Senior U.S. Diplomat Overseeing European Issues Forced Out
The Trump administration sidelines another experienced State Department official.
A seasoned U.S. diplomat who oversees European and NATO policy is being forced out of his job, the latest senior civil servant to be pushed aside in the Trump administration’s shake-up of the State Department, current and former officials told Foreign Policy.
John Heffern, a veteran diplomat who once served as the American ambassador to Armenia, is currently the acting assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs. He was due to hand over that post to a political appointee, A. Wess Mitchell, who has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.
Heffern would have then returned to his permanent assignment as principal deputy assistant secretary for European affairs, serving as a key lieutenant to Mitchell. The principal deputies play a crucial role in helping political appointees navigate the government bureaucracy.
“It’s just another indication of the administration hollowing out top talent with real institutional knowledge,” said one former State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Heffern will remain an employee at the State Department, where he has worked on assignments at NATO, Indonesia, China and elsewhere, but it’s unclear where he’ll be assigned next.
Mitchell, the White House pick for the position, has spent years writing and lecturing on European issues, leading a think tank dedicated to the subject, but has no government experience. With Heffern’s ouster, Mitchell — if confirmed — loses an experienced State Department hand who knows the intricacies of European diplomacy.
The move comes at a time of plunging morale at the State Department, with the White House downplaying the importance of diplomacy, failing to fill numerous senior posts and proposing drastic cuts to the department’s budget.
Heffern’s removal also stretches an already understaffed but critically important regional bureau at a time of mounting tensions with Russia and trade disputes with the European Union.
The impetus for Heffern’s removal was unclear but current and former officials said it was part of a trend in which other principal deputy assistant secretaries are being pushed out or quitting as political appointees prepare to take up their posts.
Those deputies “play a critically important role in the day-to-day work of diplomacy,” the former official said, including refining policies, resolving disputes, managing personnel and budgets, and stepping in on behalf of their superiors when needed.
“I just think staying is becoming more untenable and that is totally by design,” said another official who was not authorized to speak on the record. “They want to hollow out the top and freeze out the bottom and it is working.”
The State Department did not immediately respond to queries from FP.
Colleagues, former foreign service officers, congressional staffers, and foreign diplomats described Heffern as a smart, open-minded, and committed diplomat who helped keep the trains running on time as the administration has struggled to fill an array of senior State Department posts.
“[Mitchell] won’t be in for another few weeks so it seems like a mistake to take out the acting one and leave that gap,” another former official said. “The timing on this is just really weird.”
But two officials, who declined to be quoted by name, disagreed with the criticism, saying that the diplomatic corps was in need of an overhaul and that reassigning senior officials and bringing in fresh blood to leadership posts would strengthen the State Department.
From 2011 to 2014, Heffern served as ambassador to Armenia, a politically charged assignment given the Armenian-American community’s political activism in Washington. But Heffern “did a really good job of navigating those waters and, as a result, has a good reputation on the Hill,” one Senate staffer said.
Heffern is not seen as a maverick pushing the parameters of policy but instead as a skilled and competent civil servant who carries out policy to the letter, the staffer said.
Foreign diplomats also praised Heffern’s work. One European official said his colleague enjoyed working with Heffern and has “a lot of respect for him.”
FP’s Emily Tamkin contributed to this article.
Photo credit: WIN McNAMEE/Getty Images
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @RobbieGramer