thing. Kennedy’s name is not a household one, but he did come in for harsh criticism in the House report on the September 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi, arguably coming in for worse censure than Clinton herself.
But someone has to run the State Department, to keep the gears of diplomacy turning, and Rogin reports that the latest resignations are part of a “mass exodus of senior foreign service officers who don’t want to stick around for the Trump era.” In early January, The New York Times reported that Trump’s team would not grant grace periods to any outgoing ambassadors, a break with tradition. A source dismissed concerns about their departures to Fox News, pointing out that many ambassadors are political appointees whose major qualification for their jobs was raising lots of money for Barack Obama: “The number twos are career foreign service officers and more than capable of stepping into the roles.”
The question is what happens when the number twos start leaving, as well as the top career appointees in Washington. Several top State Department employees were on a list of officials asked to stay on during the transition period who refused to do so, Reuters reported on January 19. Tillerson’s business experience is expected to serve him well in marshaling an organization the size of the State Department, but learning the in and outs of administration will take time, and that will be harder without top officials like the ones who resigned on Wednesday around to help show the workings.
The need for a professionalized, career staff to handle foreign affairs was clear nearly a century ago when the U.S. Foreign Service was created to grapple with the nation’s more ambitious global aspirations, and the faster pace of diplomacy in a world of modern communications. “The machinery of government provided for dealing with our foreign relations is in need of complete repair and reorganization,” Secretary of State Robert Lansing wrote in 1920. “As adequate as it may have been when the old order prevailed and the affairs of the world were free from the present perplexities it has ceased to be responsive to present needs.”
Despite Trump’s diminished global goals—he has suggested pulling back from the U.S.’s global commitments and focusing inward—the situation is far more complicated now.
If these four officials were pushed, then Trump seems to have taken a cavalier attitude toward the State Department’s ability to run itself without institutional knowledge. If they jumped, it’s tempting to view their departure as an example of official Washington’s resistance to President Trump.
There are more pressing unanswered questions at the moment. Who will Trump, and Tillerson, tap to fill the newly opened spots? Will more career Foreign Service agents depart, hollowing out the department’s operations? And will the State Department be prepared if a crisis strikes before those vacancies are filled?