Senator Raises Alarm Bells on Diversity at U.S. Foreign Aid Agency

New leadership at Millennium Challenge Corporation comes under scrutiny after “disturbing” comments by a senior official and concerns over Trump’s pick to head the agency.

U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Feb. 3, 2015, in Washington, D.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Feb. 3, 2015, in Washington, D.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

A Trump administration nominee to a small U.S. foreign aid agency is expected to face tough questions this week by a top Democratic lawmaker over questions of workplace diversity.

Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to the acting head of the Millennium Challenge Corporation questioning the agency’s workplace culture and leadership based on comments from MCC Vice President of Compact Operations Robert Blau.

The charges come as Sean Cairncross, a White House senior advisor, has a hearing to become the new head of MCC before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.

His nomination hearing could get heated: Critics say Cairncross has no significant experience with foreign aid, which could hinder his ability to effectively manage the agency. In 2010, Cairncross was also named in a lawsuit on racial bias in the workplace while working as general counsel at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He and other defendants in the lawsuit denied any wrongdoing.

Former U.S. officials and congressional staffers say what’s going on at MCC points to larger concerns about withering diversity in the top ranks of agencies that deal with international affairs under President Donald Trump, including the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Menendez’s letter addresses a specific incident involving MCC Vice President Robert Blau.

In an all-hands staff meeting on June 14, 2017, then newly appointed Blau gave a speech introducing himself and discussing diversity that sources briefed on the meeting described as bizarre and racially insensitive. Blau, a retired 31-year veteran of the foreign service, introduced himself as a partisan Republican and early backer of Trump, and he went on to provide seemingly off-script remarks on diversity.

“I’m not someone who celebrates diversity, or engineers it — to me diversity just happens,” Blau told MCC employees during his speech.

“My first wife was an African immigrant. So actually, on an anthropologic level, I’m like President Obama’s mother,” Blau continued. “In the sense that my spouse was an African immigrant and my sons are mixed race, like President Obama and his siblings. And my stepmother, my father’s second wife, is from Colombia. My sister-in-law is also from Colombia. They’re not related, it’s a coincidence. I despise one and love the other one, so you can’t generalize about Colombians.”

Foreign Policy obtained an audio copy of the speech, which is posted in full below.

At one point in the speech, he apparently pointed at one MCC employee. “Your demographic is Asian. Are Asians all in one box? The big three in her area is Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese. Would they want to be in the same box? I don’t think so.”

Blau said that while he was partisan, he would not ask employees who they voted for and they should not be subjected to “political nit-picking.” If they were, he said, “Come to me and I will have your back and fight for you.”

In the early days of the Trump administration, Blau worked on Trump’s State Department transition team with Chuck Glazer, former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador under President George W. Bush.

Menendez, in his letter to MCC acting CEO Jonathan Nash, called Blau’s comments “troubling” and said they “raise[d] questions about his approach to and treatment of employees based on their political leanings, sexual orientation, and national origin.”

Laura Allen, MCC’s press secretary, told FP that MCC is working to respond to Menendez’s letter. “MCC deeply values diversity and is proud of its long track record of fostering a positive workplace culture that prioritizes respect, openness, and inclusion,” she said. “As an agency, we are committed to these principles now and moving forward.”

Cairncross may also face scrutiny in his nomination hearing on Tuesday over his role in a 2010 lawsuit over racial discrimination at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The plaintiff, Keith Carter, a longtime NRSC employee, said Cairncross and several other top NRSC officials created a hostile work environment for him and one other African-American employee. Cairncross and the other defendants denied all wrongdoing. Brian Walsh, then an NRSC spokesman, said at the time the suit was “meritless” and “an unfortunate action taken by a disgruntled former employee.” Ultimately, the NRSC paid $70,000 in damages to Carter to settle the suit.

Backers of Cairncross, currently deputy assistant to the president and senior advisor to the chief of staff, say what he lacks in direct foreign aid experience he makes up for with strong contacts in the Trump administration and on the Hill.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation, founded under then-President George W. Bush in 2004, is a small agency that aims to tackle poverty by giving foreign countries large-scale grants to boost economic development. The MCC is dwarfed by its larger counterparts, the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, but its mission receives broad bipartisan support in Congress.

The Trump administration proposed steep budget cuts to U.S. foreign aid and diplomacy in its fiscal 2019 budget request, including cutting MCC’s annual budget from $905 million to $800 million, an 11.6 percent cut.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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