Trump Administration Targeted Career Diplomat, State Watchdog Says

Recent reports reveal a pattern of political retaliation, some without consequences, in Trump’s State Department.

The State Department seen in Washington.
The U.S. State Department is seen in Washington on Nov. 29, 2010. Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. State Department’s internal watchdog on Thursday released a report documenting reprisals by political appointees against career diplomats perceived to be insufficiently loyal to President Donald Trump.

The conduct outlined in this report follows a slew of other reports that Trump officials at the State Department harassed or mismanaged employees. Thus far, such reports have resulted in fewer consequences than many employees at the department would have liked. Several political appointees accused of misbehavior have left government, placing them beyond the reach of department disciplinary action.

Several have been forced out of their jobs, but others who faced such allegations have remained at the State Department, received promotions, or been permitted to announce a graceful retirement, raising doubts about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s willingness to hold wrongdoers accountable for their actions.

“The mechanisms designed to deter misconduct have been effectively neutered,” a State Department official told Foreign Policy. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added: “[The] implications are real for anybody currently on the fence about reporting such — who’s going to follow this path now?”

The newest report from the State Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigated allegations of political retaliation against five career employees. In one case, the OIG found that political appointees improperly retaliated against a career civil servant, an American national of Iranian descent who was removed from her post in part because of her ethnicity and perceived loyalty to President Barack Obama.

In the case of two other career employees it investigated, the OIG found no evidence of wrongdoing. For the fourth and fifth cases, the inspector general was unable to prove allegations that Trump officials engaged in political retaliation, in part because they were “unable to obtain essential information from key decisionmakers” to conclude the investigation. Politico and the Daily Beast first reported on the OIG’s findings on Wednesday.

This is the second major report documenting abuses of career officials in the past three months. In August, the inspector general found that two senior Trump officials, including Kevin Moley, the assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, had harassed and mismanaged career employees, beginning under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and extending through Pompeo’s tenure. One of the officials has left the department, and Moley announced he will retire this month.

Other State Department appointees have faced scrutiny amid allegations of harassing or abusing employees, feeding into a growing narrative that the Trump administration is mistreating or marginalizing career diplomats. Sean Lawler, the Trump administration’s chief of protocol, resigned from his post this summer. He faced allegations of mismanagement before his resignation. Lawler, who spent nearly 30 years in the military and government, vehemently denied any wrongdoing, telling Foreign Policy the allegations against him were “blatantly false.” Pompeo’s last policy planning chief, Kiron Skinner, was removed from her job following allegations that she had an abusive management style. Skinner, a respected conservative foreign-policy thinker and academic, was one of the senior-most ranking African Americans in the Trump administration.

In a written response to the latest report probing alleged mismanagement, the State Department challenged the report’s basic findings of political retaliation and offered a full-throated expression of support for one senior Trump administration official implicated in the report, Brian Hook. In the report, the OIG faults Hook for improperly driving the Iranian American out of her job and then misleading the inspector general about how the decision was made. Hook has denied any wrongdoing.

The report focuses on actions taken during the tenure of Tillerson. But allegations of politically motivated retaliation and mismanagement have continued under Pompeo, who came into office last year vowing to restore the “swagger” of the department.

Pompeo has also faced criticism from within his own ranks for not doing enough to defend career diplomats ensnared in the ongoing impeachment probe that centers on Trump’s push to get Ukraine to investigate his Democratic political rivals.

“We’ve seen a pattern of retaliation against [State Department] career employees,” said Rep. Ami Bera, the Democratic chairman of the subcommittee that conducts oversight of and investigations concerning the State Department. The inspector general recommended in the report that Pompeo discipline employees accused of wrongdoing, but Bera told Foreign Policy that he did not trust Pompeo to do so. “I’ve not seen any evidence of Secretary Pompeo’s leadership on this.”

The State Department declined to offer additional comment. 

The officials named in the report include Hook, then-policy planning director, and Tillerson’s former chief of staff and deputy chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin and Christine Ciccone. Peterlin has since left government and is no longer subject to department discipline. Ciccone has moved to a new role at the Department of Homeland Security. In August 2018, Pompeo appointed Hook special representative for Iran.

The inspector general recommended that Pompeo consider disciplining employees found in violation and instituting new training for political appointees on the department’s merit-based rules.

Hook issued a lengthy rebuttal to the allegations against him, insisting his decision to get rid of the Iranian American official was “lawful, proper, and within the administrative standards” for the department. The State Department’s legal counsel, T. Ulrich Brechbühl, said the department’s leadership disagreed with the report’s conclusion that the career employee was forced from her job for any other reason than the desire to bring in a new team and that the inspector general ignored the “compelling evidence” provided by Hook that he said rebutted some of the report’s conclusions.

The report delved deeply into the case involving Hook, in which Trump officials and conservative figures outside the government questioned a career civil servant’s loyalty to the United States because of her ethnically Iranian background.

