Top State Department Officials Step Down in “Black Friday” Exodus

The State Department's Top U.N. Expert Steps Down On Eve of Trump's Turtle Bay Debut

International flags fly in front of the United Nations headquarters on September 24, 2015, before the start of the 70th General Assembly meeting. AFP PHOTO/DOMINICK REUTER        (Photo credit should read DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images)
International flags fly in front of the United Nations headquarters on September 24, 2015, before the start of the 70th General Assembly meeting. AFP PHOTO/DOMINICK REUTER (Photo credit should read DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images)

The top State Department envoy responsible for overseeing U.S. policy at the United Nations and other international organizations stepped down from her post Friday, continuing an exodus that is thinning the ranks of America’s most experienced career diplomats, according to a U.S. official.

Tracey Ann Jacobson, 52, a career foreign service officer who served as acting director of the Bureau for International Organization Affairs, announced her plans to take early retirement to her staff on Friday, just three weeks before President Donald Trump is scheduled to deliver his maiden address before world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly’s annual debate. Jacobson — the recipient of several diplomatic honors, including the Presidential Meritorious Service Award — is expected to continue in her post until early October.

Jacobson’s announcement came on the same day that William Rivington Brownfield, who has been serving as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs since January 10, 2011, told his department that he would also step down by the end of September. It comes about four months after his wife, Kristie Kenney, on of the most senior foreign service officers in the State Department, announced her resignation.

It remained unlikely that Brownfield, a career foreign service officer who has served as George W. Bush’s ambassador to Colombia, Venezuela — where he was repeatedly threatened with expulsion by the country’s late president, Hugo Chavez — and Chile, would be taking on any other top posts in the administration, said one senior official. Foreign Policy reported earlier this month that Tillerson was considering making Brownfield the administration’s top envoy for Latin America. Brownfield — a recipient of the Secretary of State’s Distinguished Service Award and the Presidential Performance Award three times — did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A spokesperson for the State Department’s drug and law enforcement bureau insisted that Brownfield has “made no announcement that he is retiring.” But the official would not say whether Brownfield intended to step down or not.

Early last week, FP reported that the State Department’s top official for European affairs, John Heffern, was driven from his job. Together, the departures add to concerns of a growing wave of resignations by foreign policy professionals who are either being pushed out or resigning over frustration with an administration that has downgraded the importance of Washington’s diplomatic corps. Former and current officials said Jacobson and Brownfield, who at 65 has reached retirement age but is not required to step down, have left of their own volition. But one former U.S. official said that Jacobson in particular “would not have left if the situation was different.”

“Dissatisfaction is a big factor” for a surge in early retirements, said one State Department official who has decided to take early retirement. “Certainly a big one for me.”

Jacobson confirmed that she was seeking early retirement, ending a 30-year career during which she served presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama as U.S. ambassador to Kosovo, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. She did not say why she had decided to leave.

In remarks emailed to FP late Sunday, State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, said Jacobson “announced to her staff on Friday her plan to retire. We are very grateful to Ambassador Jacobson for her 30 years of service.”

Jacobson was appointed to the top post in the bureau that oversees multilateral affairs on Jan. 20, the same day President Donald Trump was inaugurated on an “America First” platform that questioned the need for deep engagement with international organizations from NATO to the United Nations. She succeeded Bathsheba Crocker, an Obama administration political appointee, who had previously held the position.

President Trump is expected to deliver his first U.N. address in the General Assembly hall on September 19, and he is likely to preside over a side meeting on reform of the international organization during his U.N. visit.

Plans to have the president participate in a high-level meeting on famine hosted by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres have already been shelved. Instead, an official representing the U.S. Agency for International Development will attend.

The move reinforces the impression among foreign delegations that the Trump administration sees little value in the U.N. or the virtue of a robust American diplomatic corps.

The White House has been seeking to impose cuts of as much as 37 percent to the State Department budget. The administration is targeting even higher cuts for the U.N. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., has boasted that she has secured more than $600 million in cuts to peacekeeping missions.

Photo credit: DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images

This story has been updated.


Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch