Tillerson’s ouster prolongs limbo for empty State Department jobs
President Donald Trump’s decision to dump Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will likely mean further delays in filling dozens of empty posts at the State Department, undermining U.S global diplomacy at an unusually sensitive time.
Foreign governments are already unsure who is shaping American policy, whom they should contact with questions and requests, and how to handle Trump’s often unpredictable, go-it-alone approach to world affairs. The U.S. president recently announced he would hold an unprecedented meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by the end of May; he’s also weighing the fate of the Iran nuclear deal.
Story Continued Below
Some Trump aides expect Tillerson’s named replacement, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, to scratch one key Tillerson nominee: Susan Thornton, a career diplomat who had been in line to assume the State Department’s top East Asia post, dealing with China and North Korea.
The lag in filling positions is raising concern in Congress, where Pompeo is tentatively scheduled to face his own confirmation hearing on April 12.
Pompeo is expected to visit the State Department on Monday for handover talks with Tillerson, according to an internal readout of a State Department meeting obtained by POLITICO. Top officials there have been told to prepare to brief Pompeo on “hot topics” ahead of his confirmation hearing — although because Pompeo is still running the CIA, “it is unclear how much time Secretary-designate Pompeo will spend in this building prior to confirmation,” the readout said.
Of 163 Senate-confirmed positions for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, 65 positions don’t yet have a nominee, while many nominees have yet to be confirmed, according to congressional staffers. Among the empty slots: the ambassador to South Korea and the assistant secretary of state who oversees the Middle East.
Trump has blamed Senate Democrats for the plethora of empty offices in the State Department and beyond. “Hundreds of good people, including very important Ambassadors and Judges, are being blocked and/or slow walked by the Democrats in the Senate. Many important positions in Government are unfilled because of this obstruction. Worst in U.S. history!” the president tweeted Wednesday.
But Democrats say Trump and his Cabinet aides are the ones at fault, especially when it comes to the diplomatic ranks. “The fact is this administration has failed to nominate critical high-level positions, leaving a void of empowered voices and gaping vacancies in embassies in some of the world’s most troubled regions and in Foggy Bottom,” said New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Friday. “We cannot confirm nominees who have not been nominated.”
Although the White House plays a major role in choosing nominees — and often rejected Tillerson’s choices — Pompeo is expected to review current and potential names for the open jobs at State as he shapes the institution closer to his worldview, which is notably more hawkish than Tillerson’s.
Many believe Thornton, the current nominee to serve as assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, will be the first to go. She appeared before the Senate in mid-February for her confirmation hearing.
Thornton’s critics say she is too soft on China. Steve Bannon, a former White House adviser who advocates a tougher approach to Beijing, publicly bragged about trying to sideline the career diplomat. Bannon was fired before that could happen, and Tillerson, who came to admire Thornton, convinced the White House to nominate her. But Tillerson’s ouster has cost Thornton her champion, and Pompeo has little incentive to back her given Trump’s more hardline positions on China in recent weeks.
But if Pompeo pulls Thornton’s nomination, it would send a demoralizing signal to other career staffers hoping to advance at State. The White House recently rejected a handful of career diplomats that Tillerson had put forth for ambassadorships, according to a State Department official familiar with the matter. The reasoning wasn’t clear.
Modern-era presidents have typically given around 70 percent of ambassador slots to the career diplomats and the rest to political hires, whose ranks often include campaign donors. According to the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats’ union, Trump’s ambassador picks so far have been 61 percent political, 39 percent career.