It began in 2017 when Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, a career civil servant in the Policy Planning Staff, reached out to her boss, Hook, for help in responding to a critical story in the Conservative Review. The story characterized Nowrouzzadeh as a “trusted Obama aide” who had “burrowed” her way into the inner sanctums of the Trump administration’s foreign-policy establishment.

Nowrouzzadeh noted that she had spent 12 years in the U.S. government, beginning her service in the George W. Bush administration, and that she had “adapted [her] work to the policy priorities of every administration [she] worked for.” She sought assurances from Hook to “correct the record.”

Instead, Hook forwarded her email to other political appointees in the department, who passed it to White House officials, sparking an email debate over her perceived enthusiasm for Obama and the Iran nuclear deal, as detailed by the inspector general’s report and internal emails obtained by congressional overseers.

“[S]he worked on the Iran deal, specifically works on Iran within S/P [the Policy Planning Staff], was born in Iran and upon my understanding cried when the President won,” Julia Haller, the White House liaison, wrote in one email. Haller later told OIG investigators that Nowrouzzadeh’s perceived national origin and rumors of her negative reaction to Trump’s election could raise questions of her “loyalty to the United States.” Nowrouzzadeh had long held a security clearance and was not born in Iran. She is technically still employed by the State Department, though left Foggy Bottom to pursue a fellowship at Harvard University.

In his response, Hook said he made the decision to remove her from her post even before the internal discussion about her perceived political views or ethnicity had begun, and he had “intended to hire [his] own expert for Iran and the Gulf.”

In a letter to the inspector general, the State Department’s legal counsel defended Hook, saying his “clear and compelling written correspondence” supported his contention that he had decided in February 2017 that “to reshape his team and bring in his own Middle East expert.” 

But the OIG questioned Hook’s honesty, noting that he had altered his story over the course of several interviews. 

For instance, the OIG claims that Hook had initially indicated that he had decided to hire J. Matthew McInnis, an Iran expert, before Nowrouzzadeh was pushed out of her job in April 2017. But McInnis told the OIG he didn’t even know Hook at the time Nowrouzzadeh was reassigned. 

Hook would later contend that he had in fact intended to hire Matthew Mowers, another political appointee linked to Trump’s foreign-policy circles, to help head up Iran policy. Emails show that Hook had in fact offered Mowers a job in March 2017, before Nowrouzzadeh was forced out, “to be my Saudi guy.”

In an interview with the OIG, Mowers informed Hook that “he had ‘no background on Iran’ issues and recommended that Mr. Hook hire Mr. McInnis for the Iran portfolio, which Mr. Hook ultimately did in September 2017.”

“In short, Mr. Hook’s assertion that he intended to hire the other candidate with ‘full knowledge that the Candidate would be handling [Nowrouzzadeh’s] policy portfolio’ is unconvincing,” according to the OIG. “Given this context, Mr. Hook’s own statements to OIG appear to be a post-hoc justification for terminating the detail early.”

The report said Hook did not take part in discussions about Nowrouzzadeh’s heritage or ethnicity but did not stop such discussions, either.

Nowrouzzadeh broke her silence on Thursday after the report’s release. “It is my hope that the Inspector General’s findings pertaining to my case help prompt action that will guard against any further such misconduct by members of this or any future administration,” she said in a statement on Twitter. “I continue to strongly encourage Americans of all backgrounds, including those of Iranian heritage, to consider public service to our nation and to not be discouraged by these findings.”

The allegations of political retaliation date back to the first months of the Trump administration. The White House and the State Department, working with a network of conservative activists, including former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, sought to carry out a “cleaning” of career civil servants considered not supportive of Trump’s agenda, according to a March 2018 letter from Rep. Elijah Cummings, then-ranking member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Rep. Eliot Engel, then-ranking member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs.

“The documents show that these political appointees characterized career State Department employees in derogatory terms including as ‘a leaker and troublemaker’; ‘Turncoat’; ‘associated with previous policy’; and ‘Obama/Clinton loyalists not at all supportive of President Trump’s foreign policy agenda,’” the two lawmakers wrote in a letter to the White House and State Department. 

While the actions occurred under Tillerson, Pompeo’s refusal to hold perpetrators of abusive behavior accountable for their actions once he became secretary has undercut his claim to be a defender of the rank and file, critics say. Last month, Michael Mckinley, a veteran foreign service officer who had served as a senior advisor to Pompeo, cited his boss’s failure to hold officials accountable for mistreating career officials as one of the reasons for his decision to resign. He relayed his concerns during a closed-door congressional hearing in the impeachment probe.

Pompeo has dismissed concerns that the State Department suffers from morale issues. “More Washington insider-y stuff, a long history of the press reporting about unhappiness at the State Department, especially, frankly, in Republican administrations,” he told the radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt when pressed on the matter Wednesday. 

This article has been updated. 

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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