At Embassies Abroad, Trump Envoys Are Quietly Pushing Out Career Diplomats
“There’s zero support or pushback from the department for the career people,” said one former U.S. official.
Lana Marks is a successful fashion designer and member of U.S. President Donald Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago club in Florida. Though she has no prior diplomatic experience, Marks is also Trump’s ambassador to South Africa, and last month she forced out her second in command, the veteran career foreign service officer David Young.
Multiple current and former officials familiar say issues at the embassy arose over disputed accounts of the ambassador pushing for her son to take on an elevated role with the embassy. A senior embassy official, speaking on condition of anonymity, vehemently denies these claims, calling them “totally inaccurate” and saying Young’s departure was a separate issue.
To some current officials, Young’s case illustrated a growing trend in the Trump administration. Already, several of Trump’s political allies-turned-ambassadors—he has appointed a higher percentage than most previous presidents—have sacked their deputies amid a culture of mistrust between politically appointed and career State Department officials.
Marks has also faced other criticism within the State Department over how she manages the embassy in Pretoria, although management problems at the embassy predate her arrival.
Several officials say concerns were raised over the conflicting accounts of whether her son would have a role at the embassy. The senior embassy official said the ambassador did not try to get her son a senior embassy job, but rather wanted to make him “chief of staff” of her household, under her personal employ. The idea, the official said, initially came at the suggestion of another senior State Department official, but then later the State Department reversed that suggestion.
Marks deleted a tweet on Nov. 8, 2019, referring to her son, Martin Marks, as her “chief of staff” on Twitter. She did so at the State Department’s request, the embassy official said.
The official stressed that the ambassador is committed to complying with all State Department rules and regulations.
Other U.S. Embassy staff have been pushed out or left their post early, including officials who worked on foreign aid and health programs in a country that is a major recipient of U.S. funds to tackle HIV and AIDS, according to several State Department officials familiar with the matter. Some officials attribute this to the ambassador, but the senior embassy official said the ambassador is working to fix them and that she “inherited” problems at the embassy that were “long-standing and had been brushed under the rug.”
An internal State Department watchdog report released last month on the U.S. diplomatic mission in South Africa detailed allegations of employees experiencing bullying and mismanagement, months before Marks assumed her role as ambassador.
Last month, the State Department dispatched several senior officials to South Africa to help manage tensions at the embassy, two officials said, including Deputy Undersecretary of Management William Todd and Geeta Pasi, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
It’s not the first time the State Department has had to respond to allegations of mismanagement at embassies abroad, nor is it unique to the current administration. But Trump’s politically appointed ambassadors are sacking their deputy chiefs of mission—an embassy’s second-in-command post held by foreign service officers—in unusually high numbers, officials say.
This story draws on interviews from over a dozen current and former U.S. officials and other people familiar with the matters in question. The State Department did not respond to five requests for comment for this story. The U.S. Embassy official who spoke to Foreign Policy said the State Department did not properly notify Marks in advance of the multiple requests for comment.
After publication, Marks issued the following statement to Foreign Policy: “David Young, my former DCM, is a wonderful man and a tremendously capable diplomat. I was and am personally very fond of him. Our management styles were quite different, and with his experience and ambition, I felt it far more appropriate for him to be in a chargé [d’affaires] position, which I arranged for him and was told was imminent. I only wish him the very best in the future.”
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on Young’s next posting.
Along with South Africa, Trump’s envoys in Canada, France, Iceland, Romania, and the United Kingdom have all removed their deputy chiefs of mission, some ambassadors doing so just shortly before or after arriving at their new posts.
Ambassadors have full authority to remove their deputy chief of mission, even without cause, given how important the relationship between an ambassador and his or her deputy is to ensuring the smooth management of an embassy. But the high rate at which it’s happening now reflects how wide the gulf can be between politically appointed ambassadors and the diplomatic corps—an issue laid bare by Trump’s impeachment trial that dragged the State Department into Congressional impeachment investigations. Behind the scenes, some officials fear it is hampering embassies’ abilities to carry out their missions.
“We are deeply concerned by the number of removals of deputy chiefs of mission overseas, which are happening at way above the normal pace,” said Eric Rubin, a senior foreign service officer currently serving as president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents U.S. diplomats. “It’s generally very rare for a DCM to be removed by the ambassador. It does happen. Sometimes it happens for a good cause. But it’s rare. And it is now becoming an epidemic.”
“It’s created a lot of turmoil in a lot of embassies even … if it’s hard to quantify,” said another senior U.S. diplomat.
In several cases where deputy chiefs of mission were forced out early, including the U.S. Embassy in France led by Ambassador Jamie McCourt, Trump’s ambassadors have cycled through two or three deputy chiefs during their tenure. The embassies where deputy chiefs are being sacked are all led by deep-pocketed Republican political donors whom Trump tapped to be ambassadors, despite some having no prior diplomatic or government experience.
The senior U.S. Embassy official in South Africa said Marks is “currently working with a very capable and excellent team of foreign service officers and a great DCM.”
Marks, who was born in South Africa, founded a highly successful luxury handbag company bearing her name. She has served on Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Women’s Leadership Board and as a lecturer at Georgetown University’s Women’s Leadership Initiative, according to her official biography on the U.S. Embassy in South Africa’s website. She is also one of at least eight members of Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago club in Florida to be offered senior administration positions, according to a 2019 investigation by USA Today. She has been in South Africa for several months, after the ambassador post sat empty for three years.
Marks said she “hit the ground running” after arriving in Pretoria in an interview last month with the Daily Maverick, regularly working 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. to make up for lost time, with a goal of boosting trade ties between the two countries and trying to help South Africa become one of the United States’ top 20 trade partners globally. “I have the right people on board. … It’s a lot of work to make this happen. It’s tripling trade. But I have the support of the people I need,” she said in the interview.
She saw her lack of government experience as an asset. “I come from the private sector. I’m not a civil servant by background. That’s why President Trump put me in this position, because I’m a person who wants results,” she said in the interview.
U.S. embassies traditionally employ some diplomats’ family members, primarily in administrative posts and particularly in smaller embassies in developing countries that are short-staffed. But it is against State Department regulations for a diplomat to be in a role that would manage or oversee a family member, officials said. Consequently, U.S. ambassadors’ family members can’t take jobs at the embassy, since the ambassador oversees all personnel.
One official who spoke to Foreign Policy conceded that the clear State Department guidelines barring nepotism aren’t reflected elsewhere in the administration: The president’s own son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and daughter Ivanka Trump have senior roles at the White House. (The Department of Justice ruled in 2017 that Kushner having a role in his father-in-law’s administration does not violate federal anti-nepotism laws.)
Marks’s son, Martin, is a writer with degrees from Johns Hopkins University and New York University who has written in the past for outlets including New Yorker and Vanity Fair. The senior embassy official who spoke to Foreign Policy said he “helped behind the scenes with all aspects of communications” during her vetting process before she was confirmed by the Senate. He “conducted training sessions on domestic and foreign policy” for Marks “and assisted with hearing preparation, and helped draft her opening statement, all with the full knowledge of the State Department.”
Both Democratic and Republican administrations have carried out the practice of tapping campaign donors for ambassador posts, which has sometimes—though not always—sowed mismanagement and morale issues at U.S. embassies abroad. (Indeed, several Obama administration donors-turned-ambassadors were quietly sacked over allegations of mismanagement.) The United States is one of the only countries in the world with a practice of giving ambassador posts to high-end political donors. Some of those ambassadors receive high marks and plaudits from foreign service officers, and some foreign countries prefer such U.S. ambassadors, in instances where they have closer ties to the White House or president’s inner circles.
Ambassadors require a presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. Traditionally, two-thirds of ambassador posts are held by career diplomats, while one-third are held by political appointees. Under Trump, the ratio of ambassador posts held by political appointees has increased—42 percent of Trump’s ambassador appointees are political, and 58 percent are career, according to data from the American Foreign Service Association—though that number constantly shifts as ambassadors cycle in and out of posts.
