- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
White House chief strategist Steve Bannon rocked Washington Wednesday night with an interview that ran the gamut of political bombshells, from economic war with China to the political knife fights dogging the administration. In the midst of this, Bannon said he wanted to sack a career State Department official close to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Bannon, speaking to the liberal magazine American Prospect in a surprise, off-the-cuff, and potentially accidental interview, boasted of plans to sideline one of Tillerson’s most trusted aides, the current acting envoy for East Asia. “I’m changing out people at East Asian Defense; I’m getting hawks in. I’m getting Susan Thornton [acting head of East Asian and Pacific Affairs] out at State,” Bannon said.
Thornton, a seasoned and nonideological career foreign service officer, has emerged as one of the few officials Tillerson has brought into his inner circle, several State Department sources tell Foreign Policy. Her status in the department has been a source of tension before, with Tillerson reportedly blowing up at White House aides for blocking his plan to make her the permanent assistant secretary of state.
Bannon’s comments shed light on the not-so-secret administration battle over the future of the department. Senior career diplomats worry that the Trump administration is hanging the State Department out to dry as it slashes its budget, pushes through a controversial departmental redesign, and pours money into the military. Money aside, President Donald Trump has yet to appoint scores of senior State Department postings, including key undersecretary and assistant secretary positions, which has left many officials concerned that U.S. diplomacy is withering on the vine.
Bannon’s targeting of Thornton drew private condemnation from current diplomats, who aren’t authorized to comment on such matters publicly, and vocal condemnation from former diplomats.
“Susan is one of the finest diplomats our country has to offer,” said Michael Fuchs, the former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, who worked closely with Thornton. “The very fact that Steve Bannon would criticize Susan should be a strong validation of Susan’s credentials as a first-rate, nonpartisan public servant.”
“The secretary asked Susan Thornton to lead in a very important role, and he continues to rely on her to lead the State Department’s diplomacy in Asia,” a State Department spokesperson told FP when asked about Bannon’s comments. The spokesperson added that she “continues in her capacity” as acting assistant secretary but declined to comment further.
On Thursday morning, Tillerson made a point to shake Thornton’s hand before a meeting with top Japanese diplomats at the State Department.
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