State Department
The State Department's headquarters in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Credit: Loren/Wikimedia Commons

Last week, the Trump administration accepted the resignations by four senior officials in top administrative and consular positions, including the Under Secretary of Management, Patrick Kennedy. These resignations followed the departure of the department’s top security officer and the chief of overseas facilities, both of whom resigned before the inauguration.

The resignations set off a hyperbolic reaction in some quarters. “The State Department’s entire senior management team just resigned,” headlined the Washington Post last week in a story that went viral. The story then described “an ongoing mass exodus of senior Foreign Service officers who don’t want to stick around for the Trump era.”

In truth, a major change of personnel is standard with any new administration. Whenever a new presidential administration comes to office, all officials occupying positions classified as “Presidential Appointments with Senate confirmation” (PAS) are required as a matter of standard procedure to submit letters of resignation to the White House.

As the American Foreign Service Association, the State Department’s quasi-union, further clarified, “While this appears to be a large turnover in a short period of time, a change of administration always brings personnel changes, and there is nothing unusual about rotations or retirements in the Foreign Service.”

And they are right. Not a purge, but perhaps a house cleaning in the administrative side of the house – those in charge of greasing the wheels to ensure the machine of diplomacy runs smoothly. While a lot of institutional memory is going out the door along with these senior officials, State has a deep bench of subordinates who can keep things on track until a new team is named. When President George W. Bush succeeded Bill Clinton, all but one Under Secretary were gone. As a businessman, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should recognize the importance of recruiting a top notch management team as soon as possible.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty to worry about with Trump’s State Department. Morale is low and anxiety is high.

As in other areas, the Trump folks have shown themselves graceless in their human resources practices. Well before Trump’s being sworn in, for example, his team announced that all of Obama’s non-career ambassadors – largely party fundraisers and other Democratic loyalists –  must depart their embassies as of inauguration day, January 20 – no if’s and’s or but’s. Normally, a new administration allows a brief grace period for incumbents to pack out. And arms control chief, career diplomat Thomas Countryman, was ordered to return home while on a flight to Rome to attend a high-level conference. The 34-year Foreign Service veteran is retiring immediately.

Donald Trump’s White House is way behind the ball in fielding its team. Of 690 political appointees requiring Senate confirmation in all agencies, only 28 have been named and four confirmed as of January 29. And there has been very little contact with the State Department by the Trump transition operation, according to department sources. Rex Tillerson is expected to win full Senate confirmation this week.

The main problem facing the State Department, however, may not be numbers of officials, but morale and direction. Last October, I reported on the high negative approval numbers for Trump among federal employees, including at State. A quarter of those surveyed by the Government Business Council said that they would consider resigning rather than serve under a President Trump, an eventuality that thus far has not occurred. Some 60 percent of federal employees currently hold a negative view of Trump’s transition, according to Government Executive.

Anecdotal evidence reflects an atmosphere of post-election PTSD and high anxiety among many in the State Department.

“Morale is not necessarily low because we fear for our jobs. It is low because we fear for our country,” a senior diplomat with 30-plus years in the Foreign Service told me. “We see what can happen and it terrifies many of us,” he continued. “We are entering uncharted and rather scary territory. Trump’s policies fly in the face of norms that have been respected by Republican and Democratic administrations since World War II and before. Free trade. Honoring commitments. Supporting our allies in exchange for the guarantee of their support. Seeking the moral high ground. Respect for human rights. Ascribing value to the contributions of immigrants. Providing haven to those in danger. Those elements built the foundation of America’s greatness. Without them, America has no leverage in any negotiation. With just the executive orders of the last days, we have lost the moral high ground.” This officer is opting for early retirement rather than continue serving under President Trump.

Another veteran diplomat choosing early retirement confided, “I just simply cannot be a part of normalizing an administration headed by a man who is so clearly lacking in the requisite seriousness, integrity, judgment, character, intellect, and commitment to democratic values. He appears uninterested and incapable of building the trust with foreign counterparts that is so necessary for the successful conduct of American diplomacy. And I have zero confidence that a self-involved and unprincipled Trump administration will adequately safeguard American personnel and facilities overseas.”

In this officer’s view, Trump “poses a dire domestic threat to America’s security, democracy, and prosperity. And the Trump clan’s murky dealings with the Putin regime, together with the intelligence assessments pointing to Russian hacking of the DNC (and God knows what else), raise the specter of a malevolent foreign power undermining our democratic system.”

“Morale is lower than during any transition I have seen,” the 30-plus-year veteran told me. “People are afraid to talk, but when you have a private moment with someone who trusts you, they open up. We understand better than most Americans what the possible consequences of Trump’s policies might be” – referring to diplomats’ seeing first-hand autocratic regimes in other countries. He added that a number of his colleagues are taking assignments on the margins, sometimes below their rank in order to “lie low, stay out of sight, and weather the storm.”

The second diplomat echoed this sense of anxiety: “There is great apprehension and uncertainty. Unlike past administrations of both GOP and Democrats, this new team’s unpredictability and short-sightedness is unsettling to many, especially younger staff who have been through few or no prior changes of administrations. Most remain in wait and see mode.”

According to another source, “there has been no spike in retirements,” thus confirming the wait and see approach.

Department officials are turning their concerns into action. A draft memo opposing President Trump’s Executive Order halting immigration is circulating at State. If signed by employees, the “dissent channel” memo would go to the Acting Secretary. The draft states the new policy “will not achieve its stated aim of to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States.” It further asserts that the presidential order “stands in opposition to the core American and constitutional values that we, as federal employees, took an oath to uphold” and warns that it will stoke anti-American sentiment.

It is difficult to gauge how widespread these anecdotal sentiments are. Nonetheless, they represent a cross-section of the Foreign Service ranks. Many others are looking to Rex Tillerson to act as a buffer and a steady hand on the foreign policy helm. We are then left with the question: Is he up to the task?

James Bruno

Follow James on Twitter @JamesLBruno. James Bruno is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.