With Departure of Top Lawyer, State Department Exodus Continues

With Departure of Top Lawyer, State Department Exodus Continues

A senior State Department lawyer, Todd Buchwald, is stepping down in the coming weeks, joining scores of career civil and foreign service officers fleeing an administration that critics say has diminished the standing of U.S. diplomacy, according to friends and colleagues.

The high-level departure comes weeks after the State Department decided to downgrade the Office of Global Criminal Justice, which Buchwald led from December 2015 through the end of July 2017. After being forced from that job, he was reassigned to the Office of the Legal Adviser, where he had previously worked for most of his career at the State Department.

Buchwald’s imminent resignation follows last week’s exodus of three other top career diplomats who oversee the department’s policies on Europe, the United Nations, and narcotics and law enforcement, respectively. The departures have reinforced concerns about the State Department’s ability to retain some of its most experienced senior diplomats and lawyers.

One former State Department attorney described Buchwald as “possibly the best lawyer in State right now and one of the most senior.” His departure, the source said, is a “huge loss for the department.” It is also likely to have knock-on effects, undercutting the department’s ability to recruit new talent. The former State attorney, who now teaches law at a major university, said he cautions his brightest students with an interest in public service about the perils of serving at the State Department in this political climate.

Veteran employees have been leaving in droves since January, when the Trump administration forced the State Department’s top career diplomats, including Patrick Kennedy, the undersecretary of state for management, and Thomas Countryman, the acting undersecretary for arms control, to pack their bags. “This is extraordinary.… I’ve never seen anything like it,” said one senior career State Department official.

Some are leaving voluntarily to escape Foggy Bottom’s historically low morale and an administration hostile to professional diplomats, while others are being forced into retirement amid Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s controversial efforts to “redesign” the State Department. In a letter to Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tillerson wrote that 36 of the department’s 66 special envoys and representatives would be eliminated or folded into other bureaus.

“It’s a combination of three things: a little bit of arrogance, a little bit of incompetence, and a little bit of ignorance,” the senior career State Department official told Foreign Policy, when asked why the Trump administration is failing to retain, or forcing out, some of the State Department’s most experienced diplomats.

Some close friends and confidants of Buchwald believe he is being forced out. “I’d be surprised if he did this on his own,” said one former State Department official who worked closely with Buchwald. “This is a guy who’s put his whole life into diplomacy.”

A State Department spokesman confirmed that Buchwald plans to retire. “We are grateful for his many years of service both in the Office of the Legal Adviser and as ambassador and special coordinator in the Office of Global Criminal Justice advancing the rule of law internationally and working to ensure that those responsible for atrocities are brought to justice,” the spokesman said. Buchwald did not respond to several requests for comment.

The State Department can force out senior employees in indirect ways. One senior State Department official suggested that is what may have happened to Buchwald, who was reassigned from his senior post as the head of the war crimes office back to a job in legal affairs. “He was moved to something that I’m sure is not up to his ability,” said the official, who has worked closely with Buchwald.

But others say he is retiring of his own volition; the dismal state of State under Trump merely expedited his decision.

The first hint that his days at State were numbered came in July, when Buchwald sent out an email to colleagues announcing his departure from the war crimes office. He noted that he could be reached at his official State Department email for “the time being” but that they should take down his private email if they wanted to contact him in the future.

Buchwald has also been quietly confiding his plans to a small circle of friends and colleagues to get word out that he will be looking for a new job, possibly teaching law and diplomacy. An associate recalled that he had once mused about a second career as a high school civics or social studies teacher.

Buchwald, who previously oversaw U.N. legal issues, is part of a small coterie of U.S. government lawyers who have played an outsized role in drafting U.N. resolutions aimed at curtailing North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions and holding international war criminals to account.

“He was the guy who wrote the resolution that sent Darfur to the International Criminal Court,” said Stephen Rapp, the former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, referring a 2006 vote that led to charges of genocide against Sudan’s leader, Omar al-Bashir.

Rapp worried that the departure of State Department lawyers like Buchwald had the potential to leave a void in the government’s institutional memory. “If you want to know what happened in the Security Council in 1985 and what we can or can’t do something, they know the answer,” he said. “Losing that experience is even more tragic and in a way devastating than losing” diplomats.

Yet one Trump administration advisor challenged complaints by foreign-policy observers about the dire state of the department under Tillerson.

“Look, I don’t think Rex has been doing a fantastic job. He needs to hire more political appointees,” the advisor said. “But the career guys are saying there is no better time for career people right now. They love the fact that there are no political appointees and they are getting the senior jobs and they get to make their own decisions.”

Besides, the advisor added, “the State Department is bloated.”

For critics, however, the ongoing exodus is yet another sign that the Trump administration is kneecapping American diplomacy.

“When serious hardcore professional diplomats that have records of exemplary service serving both Republicans and Democrats are deciding to head for the door rather than stick it out, something is very wrong,” said Reuben Brigety, the dean of George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and former U.S. ambassador to the African Union.

“If you wanted to actually set out to break American diplomacy, this is how you’d do it,” Brigety said.

Update, Aug. 30, 2017: This article was updated to include additional comments from a State Department spokesman.

Photo credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images