Democrats Wage Unfounded Attack on Trump's State Department

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo / Getty Images
August 3, 2020

A report released last Tuesday by Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) made shaky criticisms of the Trump State Department—arguing that crises of expertise, competency, and diversity abound when in fact such accusations are misrepresentative, a foreign policy expert says.

The report, which was picked up by Chinese state media last Wednesday, points to a brain drain from Foggy Bottom in the Trump administration. The State Department and a Heritage Foundation expert, however, dispute that notion.

The report, for example, argues that the lack of diversity among diplomats is creating a "silent morale crisis" for the State Department, but also mentions a significant uptick in diverse representation in the State Department ranks. It also notes that few minorities hold senior leadership positions, but then acknowledges on page 39 that "the overall proportion of racial and ethnic minorities at State increased from 2002 to 2018."

"We’re working hard at it," Pompeo said of diversity to Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.) in a hearing last Thursday. "We’re making progress, but I would agree that the rate of change is insufficient."

Another linchpin of the Democrats' accusation of a personnel crisis in the State Department is the example of allegedly sexist and racist conduct by U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom Woody Johnson reported earlier this month. "As recently as July 2020, reports surfaced of 'cringeworthy' racist and sexist comments that [Johnson] made to London embassy staff," the report reads.

The report fails to mention, however, the scant due diligence done to corroborate allegations of improper conduct by Johnson. Last Wednesday, the Washington Free Beacon reported that the sole source of Johnson’s misconduct allegations is Johnson’s former deputy and noted Hillary Clinton adviser Lew Lukens. 

Lukens was fired from his post in London in 2018 after applauding President Barack Obama in a speech. In 2017, the New York Times identified Lukens as one of the leading diplomats "staging a quiet revolt amid tensions with Trump."

Despite the questionable veracity of Lukens's allegations, the report condemns the State Department's defense of Johnson. "The Department’s quick defense of Ambassador Johnson is emblematic of the Department’s willingness to protect President Trump’s allies, even at the expense of career employees who may be facing toxic leadership and hostile work environments," it reads.

The report also misrepresents the nature of senior staff and ambassadorial appointments under the Trump administration. 

"Under this Administration, the President has been slow or failed altogether to nominate individuals for dozens of senior posts ... [exacerbating] a declining diplomatic network from President Trump’s harmful leadership," the report asserts.

The president's record of diplomatic appointments may challenge such claims. According to the American Foreign Service Association, President Trump has nominated and the Senate has confirmed 189 ambassadorial postings. During President George H.W. Bush’s term—the last single-term president for the sake of proportional comparison—there were 214 appointments to such posts. 

The same paradigm applies for senior political appointees. As for the discrepancy between Trump’s appointee numbers and those of other administrations, "some of it has been due to poor choices in some of those nominations, but a large part of it also has to do with obstruction and delay on the part of Senate Democrats," Brett Schaefer, foreign policy research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told the Free Beacon.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s press team rejects many of the report’s conclusions. "The State Department’s swagger is fully back," a State Department spokesman told the Free Beacon. "From day one, Secretary Pompeo has delivered on advancing the interests and values of the American people both here at home and around the world."

"Had Senator Menendez not obstructed so many nominations, the Department would have even more well-qualified and talented people fulfilling important roles," the statement continued. "Notwithstanding Senator Menendez’s obstruction, the Trump Administration has effectively delivered on its foreign policy goals for the American people, their safety, and economic prosperity."

One of the report’s chief policy prescriptions misdiagnoses a problem with political appointees in the State Department. The report calls for more career employees to be promoted to senior positions, in order to "[reduce] overall politicization ... [and] encourage career professionals to remain at the Department."

But the upswing of political appointees in senior State Department positions is hardly unique to Trump—the trend began in the 1970s—and the practice has become a central part of how the executive branch governs the State Department to act with more dispatch and efficacy. 

"Administrations in recent decades have wanted to ensure that their policies and their agenda are faithfully implemented at senior levels in the State Department," Schaefer told the Free Beacon. "Assistant secretaries, undersecretaries, secretaries: These are positions where political decisions are made, and so there has naturally been a concentration of political appointees in those policymaking positions within the Department of State, but probably within other agencies and departments as well."