Trump Administration’s Top Europe Diplomat Resigns

A Russia hawk, A. Wess Mitchell helped reassure U.S. allies worried about the president’s relationship with Putin.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs A. Wess Mitchell speaks during a press conference in Pristina, Kosovo, on March 12, 2018. (Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs A. Wess Mitchell speaks during a press conference in Pristina, Kosovo, on March 12, 2018. (Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration’s top diplomat on Europe and Eurasia, Assistant Secretary of State A. Wess Mitchell, announced Tuesday that he would resign next month, citing personal reasons and not any disagreements with the U.S. president or his policies.

In an interview with the Washington Post, which first reported his resignation, Mitchell said he accomplished what he set out to do since entering the job 15 months ago and wanted to spend more time with his family. “My kids have a greater claim to my time right now than the public does,” he said.

Under President Donald Trump, U.S.-European relations have plunged to their lowest levels in decades, with the two sides clashing over trade issues, the Paris climate accord, funding for NATO, the Iran nuclear deal, and Trump’s overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin (even as his administration has tightened sanctions on Moscow and ramped up military cooperation with NATO allies).

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech in Brussels in December 2018 that was panned by European experts and some former U.S. officials for criticizing multilateralism and institutions like the European Union. It highlighted the growing rift between the Trump administration and European allies, and it even prompted suggestions by the European Commission’s spokesman that Pompeo didn’t understand how EU institutions worked.

Mitchell joins a raft of senior U.S. administration officials departing the administration as it enters its third year. Some of those departures can be chalked up to natural churn: Senior officials often leave around the two-year mark of an administration, burned out from the high demands and pressures of the job. Other departures have been much more dramatic, reflecting the chaos of the Trump administration and volatility of its leader. Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned last month, citing disagreements with Trump over how he treats allies. Brett McGurk, the presidential envoy on countering the Islamic State, followed Mattis, quitting over Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

“Like Secretary Mattis, the continued departure of confirmed officials who sought to sustain ballast in [trans-Atlantic ties] means rough seas ahead for US engagement in Europe,” said Mark Simakovsky, a former Defense Department official and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. “Mitchell will be hard to replace as he was a solid selection with deep background and experience in Europe.”

Despite the fraught state of trans-Atlantic relations, Mitchell said in a resignation letter dated Jan. 4 and obtained by Foreign Policy that he is proud of the work he did. He cited numerous accomplishments under his tenure and made no mention of policy disagreements with Trump or Pompeo.

“I take satisfaction in the historic increases that we helped to bring about in Allied contributions to NATO,” he said in the letter, addressed to Pompeo. He also touted the administration’s success at keeping united Western sanctions on Russia, helping secure a resolution to Greece and Macedonia’s long-standing dispute over the latter country’s name, securing the release of the pastor Andrew Brunson from detention in Turkey, and “significantly increasing U.S. diplomatic engagement in Central Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Western Balkans.”

Shortly after Mitchell’s resignation was made public on Tuesday, Pompeo tweeted that Mitchell “has done an outstanding job as Assistant Secretary.” He added: “I have valued his counsel and wisdom as he has led our European team in this administration.”

In his nearly 16 months of the job, Mitchell drew controversy in some European policy circles for increasing U.S. engagement with Hungary and forging closer ties with its leader, Viktor Orban—who has dismantled of some of Hungary’s democratic institutions and cracked down on free press. The policy contrasts with the approach of previous administrations, which placed more emphasis on human rights. (The same day Mitchell’s resignation was announced, Pompeo spoke on the phone with Orban, on the “importance of strengthening the U.S.-Hungary strategic relationship,” according to a readout from the State Department.)

But other officials and analysts say Mitchell stood out as a stalwart Russia hawk during the tumultuous first two years of Trump’s administration, when allies harbored deep concerns about Trump’s relationship with Putin and fretted over the possibility that he might withdraw from NATO.

“He has been quite supportive of alliances,” said Amanda Sloat, a former deputy assistant secretary of state now at the Brookings Institution. “He’s definitely been willing to toe Trump’s hard line on burden-sharing and defense spending [in NATO], but I do think he believes fundamentally in the value of alliances.”

Mitchell was the first assistant secretary of state nominated by Trump and confirmed by the Senate. For months, he was the only confirmed assistant secretary of state to oversee a regional bureau in the department. During Trump’s first two years in office, many senior posts in the State Department were left vacant, with either the president refusing to nominate someone to fill the position or nominees being held up from confirmation by the Senate. Pompeo vowed to restore the State Department’s “swagger” when he entered office in April 2018 following Trump firing his predecessor, Rex Tillerson. But some key posts, including undersecretaries and assistant secretaries of state as well as ambassador posts, still remain unfilled.

The State Department’s deputy spokesman, Robert Palladino, said on Twitter Mitchell would depart his job on Feb. 15 and career diplomat Elisabeth Millard, who is the bureau’s principal deputy assistant secretary, will take over his job in an acting role.

But current and former officials say Millard had planned to retire in several weeks, which would leave the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs even more short-staffed.

“Mitchell has been working with Secretary Pompeo to ensure an orderly transition in leadership,” a State Department spokesperson said in response, adding that the department had no new personnel announcements to make.

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

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