Report

Top Advisor’s Fate Serves as Bellwether for State Department

White House officials want Brian Hook to stay in his current role in Foggy Bottom, but a demoralized diplomatic corps would like to see him go.

Brian Hook, the director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department, speaks at the Concordia Annual Summit in New York on Sept. 19, 2017. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)
Brian Hook, the director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department, speaks at the Concordia Annual Summit in New York on Sept. 19, 2017. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)

The future role of a powerful senior advisor to former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will serve as a key barometer for how the next top diplomat will lead a beleaguered State Department.

Brian Hook, the director of policy planning at the State Department, played a dominant role under Tillerson’s tenure, shaping decisions on virtually every major policy issue and overseeing discussions with European allies on the Iran nuclear deal.

Unlike most other top aides to Tillerson, who were ousted shortly after their boss’s unceremonious firing via Twitter, Hook was asked to stay on through the transition.

Some White House officials are urging Mike Pompeo, nominated to take over as the next secretary of state, to keep Hook in place, given his experience and excellent relations with members of the West Wing.

“I know for a fact there are some administration officials who have suggested Pompeo retain Brian for his knowledge and policy expertise and knowledge of the building,” says an administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But Hook ran afoul of career diplomats who view him as inextricably linked to Tillerson’s troubled tenure, marked by a dramatic decline in morale and an often-marginalized role for diplomacy.

For the State Department rank and file, Hook is associated with Tillerson’s centralized management style, which funneled decisions through a small circle of top aides, including Hook and former chief of staff Margaret Peterlin, bypassing the rest of the department.

If Hook stayed on in his current job, the next secretary of state could be hard-pressed to rally a discouraged department, six current and former officials told Foreign Policy.

“Brian has made so many enemies in the foreign service. To continue that outsized role would send a terrible signal to the State workforce,” says a former senior diplomat with ties to the Republican Party.

Hook also faces questions as to whether he and other Trump administration officials sought to retaliate against career diplomats at the State Department who were branded by conservative activists as politically suspect, according to internal emails obtained by Democratic lawmakers and Politico. In an email he wrote to himself last year, Hook had a list of employee names with questions about their loyalties, labeling one as a “leaker and troublemaker” and another a “turncoat.”

The decision whether to keep Hook on is one of a number of pivotal personnel choices faced by Pompeo, who will inherit a demoralized diplomatic corps plagued by resignations, early retirements, and an extraordinary number of unfilled vacancies.

Pompeo and Hook have been in contact in recent weeks as Hook helps prepare the outgoing CIA director for his nomination hearing in Congress, providing briefings and preparing materials. Pompeo has met with lawmakers over the past two weeks ahead of what is expected to be a tough hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday.

While Hook has alienated rank-and-file foreign service officers, he also retains an almost exclusive knowledge of high-level diplomatic discussions on an array of issues, as Tillerson heavily relied on him while other senior diplomats were sometimes cut out of the loop.

“It’s kind of awkward. Brian is the only person who knows what happened for the last year and a half,” the former diplomat says.

One option for Pompeo is to appoint Hook to one of the dozens of vacant ambassadorships around the world, officials and congressional aides say. That would allow Pompeo to keep Hook in the department and retain his institutional knowledge while still signaling a clean break with Tillerson’s leadership.

Hook has forged strong working relationships with numerous White House officials in the National Security Council, as well as with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. When tensions grew between Tillerson and former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Hook served as an interlocutor to keep the lines of communication open between the White House and Foggy Bottom, current and former officials say.

Hook also has experience working with the newly appointed national security advisor, John Bolton. Hook served as his senior advisor handling sanctions on Iran and other countries during Bolton’s stint as the U.N. ambassador under George W. Bush’s administration.

Current and former State Department officials say Hook and his allies are urging Pompeo to keep him in his job.

But the administration official, however, insists Hook himself has not in any way actively campaigned or lobbied to keep his position. And given his support at the White House, he has no reason to do so, the official adds.

The official also refutes criticism that Hook often shut out career diplomats, saying that even though Hook was carrying out Tillerson’s preference for centralized decision-making, he recruited foreign service officers to his own office.

“I would say that wasn’t Brian’s model — that was Secretary Tillerson’s model,” the official says.

Apart from determining Hook’s future, the next secretary of state faces a daunting challenge filling numerous senior-level vacancies across the department. Dozens of Republican foreign-policy experts are off limits, as they signed “Never Trump” letters during the 2016 presidential election. The White House has made clear outspoken critics are not welcome.

Hook never signed any such letter himself, but Trump’s more hard-line supporters lump him in with the Never Trumpers as he was associated with sharp critics of the president during the 2016 campaign. Hook was co-founder of the John Hay Initiative, a network of Republican foreign-policy experts whose leaders organized one of the most prominent of such letters, signed by 121 GOP national security luminaries refusing to support Trump because he would “act in ways that make America less safe.”

Hook also faces opposition from some Republican lawmakers and pro-Israel activists who favor a hawkish line toward Tehran and who contend that Tillerson and Hook worked too hard to preserve the Iran nuclear deal. But administration officials now say Hook is deeply critical of the agreement and was merely carrying out his marching orders from the president and Tillerson.

At his confirmation hearing on Thursday, Pompeo is expected to face tough questioning, and Hook’s role could come up. Lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are gearing up to grill Pompeo on everything from North Korea to his predecessor’s attempts to reorganize the State Department.

Pompeo is expected to abandon Tillerson’s much-criticized redesign of the department, as the outgoing CIA chief is more inclined to action than restructuring bureaucracy, said David Shedd, a former senior official who served as acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

“I don’t think he’s a big ‘reorg’ guy,” says Shedd, now a fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Congressional aides say Pompeo will probably use the hearing to signal to lawmakers that he will chart a new court that will jettison the unpopular redesign initiative. Reassigning Hook to an ambassador’s position also could show career diplomats and civil servants — and lawmakers — that Pompeo is charting a different course than his predecessor.

Hook, says a congressional aide, “didn’t win himself a lot of points in the building for being inclusive.”

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

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