Praising U.S. Diplomats for Their Testimony Is Not Enough
State Department officials who find themselves wrapped up in the Trump impeachment inquiry will need public support for years to come.
In recent weeks, prominent commentators—writing for Foreign Affairs, the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, and elsewhere—have heralded the professionalism and courage of members of the U.S. foreign service, especially those who have found themselves ensnared in the House of Representatives’ ongoing impeachment inquiry into the conduct of President Donald Trump. Although it has been painful to watch my former State Department colleagues, whom I respect, go through the stress (and expense) of testifying before Congress, I am grateful for their integrity and for their testimony.
Those who have had to bear this burden include Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine whom Trump recalled in May and badmouthed during a phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky; William Taylor, the top U.S. official in Ukraine now; George Kent, an expert on Ukraine and Russia and deputy assistant secretary of state; Philip Reeker, the acting assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs; Catherine Croft, a State Department Ukraine expert; and Christopher Anderson, who was a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine—all career foreign service officers. In my search for silver linings under Trump, I have wondered whether the publicity surrounding the testimony of these witnesses, and the dignity with which they have requited themselves, may have shone a light on the U.S. foreign service that will spark new interest among young people in joining its ranks.
While I agree with those who extol the character of those who have been unintentionally swept up in the investigation, all of our words of praise and support for them will come to nothing if we are not prepared to stand by them in the future.
Yovanovitch would be a logical addition to the short list for ambassador to Moscow under a future U.S. president. Kent knows Ukraine perhaps better than any other serving U.S. diplomat and, as a former deputy chief of mission for a large embassy and current deputy assistant secretary of state, should be a candidate for ambassadorships in the future. Reeker is currently the acting assistant secretary of state (not yet formally nominated or confirmed, as is common under Trump), the top Washington-based diplomat working on Europe. That should not be his last post. Anderson, a mid-ranking career officer, is bright, hardworking, and professional, and he has, I hope, a long career of service ahead of him. Croft was at the U.S. Mission to NATO and on the Ukraine desk when I served as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, from 2013 to 2017, and she was a vital link in coordinating U.S. policy. Other career officers may yet be asked to testify in future phases of the impeachment investigation.
When it comes to making appointments, particularly those that require the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate, White House personnel offices have historically been cautious. They seek to avoid nominees who might provoke resistance from the Senate because of their personal or political past. Appointees go through a comprehensive vetting process before their names are announced. (The Trump White House has been an outlier, in this respect and in many others.)
It is likely, two or three years hence, that some of those who have been compelled by conscience and by Congress to testify will be considered for senior posts. Subsequent administrations will have to reckon with the possibility that as witnesses in the impeachment inquiry, they could be seen as politicized, and that some senators will make a show trial out of their confirmation hearings.
This should never be an excuse for holding these individuals back from posts in which they are qualified to serve. If we mean what we say today when we congratulate these public servants for their dignity and professionalism under Trump, we must be committed to fight for the careers they deserve going forward. They should not get special treatment, but the next White House and State Department leadership teams should see to it that they are not penalized for the situation in which they presently find themselves.
The mistreatment of Yovanovitch has most profoundly affected her personally. But the entire foreign service is aware of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s failure to defend one of his team—and will take that personally, as they should. Pompeo’s willingness to stand by, along with his repeated inaccurate dismissal of the State Department as an institution made up of costal elites—has destroyed morale at the department. At the beginning of his tenure, I wrote for Foreign Policy that Pompeo could undo some of the damage Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, had done. Instead, he has compounded it.
Rebuilding the State Department will take a generation. But if Trump is defeated in the 2020 presidential election, the new administration should make it clear from day one that it is committed to supporting the nonpartisan and professional ranks of the foreign service. Words will matter, but restoring and advancing the careers of Yovanovitch and others will send a strong signal to all foreign service officers that the administration is prepared to defend them, even at the expense of political capital.
And those of us on the outside must be prepared to press the new administration to do so and to vocally support the nominations of qualified career diplomats for senior posts when they are before the Senate.
Our support today is important, but the real test is whether we are willing to defend and advocate for these professionals going forward—and see to it that they do not pay a price for Trump’s wrongdoing.