Trump’s State Department clean-out: diplomatic bogey or par for the course?

By Stephen Easton

Monday January 30, 2017

Of all the reports from the United States on President Donald Trump’s early executive decisions, the departure of a group of senior public servants from the superpower’s foreign service is particularly relevant to Australian officials.

Four top State Department bureaucrats walked out the door late last week. Two assistant secretaries of state — administration chief Joyce Anne Barr and consular affairs head Michele Bond — as well the undersecretary for management Patrick Kennedy and Office of Foreign Missions director Gentry O. Smith were all out before it was clear who would replace them.

Reports suggest the four were among a wider group of senior diplomats who resigned, having been asked to do so by the Trump administration, which is a common practice in the US.

The Washington Post initially portrayed the simultaneous resignations as a kind of group protest that was unexpected and had blindsided the new administration, but that story has been criticised elsewhere as misleading and hyperbolic.

A State Department spokesperson reminded the US media that some high-level positions in the nation’s powerful executive branch are considered political appointments, and as such it is normal that some of the bureaucrats appointed to them are expected to resign after a change of government.

The Guardian names a few other officials reportedly given the boot by the Trump team and reports from the US that in some quarters, the clean-out was seen as unusual on two counts: its abrubtness, and the fact that the executives were fired before their successors were ready to take their places and ensure continuity.

The Post’s rather hysterical take on the news included a quote from the outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry’s former chief of staff that the resignations amounted to “the single biggest simultaneous departure of institutional memory that anyone can remember”.

The US commercial network ABC had a more moderate interpretation, oddly referring to a “larger than usual exodus” from the State Department, and relayed the following statements from departmental spokesperson Mark Toner:

“As is standard with every transition, the outgoing administration, in coordination with the incoming one, requested all politically appointed officers submit letters of resignation.

“The Department encourages and advocates for senior officers to compete for high level offices in the Department. 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. Of the officers whose resignations were accepted, some will continue in the Foreign Service in other positions, and others will retire by choice or because they have exceeded the time limits of their grade in service.”

Business Insider Australia explores the situation, including perspectives on how the administrative clean-out might affect US diplomatic efforts and why it might be connected to the acrimonious presidential campaign.

Two other senior State Department officials, assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security Gregory Starr and Bureau of Overseas Building Operations director Lydia Muniz, reportedly retired on the same day Trump was sworn in as President.

On January 20, the ABC reported an announcement from Trump’s team suggesting he would ask about 50 senior bureaucrats including “the highest-ranking career officials at key national security agencies like the Pentagon and State Department” to stay on and ensure some continuity.

Top image: Gage Skidmore.

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