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Top State Department officials step down in large diplomatic shakeup

Trump administration said to ‘clean house’ with Rex Tillerson confirmation pending in Senate; at least four long-serving members quit

Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The entire team of senior management officials at the State Department has resigned, following a host of other foreign service officers who have retired or resigned since the election of US President Donald Trump.

The move came ahead of the expected confirmation of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and a likely slate of new faces in top roles, and while Foggy Bottom said the resignations were business as usual, one former official called it “the single biggest simultaneous departure” in recent memory.

The State Department said the officials had submitted their resignations prior to Trump’s January 20 inauguration as is required of officials holding jobs appointed by the president. They were not required to leave the foreign service but chose to retire or resign for personal reasons, the department said. Still other officials said they had been pushed out by the new administration.

The Washington Post reported that at least four top management figures resigned en masse on Wednesday as Tillerson toured State Department headquarters.

Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for the post, was approved this week by a Senate committee but has yet to be officially okayed by the Senate.

While none of the officials linked his or her departure explicitly to Trump, many diplomats have privately expressed concern about serving in his administration, given the unorthodox positions he’s taken on many foreign policy issues.

Turnover among senior leadership during presidential transitions is not unusual, although the career diplomats who are leaving the foreign service entirely had served under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

The union that represents American diplomats, the American Foreign Service Association, called on the administration to quickly name successors to the positions. The union urged that they be filled with career diplomats but played down the significance of the moves.

“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,” it said.

More resignations are expected to be accepted as Trump’s diplomatic team takes shape, according to the officials who were not authorized to discuss personnel matters publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. The now vacant jobs will be filled by subordinates on an acting basis until their full-time appointments are named, the officials said.

The department’s long-serving undersecretary for management, Patrick Kennedy; Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr; Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond; and Ambassador Gentry O. Smith, director of the Office of Foreign Missions, were confirmed to have left in Thursday’s Washington Post report.

Tom Countryman, the acting undersecretary for arms control and international security, also resigned.

It was not immediately clear if the officials had been forced out or left on their own, but a second Washington Post report indicated that the Trump administration had told several career diplomats in high-level posts under direct White House control that they would be not be asked to stay on.

A senior State Department official told CNN that Kennedy and his team had been pushed out by the White House.

“Any implication that these four people quit is wrong,” the official said. “These people are loyal to the secretary, the President and to the State Department. There is just not any attempt here to dis the President. People are not quitting and running away in disgust. This is the White House cleaning house.”

US State Department's Under Secretary of State for Management, Patrick Kennedy, resigned on January 25, 2017. (State Department photo/Wikimedia)
US State Department’s Under Secretary of State for Management, Patrick Kennedy, resigned on January 25, 2017. (State Department photo/Wikimedia)

Kennedy had been a key official during the transition and has served in the department since George W. Bush was president. The others have also served under Republican as well as Democratic administrations.

The Washington Post report said that Kennedy had been angling to keep the post under Tillerson but officials said he will retire at the end of the month. The other three, according to the report, may be assigned elsewhere in the foreign service.

Other officials were surprised with Kennedy’s departure as he’d taken on more responsibility and was working closely with the transition team, the Post report said.

As Trump was inaugurated on Friday, the assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, Gregory Starr, retired, and the director of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, Lydia Muniz, resigned, the report said.

US President Donald Trump arrives in Philadelphia on January 26, 2017 to attend a Republican retreat. (AFP/ NICHOLAS KAMM)
US President Donald Trump arrives in Philadelphia on January 26, 2017 to attend a Republican retreat. (AFP/ NICHOLAS KAMM)

“It’s the single biggest simultaneous departure of institutional memory that anyone can remember, and that’s incredibly difficult to replicate,” David Wade, who served as previous secretary of state John Kerry’s chief of staff until March 2015, told the Washington Post. “Department expertise in security, management, administrative and consular positions in particular are very difficult to replicate and particularly difficult to find in the private sector.

“Diplomatic security, consular affairs, there’s just not a corollary that exists outside the department, and you can least afford a learning curve in these areas where issues can quickly become matters of life and death,” he said. “The muscle memory is critical. These retirements are a big loss. They leave a void. These are very difficult people to replace.”

John Kerry bids farewell to State Department employees after delivering remarks at the US Department of State in Washington, DC, on January 19, 2017. (State Department)
John Kerry bids farewell to State Department employees after delivering remarks at the US Department of State in Washington, DC, on January 19, 2017. (State Department)

Acting State Department Spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement that all those who left had previously submitted their letters of resignation, as required of all positions appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

“No officer accepts a political appointment with the expectation that it is unlimited. And all officers understand that the President may choose to replace them at any time,” he said. “These officers have served admirably and well. Their departure offers a moment to consider their accomplishments and thank them for their service. These are the patterns and rhythms of the career service.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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