Pompeo Skirts Protocol to Appoint New Protocol Chief
Democrats say that the U.S. secretary of state is bypassing the Senate’s traditional oversight measures with the appointment.
Some Democrats in Washington are accusing U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of deliberately sidestepping diplomatic custom by appointing a new chief of protocol for the State Department without going through the process of a presidential nomination and Senate confirmation.
The complaints are part of a broader Democratic pushback against the way the Trump administration has gone about appointing people for senior posts in the State Department after several high-profile examples of appointees stepping down amid controversy.
Pompeo named Cam Henderson to the chief of protocol position last month. She replaced Sean Lawler, who resigned after claims he mistreated staff surfaced in June. Lawler denies the allegations.
According to the law, the secretary of state is allowed to bypass the formal nomination and confirmation process when appointing a chief of protocol. (Senate confirmation hearings can be drawn-out and contentious.) Still, most administrations in recent decades have adhered to the custom of having a president nominate a chief of protocol and go through Senate confirmation, which entails additional vetting.
“There are plenty of reasons to be concerned,” said Juan Pachón, the communications director for Sen. Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who is the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “This appointment appears to break with almost three decades of precedent for the Chief of Protocol position, and the Administration has refused to provide any answer as to why filling the Protocol position was of such extreme urgency that they were not able to first seek Senate confirmation.”
An archived version of the State Department’s website from 2017 states: “Since 1961, the Chief of Protocol has been commissioned an Ambassador, requiring the President’s nominee to be confirmed by the Senate.”
Not all secretaries of state have stuck to the precedent, however. In the 1980s to 1990s, there were five instances in which the chief of protocol was appointed—in both Democratic and Republican administrations—without first being nominated or confirmed ambassador rank. The last time that happened was in 1993.
A State Department spokesperson said Pompeo’s decision is fully in line with the department’s hiring authorities under the Foreign Service Act of 1980. Unlike most previous chiefs of protocol, Henderson has not been given the rank of ambassador with the appointment—a move that would have required the administration to seek Senate confirmation for her first. The spokesperson confirmed she will be nominated to the rank of ambassador in the future.
Many senior State Department positions have remained unfilled for years, while senators—both Democrats and Republicans—have opposed nominees over their backgrounds or policies.
The State Department’s chief of protocol occupies an important place in the world of diplomacy, often being the first U.S. representative to greet foreign dignitaries alongside the president or other senior administration officials and serving as the U.S. representative and liaison to the foreign diplomatic corps in Washington.
The chief of protocol manages the careful choreography of diplomacy, an arduous task that requires attention to both etiquette and cultural practices around the world. While the chief of protocol’s office is rarely in the spotlight, its work can have a significant impact on diplomacy.
Several current and former U.S. officials who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity said they believe Congress should have a say in appointing any new chief of protocol, especially given the controversy surrounding Lawler, who held the job for 18 months under Trump.
NBC News and other news organizations reported earlier this summer that Lawler had harassed and yelled at employees and created a hostile work environment.
The officials who spoke to Foreign Policy corroborated the allegations, saying they witnessed Lawler berating staff members, treating them abusively, and making remarks viewed by some as xenophobic or offensive.
Lawler, who spent 29 years in the military and in government, including 21 years in active duty in the Navy, denied the allegations, describing them as “nonsensical lies and exaggerations.”
“The accusations of a hostile work environment are blatantly false,” he told Foreign Policy in an email. “Morale was high and I personally advocated for and succeeded in several promotions of career staff; more people were promoted in my 18 months than during my last three predecessors combined.”
He said the news reports had caused him great hardship.
“My reputation was destroyed, and I lost friends and coll[ea]gues over the false narrative about me and it severely impacted my career and personal life,” he wrote.
Several other State Department officials appointed in the Trump administration have resigned or faced internal investigations and criticism from Capitol Hill based on allegations of harassing or mistreating staff.
Henderson, his replacement, has two decades of experience in politics and fundraising in Republican circles, and for a time served as the deputy chief of protocol under Lawler.
Some officials who spoke to Foreign Policy said the State Department didn’t do enough to address the alleged mistreatment under Lawler and that Henderson did not try hard enough to stop it while serving as his deputy. They said she should have reported any abuse she witnessed from the start.
Supervisors who do not immediately report incidents of discriminatory harassment are in violation of internal State Department rules.
But other officials said the complaints against Henderson were unfair and described her as a capable leader who worked to defuse tense situations in the office and improve morale during her time as deputy for both career staff and political appointees.
“I’ve known Cam since the first day she walked into Protocol, and I’ve always felt that she respected my work, and the work of other career staff,” said one State Department official. “When things were difficult with Lawler, she was a steadying presence in the office.”
Before joining the State Department’s chief of protocol office, Henderson worked for former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and as executive director of the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund. She coordinated the raising of $42 million to support relief efforts following the 2012 hurricane, which caused widespread damage.
Margaret Taylor, a former State Department lawyer and Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer for Democrats, said the appointment of a chief of protocol before a Senate confirmation process could be “viewed by the Senate as an end-run around the Senate’s advice and consent authority.”
“The State Department—from management issues to budget to building human capital—needs more oversight and attention from Congress, not less,” she said.