Retired U.S. ambassador Thomas Pickering in a 2013 appearance on NBC's "Meet The Press"

Opinion: On the hostilities between Donald Trump and his U.S. foreign policy team

Very soon after Thomas Pickering and his two friends had settled in for an Inman Park lunch on Monday, the topic of Marie Yovanovitch jumped up.

Yovanovitch is the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was forced from her post this spring, a first step in the backdoor effort to squeeze that country for dirt on Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter – a venture apparently encouraged by President Donald Trump.

The 33-year diplomatic veteran had testified before the U.S. House Intelligence Committee most of Friday, and at one point was mocked on Twitter by her president as she did so. When she finished, spectators gave her a standing ovation.

Outside of a Jimmy Stewart movie, I’d never seen anything like it. When I said as much to my lunch companions, Pickering said the applause was well-deserved.

“I know her. She worked for me,” he added.

When and where? “Moscow. A very good officer.”

Have you talked to her? “I’ve been in touch. I’ve talked to her, and I’ve been in touch by email.”

How is she holding up? “Pretty good. She lost her mother a week and a half ago, on top of this. Between her deposition and her public hearing. So she’s had a really rough go.”

Pickering, 88, was in Atlanta for a lecture at the Commerce Club that evening, sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Atlanta. His topic was the September attack on the Aramco oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, and the new weaponry used by Iran – through surrogates – to pull it off.

But a man who has held seven U.S. ambassadorships (appointed by presidents from Reagan to Clinton), who was once dubbed by Time magazine as “the five-star general of the diplomatic corps,” is also qualified to dissect the Washington hostilities that have erupted between Trump and his U.S. Department of State.

Yovanovitch was one of several foreign service professionals who testified before the impeachment committee into the weekend. Jennifer Williams, a State Department adviser assigned to Vice President Mike Pence testified Tuesday, as did Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, European affairs director at the National Security Council.

Pickering is not neutral when it comes to Trump. But he is observant.

“Don’t forget that the hard right has always seen the State Department as a hotbed of leftist thinkers. It’s not true,” he said. “We don’t talk about domestic politics except with close friends and out of the office. My sense is the majority of the people in the State Department probably do vote Democratic. I have no poll and no data and nothing other than personal experience. But it’s not as vehement as that.”

Come February, it will have been 70 years since U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a hard-drinking Republican from Wisconsin, boasted to a crowd in West Virginia that he had a list of 200 State Department employees who were “known communists.”

McCarthy never delivered on his accusation. Others did. Like that California congressman named Richard Nixon, whose investigation eventually led to the perjury conviction of Alger Hiss, a State Department official, for denying that he had once been a Soviet spy.

The point: That particular conflict between Congress and the nation’s diplomatic corps was rooted in a very real struggle between two very real super powers in the 1950s.

There was an ideological and strategic foundation to the argument, which is wholly missing from what has been playing out on our TV sets, laptops and cell phones these last two weeks.

It is the very smallness of this dispute that looms so large. “I would like you to do us a favor, though,” Trump told the newly elected leader of Ukraine. As a result, it is probable that, next month, the U.S. House will formally accuse our president of attempting to use millions of U.S. dollars and the promise of a White House visit to extort dirt for his 2020 re-election bid.

The witnesses currently parading before Congress are making no claims of left versus right, liberal versus conservative. These are professionals whose sense of competence has been violated. I asked Pickering where he thought President Trump was taking us.

“To perdition,” he answered. “I think the man is a lunatic, an ego-narcissist of the first order. It’s difficult to find any motivation for his decisions except self-interest and self-promotion.”

“He doesn’t seem to care much about the substance of foreign policy. Good, bad or ugly, if it promotes his persona among the public, he goes for it,” Pickering said.

This is not a fresh opinion. The career diplomat said much the same thing two years ago, after the Helsinki meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin – after which the U.S. president seemed to accept Putin’s denial of Russian interference in the 2016 election, over the opinion of his own intelligence services.

This time, Pickering pulled back and elaborated.

“In New York real estate, you make a deal for the building and the land. You don’t buy floors. In diplomacy, you may have six steps before you get to the final [step]– and you may never get to the final,” Pickering said. “But the steps along the way have some intrinsic value as well. The process of diplomatic negotiation is to build trust. In real estate, it’s to screw your opponent.

“In real estate, your staff handles the details. They do all the papers. They consult you on some of the big picture issues,” Pickering said. “So alone in a room with a foreign leader, [Trump] is a menace. He has no capacity, on the basis of his own experience, to understand the foreign policy issues – the historical relationships.”

The decision to pull out the U.S. forces that stood between Turkey and the Kurds in northern Syria is a prime example. Ukraine may be the focus of the impeachment inquiry, but the chaotic presidential decision-making that led to the abandonment of the Kurds has provided the energy, Pickering said.

The retired diplomat is willing to cut Trump some slack when it comes to North Korea and China. “I think we learned something from Trump, that maximum pressure on the Koreans, if it’s accompanied by a diplomatic opening to shape things, can be a useful way of herding the cats,” he said.

Further, Trump’s trade war with China has underlined the possibility that our impending confrontation with that nation will be economic in nature rather than military. “They’ve been careful not to walk on other people’s property, but they want to manage other people’s economies,” Pickering said.

But foreign policy is always a secondary issue in American politics. Health care and immigration are likely to dominate the 2020 cycle. Looking at the Democratic field, Pickering said he sees no candidate who can both survive the primary – and is eager to pick up the mantle of world leadership that Trump has eschewed.

There is still time. “There is no one who has stepped forward to take that job. But I think if it goes on too long, people will give up. I don’t think they’ve given up on the U.S. now,” Pickering said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. Atlanta. News. Now.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. Atlanta. News. Now.

With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.

Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.

About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.