By Anne Gearan and Karen DeYoung
A number of career Foreign Service officers were informed this week that they will not be asked to stay on in senior or sensitive posts that are under direct White House control, creating an unusual leadership vacuum among the top ranks of the State Department.
Although the diplomats were not technically fired, President Donald Trump’s administration opted to remove a number of top officials in charge of the State Department’s 13 divisions responsible for policy and other matters. Officials at the level of assistant secretary and above were affected, the department said.
Trump’s choice to be secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is expected to be confirmed as soon as Monday and to be on the job next week. The White House is expected to name a deputy for Tillerson within a few days.
The leading candidates are Republican foreign policy specialists who are not serving in government.
One and two levels below that rank, the State Department is run by a mix of career diplomats and outside policy experts or political operatives who all serve at the pleasure of the White House. In past administrations, many career diplomats have remained in their posts when the White House changed hands. The Trump administration has opted to retain fewer than usual, State Department officials said, although it was not immediately clear whether it is a majority.
Officials said the White House had accepted a “handful” of resignations this week, the first full workweek of the new administration, while deferring action on others.
Separately, at the Department of Homeland Security, officials said Thursday that the chief of the U.S. Border Patrol was resigning after six months on the job, one day after Trump announced plans to ratchet up immigration enforcement and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
At the State Department, all career diplomats running those offices, called bureaus, had submitted pro forma resignations that were effective upon the end of the Obama administration, spokesman Mark Toner said.
“These positions are political appointments, and require the president to nominate and the Senate to confirm them in these roles. They are not career appointments, but of limited term,” Toner said.
“No [Foreign Service] 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.”
In some cases, top diplomats are retiring rather than seek new assignments elsewhere at the State Department.
Patrick Kennedy, the undersecretary for management at the State Department across several presidential administrations, was not asked to stay.
Kennedy announced that his last day will be Friday. The 44-year State Department veteran is retiring, following veteran diplomats overseeing the department’s operations in the Mideast and Europe, among other places. Former senior officials said Kennedy had wanted to remain in his post. He declined a request for comment.
Kennedy has overseen a vast array of State Department activity, including budget, personnel and Freedom of Information requests. His domain included diplomatic security during the 2012 attacks at the U.S. mission in Benghazi, and the records and IT departments during the period when Hillary Clinton was using a public server as secretary of state. As as result, he was called to explain the State Department’s actions before House and Senate committees investigating Benghazi and the Clinton emails.
Three senior officials who worked closely with Kennedy also resigned this week, including Gentry Smith, who directs the Office of Foreign Missions. All had been considered likely to stay on at least temporarily.
Gregory Starr, the assistant secretary for diplomatic security, retired on Inauguration Day.
The assistant secretaries in charge of Latin America, counterterrorism and other specialties were asked to leave.
Victoria Nuland, who had been the top diplomat in charge of U.S. policy in Europe and Eurasia, resigned ahead of the inauguration. Her last day was last week, and her State Department biography page no longer works. She is also retiring from the Foreign Service after a career that included stints as ambassador to NATO and department spokeswoman, as well as foreign policy adviser to former vice president Dick Cheney.
Nuland was known as a fierce critic of Russia, especially throughout the political upheaval in Ukraine that began in 2013 and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov complained about her by name. She was the subject of threats and harassment, including a leaked intercepted phone call. The State Department blamed the leak on Russia.
The conversation between Nuland and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, included Nuland using blunt language to condemn what she saw as foot-dragging by the European Union in addressing the political crisis in Ukraine. She apologized.
Anne Patterson, a former ambassador to Pakistan and Egypt, retired as assistant secretary for the Mideast several weeks ago. Both she and Nuland have voiced views significantly at odds with Trump administration policy positions.
The career diplomats in charge of Asia and Africa were still in their positions as of Thursday with no immediate plans to leave.
William Brownfield, assistant secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, is also apparently staying for the time being. And a number of the assistant secretary positions - tasked with overseeing certain geographic areas and issues - are now held by “acting” heads.
“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,” said the American Foreign Service Association’s president, Barbara Stephenson.
“Rotations to new positions and retirements after a fixed number of years of service are part of the DNA of the Foreign Service. Have no doubt that the next generation of leaders is eager to step up and serve, ensuring the continuity of this great institution.”
But current and former senior officials were clear that the turnover is unusual even for a new administration, a natural point of retirement or resignation for many career civil servants and diplomats.
Generally, a career diplomat will stay in place “until your successor is chosen, then you either petition for another job,” one former senior official said, “or they say we just don’t see a way to use you and you quietly retire later.”
Added the official: “And then there are the people who would have stayed to wait and see. And now, they’re starting to see.”
The former official spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the Trump administration.
Tillerson held meetings at the State Department this week. He had canceled a planned dinner before the inauguration with John Kerry, the outgoing secretary, and met only once with acting secretary Thomas Shannon, who is staying on.