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Trump’s State Department Doesn’t Appear to Share His Optimism on Reopening

Despite Pompeo’s push for more active diplomacy, his senior deputies want to go slow.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brief reporters at the White House.
U.S. President Donald Trump (center) and Vice President Mike Pence listen as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press briefing on the coronavirus at the White House on April 8. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images
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EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.

As President Donald Trump pushes to reopen U.S. businesses and reverse a lingering pandemic lockdown, his own State Department is taking a much more cautious approach, even as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo moves to restart international trips. 

The State Department this month rolled out a phased plan to bring diplomats back to work, dubbed “Diplomacy Strong,” which has built-in plans for potential second waves of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States and posts around the world, according to interviews with officials and documents obtained by Foreign Policy

In recent weeks, senior U.S. officials have briefed various State Department bureaus on the plan to incrementally bring officials back to work while cautioning that the process could drag on for months—even in the United States—and even reverse if infections spike again. 

The plan highlights how federal agencies are much less sanguine about bringing employees back to work than the president himself, who has pushed states and businesses to reopen to quickly reverse a sharp recession fueled by the coronavirus lockdown. “I want our country open,” Trump said at a news conference on Monday afternoon. “I want it open safely, but I want it open.”

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic.]

A State Department spokeswoman, however, insisted there was no daylight between the White House and State Department. Diplomacy Strong aligns with [Centers for Disease Control] and White House guidelines, allows for flexibility to adjust among the phases,  accounts for different environments, and easily incorporates updated information as it becomes available,” the spokeswoman said. 

Some State employees feel that while Pompeo has been leading the administration’s diplomatic offensive on China, he has been virtually silent on internal communications to lead the diplomatic corps through the crisis. Most internal management for the crisis has come from Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun and Undersecretary of State for Management Brian Bulatao, officials say.

Some current and former officials also knocked Pompeo for pushing international travel before the heightened pandemic risk had subsided. Pompeo on Tuesday departed for a short trip to Israel to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political rival Benny Gantz, the speaker of the Knesset, as Israel eyes plans to potentially annex parts of the West Bank. 

Pompeo is personally pushing people to get back to work. The secretary’s trip to Israel reflects the brazen disregard for the health of his team,” said Brett Bruen, the head of the consulting firm Global Situation Room and a former career U.S. diplomat. “There’s just no need to get on a plane at this point. It’s a case of swagger over safety.”

The pandemic has forced the State Department’s notoriously sclerotic bureaucracy to swiftly adapt to a new era of lockdowns. After a very rocky start, the department had to scramble to help repatriate tens of thousands of Americans abroad, and leaders had to rapidly shift diplomats to work from home—a situation that is anathema to the tradecraft of diplomacy, which is reliant on face-to-face meetings and secret government communication channels that can’t be accessed from insecure houses and apartments. 

Six State Department officials who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity said they were wary of returning to the office prematurely but praised the department for issuing a plan that allows flexibility for those based in Washington and abroad. 

“There’s an awareness that the White House would like to move toward reopening, but I think, with the guidance that’s been issued, the plan is pretty clear that it has to be based on local conditions,” said one senior U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “And local conditions [in Washington] would not warrant by any means bringing more people back in now.”

The State Department has also taken actions to correct controversial missteps in the early phase of the crisis. The department now has a small fleet of around half a dozen planes prepositioned around the world on standby in case U.S. officials posted abroad need medical evacuations, according to one senior diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. Following backlash from lawmakers and former diplomats, the department has also agreed to virtually bring onboard a new class of diplomats for training later this month, according to two officials. The new class of foreign service officers were initially told in late March that their onboarding was indefinitely postponed without access to benefits or pay, until backlash from lawmakers and former diplomats prompted the State Department to change course. 

Others say diplomacy—including Pompeo’s routine trips abroad—needs to get back on track despite the risk from the virus. The State Department insists the secretary’s trip to Israel, which came at the request of the Israeli government, was planned with all the proper precautions in place. “This is a tightly controlled movement in a highly screened environment that we feel is very, very safe,” William Walters, a top medical official at the State Department, told reporters in a briefing last week. 

The department’s overall plan to return diplomats to the field, obtained by Foreign Policy, makes clear that there’s no across-the-board timeline for reopening U.S. embassies and consulates abroad and that going back to a normal work routine depends on the individual country. Axios and other media outlets first reported on the plan. It divides recovery into four incremental phases—Phase 0, 1, 2, and 3—of bringing officials back to work, based on two-week blocks of monitoring downward trends in infection rates. If infection rates spike, the State Department will have its employees return to a previous phase, where fewer workers will come into the office and those who come in will adhere to stricter social distancing and hygiene measures. 

This guidance provides senior leaders at domestic offices and overseas posts the framework they need to prioritize the health and safety of our workforce, mitigate risks, and continue to achieve our diplomatic mission, the State Department spokeswoman said.

Read the full plan here:

“We could sit in Phase 2 for quite a while. We could sit in Phase 1 for quite a while. If the situation gets worse, if we have any kind of second bounce or peak on this, we could go from Phase 2 to Phase 1, we could go from Phase 1 to Phase 0,” one State Department official said in a conference call briefing to others this month, according to an account of the briefing from employees on the call provided to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity. “This is not a linear progression at all.”

The official also said the State Department was waiting to see how other federal agencies would handle their reopening first. “We are not looking to be the absolute first movers in coming back to work. We are looking to learn the lessons from other departments, other agencies, and move back when it’s more safe to do so,” the official said, according to the account. 

Update, May 13, 2020: This article was updated with comments from a State Department spokeswoman.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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