Trump Loyalist Appointed to Oversee Relations With U.N., World Health Organization
The appointment of White House aide Sean Doocey could douse hopes of change for a battered and bruised State Department bureau.
Sean Doocey, the former chief of the White House personnel office, has been appointed to a senior position at the State Department Bureau of International Organization Affairs, putting another political appointee with little experience in multilateral affairs in the top ranks of an agency responsible for managing U.S. relations with the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and other international organizations.
The appointment—which hasn’t been publicly announced—comes just weeks after the White House announced that Pam Pryor would serve as the bureau’s acting assistant secretary of state. Pryor—who made a name for herself in Republican politics as an aide to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and who served as Donald Trump’s primary liaison to evangelical Christians during the 2016 presidential election—previously worked as a senior advisor in State’s Office of Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, where she promoted international abortion restrictions and advocated for the rights of Christian minorities in the Middle East.
The dual hires have dealt a blow to morale among State Department career staffers, who have endured nearly three years of hostile treatment from Trump appointee loyalists, according to a report by the department’s Office of the Inspector General and to State Department officials who spoke to Foreign Policy. It has also buttressed fears that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will do little to protect the foreign service from political pressure from the White House, which has become a sensitive subject after the State Department found itself at the center of the impeachment battle on Capitol Hill.
“There is a real sense of dread across the bureau,” said one U.S. official.
Foreign delegates say that the high-level appointments reinforce suspicions that the Trump administration has little interest in multilateral diplomacy, beyond its stated desire to counter Chinese diplomatic influence. “It adds to the narrative that this is a domestic-focused administration and they don’t really care what’s happening here,” said one U.N.-based diplomat.
Long before President Trump declared political war on his Ukraine experts, the Bureau of International Organization Affairs was ground zero for the administration’s reign of retaliation against career diplomats deemed insufficiently loyal to the president. In August 2019, the department’s inspector general, Steve Linick, issued a scathing report that concluded two top Trump appointees had harassed “career employees premised on claims that they were ‘disloyal’ based on their perceived political views.” Both denied the charges against them, and both have since left the department.
In a town hall meeting after the report’s publication, John Sullivan, then deputy secretary of state, and David Hale, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, sought to assure staff from the bureau that a new day was coming, and that they would take a personal role in assuring the best, most experienced people would come to the bureau.
Hale said that he intended to exercise “direct oversight of all personnel appointments at the deputy director level and above” to ensure the bureau was attracting the “greatest expertise,” according to an account of the closed-door meeting reviewed by Foreign Policy.
Sullivan, who has since become U.S. ambassador to Russia, echoed that sentiment, telling the staffers he was committed to making sure the bureau “will attract the very best, as it has many other times in its history.”
Sullivan reminisced about the days under the George W. Bush administration when the bureau was at the center of U.S. policy debates over decisions to pursue war or peace in the Middle East. But the latest hires have doused hopes the bureau can recover its stature.
Doocey is replacing Kathy Wright, who oversees the department’s management portfolio, as deputy assistant secretary of state for management issues. In his new post, Doocey will be responsible for handling the department’s budget, senior appointments of American nationals to international jobs, and U.N. elections. He is also expected to play a role in ramping up the department’s capacity to contain China’s ability to secure top jobs at the U.N. The State Department has also recently appointed a special envoy—Mark Lambert, a career diplomat—to counter Chinese influence in international organizations.
Doocey was serving in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel in the summer of 2018 when the office issued a questionnaire to American nationals seeking U.S. support when applying for job postings at the U.N. The questionnaire appeared crafted to detect a candidate’s political leanings.
The form inquires whether the candidate has ever spoken publicly about political issues, addressed Congress, supported a political candidate, or appeared on major cable news networks like Fox and CNN. It also requests disclosure of social media accounts.
“Have you ever maintained a blog? Written an opinion piece that appeared in a traditional newspaper like the Wall Street Journal or New York Times? Written for an online publication like Breitbart, Newsmax, or Mother Jones?” asks the questionnaire, a copy of which was obtained by Foreign Policy. “Have you given speeches on a controversial issue?”
But Doocey himself has faced questions of loyalty from the White House.
Trump sent a memo to Doocey last year accusing him and another official of obstructionism amid a push to root out officials from the government deemed insufficiently loyal, according to a report from Axios last month. The memo reportedly listed State Department officials who should be fired, including Undersecretary for Management Bill Todd, Sullivan, and Hale, whose positions require presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. Hale testified in the impeachment hearing, and Sullivan is now ambassador to Russia.
Axios reported that the memo apparently falsely accused Doocey of “sneakily” swapping Mira Ricardel’s name for Sean Cairncross as Trump’s nominee to lead the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a small U.S. foreign investment assistance agency. Cairncross leads the agency now, and Ricardel was ousted as deputy national security advisor in November 2018, after disagreements with the first lady’s office. One senior official who spoke to Foreign Policy dismissed the charge against Doocey as wholly unfounded.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Doocey’s fellow newcomer to the bureau, Pryor, in her time at State explored the role that women might play in fighting Islamic extremism in the Middle East at U.N. meetings. She also served as the most senior member of the U.S. delegation at certain key U.N. meetings, leading U.S. efforts to strike any language from international agreements that dealt with sexual and reproductive health and rights, viewing it as a stealth effort to promote abortion around the world.
“She’s got this religious, conservative evangelical bent that manifested itself in her anti-terrorism advocacy,” said one former U.S. colleague. But the initiative, this person said, “never seemed to go anywhere.”
One foreign diplomat said that Pryor has “always been quite pleasant” to work with but that she has not demonstrated “a lot of grasp of the details.”
“At least she is nice,” the diplomat said. “You can kind of work with her.”
But the diplomat said her No. 1 priority, like that of the administration at large, is to roll back commitments to promote sexual and reproductive health and rights in international agreements. In advance of negotiations on a declaration to be adopted on the 25th anniversary of the Beijing summit on women’s rights, the United States has repeatedly strived to block proposals by European countries to include a phrase underscoring the importance of such rights.
Senior administration officials say the language tacitly promotes abortion. But outside women’s advocacy organizations dispute this view and say the international community can’t address issues of sexual violence or women’s health without prioritizing sexual and reproductive health issues.
The disagreements have led to heated disputes between the United States and its European allies, which back resolutions on sexual and reproductive health at the United Nations.
“I am sure you are all familiar with the constant drumbeat in the halls of the United Nations and the WHO [World Health Organization] to normalize the terms ‘sexual and reproductive health’ and ‘reproductive rights,’” Alex Azar, the U.S. secretary of health and human services, told a gathering of foreign health leaders in Washington in January. “What reproductive rights are they talking about? In this context, it is increasingly becoming clear that some U.N. agencies and countries want this to mean unfettered access to abortion.”
In recent weeks, the Trump administration brought together a coalition of conservative governments—including those of Brazil, Hungary, and Poland—in New York to highlight the importance of promoting family values in U.N. agreements. During the session, Hungary’s and Poland’s representatives sought to strike a more conciliatory tone with its more liberal counterparts, highlighting the importance of promoting paid family leave policies and better work life balance.
But the U.S. delegate, Valerie Huber, the global women’s health envoy from the Department of Health and Human Services, showed little interest in subtlety, according to one diplomat in attendance. The diplomat recalled that Huber called the United States a “pro-life country” and said Trump was the “best president ever to promote a family.”
The diplomat said her speech was met with a cool reception: “It was tone deaf. I thought we were supposed to be having a conversation.”
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch