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Pompeo’s Hiring Moves Soothe Diplomats

In staffing and internal policies, he seems to be reversing trends of the Tillerson era that dispirited many diplomats.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo greets State Department employees during a welcome ceremony at the State Department in Washington on May 1. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo greets State Department employees during a welcome ceremony at the State Department in Washington on May 1. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

New Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is eyeing a veteran civil servant with decades of diplomatic experience to fill a top post overseeing the foreign service, in one of several moves that seem to be injecting a new sense of optimism into the State Department after 14 difficult months under Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson.

The candidate, according to two current and three former top State Department officials, is Daniel Smith, a diplomat with the equivalent rank of a three-star general. He currently serves as the assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research.

The job is one of the more powerful managerial ones in the State Department. Smith would manage the country’s over 13,000 foreign service officers and advocate for the career diplomatic corps.

Having a senior career diplomat oversee other diplomats may seem like a natural choice. But it’s a departure from the approach brought to the job by Tillerson, who left many top posts empty and forced out many high-ranking diplomats as part of his effort to redesign the department. Several former and current officials describe it as a possible bellwether for better times to come under the new boss, who has vowed to fill the department’s depleted top ranks and restore its “swagger.”

“[Smith] is fantastic,” says one former senior State Department official familiar with the deliberations. “We’re all holding our breath and hoping he is in fact the [nominee].”

The White House had tried to appoint a close associate of Vice President Mike Pence, Stephen Akard, to the job, which until then had always gone to career diplomats with decades of experience. Akard was only in the foreign service from 1997 to 2005, so diplomats saw this as a bad-faith workaround to the rule that would further politicize their ranks.

Akard quietly withdrew his nomination in March, following pushback from lawmakers and resistance within the State Department. He now heads the State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions, which oversees foreign diplomats in the United States.

Pompeo has also met with top career officials who were forced out or retired during Tillerson’s tenure, in part to seek advice and in some instances to offer them jobs. Two former officials say Pompeo reached out to Kristie Kenney and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, both respected senior diplomats who left the State Department under a cloud during Tillerson’s tenure. Pompeo sought advice on how to manage and staff the department. Thomas-Greenfield, who is now at Georgetown University, turned down a job offer from Pompeo, according to a former official familiar with the matter. Neither she nor Kenney responded to a request for comment on the matter.

A State Department spokesperson refused to comment on staffing issues.

In another positive sign for U.S. diplomats, Pompeo also fully lifted a freeze on U.S. embassies hiring diplomats’ family members. Many U.S. embassies abroad are heavily reliant on family member employees to do routine staff and administrative work. Tillerson’s decision to impose the freeze angered and alienated many diplomats and ground some day-to-day work of understaffed embassies to a halt.

Still, not everyone at the State Department is optimistic. Some are skeptical that Pompeo can completely pull the State Department out of its Trump-era doldrums. He is still a neophyte on the diplomatic front, they say. And while President Donald Trump venerates the military, he still appears to view career diplomats with skepticism.

“Right now, we’re still in wait-and-see mode,” one senior State Department official says. “We’re cautiously optimistic, but we’ve been burned before.”

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

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