Federal Watchdogs Target Bullying, Retaliation at State Department

Mari Stull, a wine blogger-turned-Trump appointee, is the subject of two investigations into allegations of reprisals and bullying at the State Department.

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

The U.S. State Department’s Office of the Inspector General has widened an investigation into alleged political retaliation by Trump administration officials against America’s diplomatic corps. It is probing claims that a political appointee in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs has taken action against career officials deemed insufficiently loyal to President Donald Trump, according to at least 10 current and former State Department officials.

The Office of Special Counsel, an independent watchdog that oversees the federal government, is also investigating whether Trump’s political appointees—including Mari Stull, the aforementioned senior advisor in the international organization bureau—are carrying out political reprisals against career officials, according to two State Department officials familiar with the matter. The inspector general is also investigating allegations that Stull hurled homophobic slurs at a State Department staffer.

The disclosure comes several weeks after House and Senate Democrats opened their own inquiries, requesting emails and documents detailing the activities of Stull, who has allegedly vetted career diplomats and U.S. citizens employed by international organizations to determine their commitment to the president’s political agenda. The State Department has not complied with the document request.

A State Department spokesperson declined to respond to a lengthy list of questions related to the investigations. But the spokesperson said the “department fully cooperates with investigations of both the Department’s IG and the permanent Office of Special Counsel. Any questions as to the existence or scope of any investigations being conducted by those organizations should be directed to them.”

The inspector general’s inquiry was triggered between May and June by complaints from State Department employees, who informed the Office of the Inspector General, as well as other senior State Department officials, that Stull had used her position to retaliate against officials suspected of having supported Obama-era policies. Stull’s alleged retaliation, according to several current and former U.S. officials, received the support of Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Kevin Moley, a Trump appointee.

Stull, a former food lobbyist who wrote a wine blog under the pseudonym “Vino Vixen,” is part of an informal network of political appointees who five State Department officials say constitute a parallel power structure in the State Department to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which seeks to inject the president’s domestic policy agenda into foreign affairs.

Many in the network are linked to Stephen Miller, an influential senior advisor to the president who oversees the Domestic Policy Council at the White House. They include Andrew Veprek, a foreign service officer who served under Miller in White House; John Zadrozny, another former Miller aide who now works in State’s policy planning bureau; and Bethany Kozma at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Kozma has injected politics into traditional technical deliberations, seeking, for instance, to remove any reference to issues such as reproductive rights and gender from United Nations resolutions, according to several officials.

Like Stull, they are senior advisors who do not require confirmation by Congress but who often wield extraordinary power over their bureaus. In the past year, they have quietly set the agenda on refugee policy, health care, and reproductive and human rights.

“They are perpetuating a pervasive atmosphere of fear and intimidation,” said one official, noting that the policy goals are shrouded in mystery, making it difficult for officials to determine when they might be making a misstep.

The inspector general is looking into an allegation that Stull blocked the promotion of one career official to a top human rights post because the official had previously been involved in overseeing humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees. The nominee had the backing of the department’s top career officials. But when Stull caught wind of the pending promotion, she convened a meeting with Moley and accused the candidate of having sympathy for Palestinian terrorists. Moley froze the appointment.

“To be honest, Moley is 100 percent complicit in what she is doing and is acting as her protector,” said the official. “He allows it to happen with his grandfatherly face.”

The State Department watchdog is also investigating whether Stull made homophobic remarks and bullied at least two gay State Department employees. Multiple sources told investigators that Stull referred to one staffer as an “uppity homosexual.”

The inspector general’s office declined to discuss the details of its inquiry. Sarah Breen, the communications director for the Office of the Inspector General, confirmed, “we are conducting a review of numerous allegations of political retaliation against Department of State employees.”

The inspector general’s office first confirmed in January that it was looking into allegations of retaliation against career officers following reports by CNN and Reuters indicating that senior career officials were routinely downgraded to desk duty, tasked with reviewing Freedom of Information Act requests. Two democratic lawmakers, Rep. Elijah Cummings and House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Eliot Engel, also wrote to the inspector general, noting that they had been in contact with whistleblowers who had confirmed the press reports.

But the latest investigation began after Stull, whose activities were first documented in June by Foreign Policy, was hired by the international organization affairs bureau in April.

Following the article’s publication, Pompeo, who was seeking to rebuild morale in the department, considered removing Stull from her job, according to two officials familiar with internal deliberations. But Republican lawmakers, including senior Foreign Affairs Committee member Rep. Chris Smith, came to her defense, citing “unwarranted attacks in the media” aimed at undermining Stull’s work.

“Ms. Stull has been a stellar addition to the State Department and remains faithful to the Trump Administration’s reform agenda,” Smith wrote in a letter to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, according to right-wing news website Breitbart. “It is precisely because she is both loyal and effective that she is subject to such partisan attacks.”

Since the investigation began, the bureau’s politically appointed leadership has begun shutting career officials out of meetings, keeping separate calendars, and transferring internal conversations to personal devices.

“Every time something happens, Stull runs around saying, ‘Who is leaking this?’” said one official.

Nearly all of the senior career officials, including Erin Barclay and Molly Phee, have left the international organization affairs bureau amid plunging morale. At least five other career diplomats have taken the unusual step of “curtailing” their job in the bureau, a way to cut short an assignment that is typically reserved for diplomats overseas with medical issues.

Another career diplomat went on leave without pay “because they were just so miserable,” one official familiar with the matter said. One senior State Department official noted that the bureau’s exiles now refer to themselves as “refugees” in the new bureaus that have taken them on.  

“People are leaving [the Bureau of International Organization Affairs] left and right,” said another official. “The level of talent that the bureau has lost, it’s deep.”    

A top diplomat, Doug Griffiths, has just started as the principal deputy assistant secretary—the seniormost career diplomat in the bureau. “This entire bureau is placing a huge burden of hope on his shoulders in hoping he can fix everything,” the official said, but added that they weren’t hopeful an internal investigation would bring about change or force out Stull, given her political support.

“There aren’t going to be consequences for her, and she knows that, and so do other people.”

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

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

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