In past administrations, career officials including deputy chiefs of mission felt they had the support of the State Department if their ambassador was causing issues. That’s not the case now, said Lewis Lukens, a former longtime career diplomat. “There’s zero support or pushback from the department for the career people,” he said.
Lukens told GQ that he was forced out of his job as deputy chief in London in 2018 by Trump’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Woody Johnson, after mentioning former President Barack Obama in speeches he gave to British students.
“When I was being told I had to leave seven months early, the answer from the department was, ‘Look, the ambassador is a friend of the president’s, he’s a friend of Trump’s, and there’s nothing we can do,’” Lukens told Foreign Policy. “I imagine that some of these other people are facing that same situation.”
Several other current State Department officials who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity concurred. “The level of mistrust of the career service by incoming political appointees is extraordinarily high on average,” said one.
“There is this implicit assumption that the career people can’t be trusted, which is both very corrosive to our institution, but also very unfair and inaccurate. The signal that sends to the career staff is really, really harmful,” said another.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came to Foggy Bottom in 2018 vowing to restore the State Department’s “swagger” following the rocky tenure of Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. He took steps to improve morale, lifting an unpopular hiring freeze instituted under Tillerson and taking time to meet with U.S. Embassy staff and their families during his trips abroad. In department-wide emails he sends from his travels abroad, dubbed “Miles with Mike,” Pompeo regularly praises the hard work and dedication of his employees.
But Democratic lawmakers and former senior diplomats have criticized Pompeo over his handling of events surrounding Trump’s impeachment. The impeachment hearing thrust career State Department officials into the spotlight through public hearings on the president’s purported efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating a political rival. (Trump was acquitted of all charges on mostly partisan lines on Wednesday.) Notably, Pompeo has not offered public support for former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, a career foreign service officer forced out of her job following a smear campaign by associates of the president.
Pompeo has dismissed those criticisms. “I’ve defended every single person on this team. I’ve done what’s right for every single person on this team,” he said when pressed on Yovanovitch during an interview with NPR last month that ended in an angry confrontation with the interviewer.
U.S. embassies abroad aren’t immune to the tensions in Washington involving Trump. The president decried “deep state bureaucrats” during the Democratic-led impeachment investigation when State Department officials were subpoenaed to testify before Congress as fact witnesses.
Deputy chiefs of mission serve an important role overseeing the day-to-day management of an embassy, handling almost nonstop contact with foreign counterparts in the host country and, depending on the size of the embassy, overseeing dozens or even hundreds of personnel. They take on an elevated importance during transitions between administrations, when new ambassadors might not arrive for months, or even years, as the confirmation process for them stalls back in Washington amid behind-the-scenes political negotiations between Congress and the White House.
“The DCM essentially bridges the gap between the old ambassador and the new one,” explained one State Department official. “The DCM is responsible for preparing the embassy for the new ambassador and providing continuity and leadership and helping ensure the ambassador is successful at launch.”
An unusually high number of ambassador posts have sat empty under Trump, leaving deputy chiefs to lead the embassy for years on end. Since Pompeo came into office, that trend has declined as more ambassador nominations move through the White House and Republican-controlled Senate.
The ambassadors’ relationships with their deputy chiefs of mission is key, but it can be difficult to manage with a high-powered political donor-turned-ambassador stepping into an embassy for the first time, said Lukens. “What you want ideally is for the ambassador and DCM to complement one another’s skills,” he said.
“It’s a bit more complicated when the ambassador is a political appointee who doesn’t really bring any [diplomatic] skills or background to the job. In those cases the DCM is really responsible for running and managing the embassy.”
Update, Feb. 6, 2020: This story was updated to include additional comments, including a statement from Ambassador Lana Marks. It was also updated to include information from a State Department inspector general’s report on the embassy.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer