State Department Failed to Shield Its Diplomats From Political Reprisals, Officials Concede

But the department’s top leaders say they can’t sack the Trump appointee at the center of scandal.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, then acting secretary of state, addresses press at the U.S. Department of State in Washington on April 20, 2018.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, then acting secretary of state, addresses press at the U.S. Department of State in Washington on April 20, 2018. Win McNamee/Getty Images

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan has acknowledged having failed to act more vigorously to shield State Department staffers from retaliation by the Trump administration for their perceived political views. But Sullivan said that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lacked the authority to fire a top Trump political appointee accused of inflicting, or abetting, the alleged harassment.

Speaking in a town hall meeting on Aug. 29 with staffers from the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs, Sullivan and David Hale, the undersecretary of state for political affairs and the third-ranking official in the department, acknowledged shortcomings in their response and pledged to make amends for staffers whose careers were upended in a long-running controversy that triggered an investigation by the department’s inspector general. They also pledged to exercise greater personal oversight over the bureau’s work.

“I will be the first to admit the failure on my part to have done more to address the situation,” Sullivan told the gathering, according to an account of the meeting relayed to Foreign Policy

Hale encouraged staffers whose careers were damaged as a result of political retaliation to come to him to seek some sort of professional remedy or, if they preferred, to pursue a formal grievance against the department.

“I’d like to help; I’d also like people to know they can come to me,” Hale said. He pledged to take their case to the undersecretary of state for management, the director general, or human resources “to make amends.”

“There’s absolutely no doubt that what was going on was completely unacceptable,” Hale said. “Misconduct is a soft word, frankly, to use for what has occurred.” 

The meeting came just weeks after the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General concluded that Kevin Moley, the assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, and a senior advisor, Mari Stull, had engaged in “inappropriate practices,” including the “disrespectful and hostile treatment of employees … and harassment of career employees premised on claims that they were ‘disloyal’ based on their perceived political views.” The inspector general, Steve Linick, recommended “corrective action” and unspecified disciplinary action against Moley.

Sullivan said that he had intentionally not invited Moley, who remains in his job, to the session in order to encourage staffers in the bureau to speak frankly about their concerns and expectations for change in the bureau. He said the department is still weighing the inspector general’s recommendation that he be disciplined. But he said that Pompeo had no power to replace Moley. Stull left the State Department in January and is no longer subject to disciplinary proceedings.

“The secretary can’t fire an assistant secretary appointed by a president, so it adds a layer of complexity there,” Sullivan said. “It doesn’t make it right, it doesn’t make it easier to tolerate, but know that the experience we’ve had with this situation has sensitized, I know, Ambassador Hale and myself and the secretary of the need for us to do better.”

Stull was accused of bullying and demeaning employees, and trying to force out career civil servants who worked on issues affiliated with Obama administration policies, including on Palestinian issues and LGBTQ issues. The sweeping 34-page report from the Office of the Inspector General details numerous allegations of mismanagement. Stull, in one instance, was accused of punishing an employee for accompanying a Congressional Black Caucus delegation to the United Nations, a routine courtesy the bureau offers both parties, because the delegation consisted of Democrats. Stull allegedly shut the employee out of substantive work and meetings until she quit. In another instance, Stull was also accused of throwing a report at an employee, calling it “garbage.” Moley was also accused of mistreating staff and abetting Stull’s actions. 

But Moley and Stull vehemently deny many of the allegations leveled against them. Moley issued a lengthy rebuttal to the allegations outlined in the report, directly denying some of the allegations, and in other instances saying he was unaware of actions taken against career diplomats. 

The “behavior attributed to me regarding raising my voice, berating employees, and contributing to a hostile work environment does not represent who I am or who I have ever been,” he said.

In a statement to Foreign Policy after the report was released, Stull said the report contains “false and misleading information” and was “politically motivated payback” by “Deep State bureaucrats” who opposed Trump. 

The town hall meeting with Sullivan and Hale provided a rare opportunity for rank and file civil servants and foreign affairs officers to air grievances with the State Department’s leadership following a tumultuous period under Moley’s authority. It also offered insight into how the department’s top leadership was handling an internal scandal that the department has remained relatively tight-lipped about, as the inspector general investigation was underway.

Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called for Moley to resign or be fired in the wake of the report. “Assistant Secretary Kevin Moley, who is somehow still running the bureau, appears to have done nothing to stop this vindictive culture,” Engel said in a statement on Aug. 15, after the State Department watchdog released its report. “Ultimately, of course, the buck stops with Secretary Pompeo, who continues to employ Mr. Moley as part of his senior leadership team.”

Hale, who is charged with implementing the inspector general’s recommendations, said he had 60 days to devise a “correction plan” for the bureau and to propose appropriate disciplinary action. “I know some people are wondering why we didn’t swiftly move. This is a formal process. Everything has to be by the book,” he said. 

Hale noted that Moley had denied many of the most serious charges of misconduct, making it “a little bit of a he said she said” situation. But he added that he takes “at face value what the inspection report has said.”

Hale encouraged staffers to come to him directly with any issues. “If there’s a formal complaint that people want to launch in order to try to rectify what’s happened to their career, the department’s got systems on that, and it’s definitely incumbent on management and leadership to let people know that we actually support the use of those channels,” he said. “That’s why they exist.”

Hale insisted that the department will follow “due process” to guarantee that Moley, like any other subject of an inspector general’s report, is given a fair and thorough hearing. “I’ll spend as much time as it takes to make sure we get this right.”

Some staff members told Sullivan and Hale that morale had improved since Stull, who was described in the town hall meeting as the former senior bureau official cited in the inspector general’s report, left the department, with one saying the situation had grown “significantly better.”

But many of the questions revolved around the fate of Moley and why action had not been taken sooner to discipline him. And some noted that officials in other bureaus of the State Department have been subject to similar mistreatment. 

The “general vibe after the meeting was a mix of bitter disappointment and depression,” one State Department official told Foreign Policy, who was skeptical about assurances that Moley would be reprimanded. “Bottom line here is that there will be NO action taken on Kevin Moley.”

And other staffers privately expressed skepticism that the State Department’s leadership would hold Moley accountable, noting that Foggy Bottom’s top brass had known about the allegations of political targeting for well over a year and had failed to act swiftly to stop it. Some staffers cited what they saw as a double standard in how Moley has been treated compared to Kiron Skinner, Pompeo’s policy planning chief, who was swiftly fired last month over allegations of treating staff abusively. Unlike Skinner, however, Moley occupies a more senior-ranking position that requires presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. 

“The decision to ignore the IG report is devastating,” said another staffer in the bureau. “Ultimately, it renders this kind of vicious political targeting acceptable.”

A third staffer expressed concern during the town hall that Stull may continue to be very actively involved” in the work of the bureau.

The staffer—who provided no details on the alleged role Stull may have been playing in the bureau—asked whether the department had instructed Stull or Moley’s office “that there not be an enduring policy relationship there.”

Sullivan said he had raised the matter with the bureau’s leadership, an apparent reference to Moley, and assured staff that he, Hale, and Secretary Pompeo had not sanctioned it.

In an emailed response to Foreign Policy, Stull wrote: “Delusional State Department ‘Deep State’ opponents of President Trump are paranoid and it is shameful that Foreign Policy Magazine happily promotes their political agenda to destroy the President, His Political Appointees, and thwart his Administration’s policies.”

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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