Trump USAID Appointee Takes Sudden Absence After Controversial Tenure

Employees at the agency had criticized Pete Marocco for mismanagement.

Palestinian protesters spray paint to cover the logo of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)
Palestinian protesters spray paint to cover the logo of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), while protesting against U.S. President Donald Trump's Middle East peace plan, in the city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank on Feb. 4. Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty Images

Pete Marocco, a controversial Trump political appointee at the U.S. Agency for International Development, informed the group’s senior management on Thursday that he intends to take leave through November, writing in an email that he wanted to spend more time with his family.

Marocco did not say whether he would resign from his post as the assistant to the USAID administrator. But the move follows a rocky career for the loyalist to President Donald Trump in the federal government, who was forced out of senior jobs in the Department of Defense and the State Department.

Marocco is one of several recent controversial appointments at USAID. He has been accused of mismanagement and creating hostile work environments during his prior posts across the administration. Politico first reported that Marocco had taken leave. 

USAID officials had written a formal memo to the agency’s leadership chronicling their issues with Marocco’s management, particularly his running of the agency’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), which was established to make money available on short notice to help governments from Sudan to Ukraine succeed during critical transition periods.

Some had also sought advice from some of their colleagues at the State Department and Pentagon on how to get Marocco removed from his post, officials familiar with the matter said. 

“OTI’s core capacity to operate effectively is being rapidly degraded, as the Office becomes less field-driven, less flexible, less rapid, less trusted, and less efficient, and staff morale plummets,” according to the memo, first obtained and reported by Politico. In a briefing on Capitol Hill related to the cuts this week, USAID staffers were told by congressional aides that Congress was not happy about Marocco’s stewardship of the brand-new bureau after the 13-page complaint leaked in the media. 

Since joining the U.S. aid agency in July, Marocco has sought to overhaul the mandate of the agency’s Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization and cut funding for programs at the bureau. His efforts, including plans to withhold funding for programs on countering Russian influence in Ukraine and peace initiatives in Colombia, have put him at odds with USAID colleagues and officials in other agencies. USAID officials accused Marocco of derailing routine work for the bureau by insisting he approve any new hires and sign off on thousands of USAID contracts that were already approved by USAID officials in the field.

But Congress chafed at plans to cut those programs, funded under the Global Fragility Act championed by powerful House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel. Jenny McGee, a retired Air Force officer and National Security Council veteran during the George W. Bush administration, was tapped in August as USAID’s associate administrator for relief, response, and resilience (sometimes referred to as R3) and assigned to spearhead that portfolio with Rob Jenkins, a highly regarded agency official whom Marocco has sought to sideline at multiple posts in the Trump administration. Jenkins is expected to run Marocco’s bureau in his absence. McGee also attended a high-level task force event at the U.S. Institute of Peace this week that would have previously been attended by Marocco. 

USAID did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In the past the agency has defended Marocco’s tenure at USAID, touting his “decade of experience serving in conflict zones” and “his leadership capabilities, as well as his experience in leading large scale rescue and resettlement operations for persecuted religious minorities.”

Marocco’s stewardship of the bureau has infuriated both senior and rank and file employees at the aid agency, leaving him with few powerful allies. 

In her introductory town hall meeting with staff, McGee was confronted with a laundry list of concerns and complaints about the direction of the bureau under Marocco’s leadership. Staffers wanted to know what she intended to do to counter the department’s negative news coverage and to address the “significant disruption” to the department’s support for political transitions, caused by the new leadership’s micromanagement of field operations.

“Ma’am, respectfully, there are serious morale and trust issues in components of R3 right now,” wrote one USAID staffer, referring to the three branches of the Conflict Prevention and Stabilization bureau, which is under Marocco’s direction. “What will you do to address the trust deficit that appeared endemic in the R3 family right now, as evidenced by the fact that all questions so far have been anonymous?”

“Ma’am, CPS has seen several iterations of its mission statement in the first few months, and it is still unclear for many of us what the mission is,” said another staffer. “What do you see as the mission for this nascent bureau?”

The complaints were reminiscent of those raised at his previous posts at the State and Defense Departments, his former colleagues said. And yet, Marocco was promoted twice while serving in the Trump administration.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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