At least three top-level State Department figures, appearing before Congress one after another, have upended White House explanations of why $391 million in military assistance to Ukraine was withheld while Trump pressed that ally for a favor – one that would boost his 2020 re-election chances.
Marie Yovanovitch told of being pushed aside as ambassador to Ukraine when she balked at cooperating with Rudy Giuliani, the president’s attorney. There was Bill Taylor, who replaced Yovanovitch in Kyiv. He outlined the quid pro quo. And Michael McKinley, senior advisor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The Trump administration pushback against State Department careerists has been brutal – but not unlike what the FBI went through during the Robert Mueller probe.
“What you’re seeing now, I believe, is a group of mostly career bureaucrats who are saying: ‘You know what? I don’t like President Trump’s politics, so I’m going to participate in this witch hunt,’ ” Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, said last week.
An official White House statement described Taylor, a Trump administration hire and a West Point graduate, as part of a smear campaign by “radical, unelected bureaucrats.” The president now considers Taylor a disloyal “Never Trumper.”
A “deep state” operative, in other words.
Individuals aside, what you are witnessing is an administration schism that could have tremendous long-term implications for the United States’ place in the world. The U.S. Department of State employs some 87,000 – about 13,000 of whom are foreign service officers.
The latter are the ones who learn the languages, the customs, the politics of country after country, making sure their own nation doesn’t stumble into war or some lesser disaster. Some are political appointees, but most aren’t. And they pride themselves on telling a Republican president the same thing they would tell a Democratic one.
We are in a part of the South that pays attention to international affairs. Our economy depends upon it. So it’s not hard to find those worried about an administration that is driving out the people who are our ears and eyes around the world.
Some of the worriers are quite partisan. Susan Rice, the former U.N. ambassador and national security adviser to President Barack Obama, was at Georgia Tech on Wednesday, hawking copies of her new memoir.
“We’re basically hemorrhaging senior-most level talent, and the intake is diminishing in the recruitment,” she said. “Those in the mid-ranks, who may have served in any meaningful way in a prior administration, have been tormented and purged.
“It’s potentially a generational deficit that we need to repair,” said Rice, who was once assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
Rice called the idea of a disloyal deep-state insulting. But she did speak of a diplomatic corps that was tired of being cowed. “I think people are morphing from being demoralized to pissed. With folks who work in the State Department, it takes a while to get there,” Rice said. “People are just sick and tired of being trashed for doing nothing but their jobs – well.”
Rice is a quintessential political appointee. In Democratic administrations, she becomes part of the diplomatic fabric. In Republican ones, she writes memoirs. The other team’s experts should have replaced her in 2017, but for the most part, they haven’t.
This is where Trump has departed from the political norm, said Charles Shapiro, president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta.
When President Ronald Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada in 1983, Shapiro was the diplomat in a gray-flannel suit who accompanied American troops in war paint. More than two decades later, President George W. Bush named him the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela.
When Democrats tagged out of the White House in January 2017, Trump failed to bring in the Republican diplomatic team in waiting, Shapiro said.
“I’ve got dear friends from the Bush 43 administration and the Bush 41 administration and the Reagan administration – whom Trump hasn’t even contacted, so far as I know,” he said. “They are perceived as being part of the problem – as much as the Democrats.”
Like Rice, Shapiro is concerned about the long-term effect of the breach between Trump and the nation’s professional diplomatic army – whose members often spend years developing their sources. Not unlike newspaper reporters.
“You develop expertise and you learn languages. The people you know when you’re the equivalent of a cub reporter, who are in the city council – 10 years later they end up being in the state legislature, and 20 years later being in Congress. That’s exactly what foreign service officers do,” Shapiro said. “You go back to the country where you were, and the people who were backbenchers are suddenly in the Cabinet.”
It’s all about contacts and context.
“As far as I can tell, that’s what this administration is not doing. It doesn’t care about the context. And it’s not looking for the people who have the contacts. Including the people in their own party,” he said.
Shapiro knows Bill Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine who is taking so much heat. He called disparagement of the man to be so much equine manure -- in more exact language.
But speaking of newspaper reporters. Once upon a time, there was a writer for the Macon Telegraph who became the U.S. ambassador to Mongolia.
Thirty-two years later, Jonathan Addleton has returned to Macon, and now teaches at Mercer University. He describes himself as somewhat conservative, with a nonpolitical temperament. The capstone of his career, Addleton notes, was perfectly bipartisan.
He was nominated as ambassador by President George W. Bush, and received his U.S. Senate confirmation during the Obama administration. Addleton has done time in Afghanistan, and has headed up USAID missions in five countries, including India, Pakistan, Cambodia, and Mongolia – on a first stint in that nation.
The U.S. Agency for International Development handles economic aid and humanitarian efforts. The people who make it work try to stay far away from politics. Even in retirement.
But this week, an old associate of Addleton began passing around a petition of protest. “We are distraught at the dangers inherent in the President’s cavalier (and quite possibly corrupt) approach to making foreign policy on impulse and personal interest rather than in response to national security concerns,” the document said.
Addleton, who is no liberal, has been particularly upset at Trump’s treatment of Marie Yovanovitch. He signed the petition.
So did more than 200 other USAID retirees.