Report

Watchdog Reports Shed New Light on Trump-Era Mismanagement at State

Career diplomats are concerned that the State Department won’t institute changes to address bullying or mismanagement in the future.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , an intern at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump are seen in the White House.
Then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the White House Oval Office in Washington on June 20, 2019.

A series of recently released U.S. government watchdog reports have shed new light on allegations of mismanagement and wrongdoing by senior State Department officials in former President Donald Trump’s administration.

Three separate reports released in recent weeks detail accounts of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo violating federal law by using his office for political purposes, a Trump ambassador’s harassment and abuse of staff at the U.S. Embassy in Iceland, and mismanagement of resources in the State Department office that manages protocol issues.

The reports, though on separate matters, collectively provide an epitaph on an era of U.S. diplomacy marked by mismanagement, politicization, and historically low morale levels. They also raise new questions about what, if any, structural changes will be made to State Department oversight to prevent such misconduct in the future—including on matters of politicizing State Department resources, bullying staff, or the mismanagement of tens of thousands of dollars in gifts from foreign governments.

A series of recently released U.S. government watchdog reports have shed new light on allegations of mismanagement and wrongdoing by senior State Department officials in former President Donald Trump’s administration.

Three separate reports released in recent weeks detail accounts of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo violating federal law by using his office for political purposes, a Trump ambassador’s harassment and abuse of staff at the U.S. Embassy in Iceland, and mismanagement of resources in the State Department office that manages protocol issues.

The reports, though on separate matters, collectively provide an epitaph on an era of U.S. diplomacy marked by mismanagement, politicization, and historically low morale levels. They also raise new questions about what, if any, structural changes will be made to State Department oversight to prevent such misconduct in the future—including on matters of politicizing State Department resources, bullying staff, or the mismanagement of tens of thousands of dollars in gifts from foreign governments.

The three reports respectively concern allegations of Pompeo violating the Hatch Act, a law which restricts executive branch personnel from using their offices for political purposes; accounts of Trump’s ambassador to Iceland harassing and bullying embassy staff; and former Trump appointees in the Office of the Chief of Protocol mishandling and losing expensive gifts from foreign governments.

Interviews with five State Department officials with direct knowledge of some of the allegations of mismanagement issues said there is a sense that Trump officials accused of mismanagement won’t face any repercussions for their alleged misconduct—outside of being named in a smattering of after-the-fact watchdog reports. They criticized the department over inaction that led to a lack of basic accountability, even for former administration appointees who have since left office.

“You put people like this in positions of power who don’t respect the rules, and it all goes to shit, but clearly it’s OK because the department isn’t actually going to do anything about it,” said one State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Top Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, including Chairman Gregory Meeks, vowed to continue investigations into accounts of Trump-era mismanagement of the State Department at the beginning of the year but have not provided updates on the status of the investigations or given an indication into when the findings of those investigations would be released.

“The Chairman remains focused on repairing institutional damage and ensuring that the State Department remains the finest diplomatic agency in the world. This includes conducting oversight on, and legislating reforms to shore up, the department against future institutional attacks,” a spokesperson for Meeks said in response to questions on the matter.

When approached for comment, State Department spokesperson Ned Price declined to address matters under the previous administration. “Without commenting on the previous administration, I can tell you that Secretary [Antony] Blinken and his team are determined to see to it that department officials live up to the highest standards of conduct—whether ethical, managerial, or otherwise,” he said in an email response.

State Department spokespeople also did not address questions on whether efforts were being made to institute any managerial reforms within the State Department to prevent or address mismanagement in the future. (“We don’t comment on internal deliberations,” another State Department spokesperson said in response.)

It is unclear whether the State Department’s own internal watchdog, the Office of Inspector General (OIG), has any outstanding investigations into Trump-era allegations of mismanagement. OIG did not respond to a request for comment.

The most prominent of the three recent reports came from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), an independent federal government oversight agency. In that report, released this month, the OSC determined that Pompeo, as secretary of state, was among 13 senior Trump administration officials who violated the Hatch Act. Pompeo altered State Department policies to deliver a speech to the Republican National Convention (RNC) while on an official State Department visit to Jerusalem during the height of the 2020 presidential campaign. The report also addressed then-acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf overseeing a naturalization ceremony for citizens, content used during the RNC.

“It appears that both violations stemmed from requests that originated within the White House—or, in Secretary Pompeo’s case, possibly the Trump campaign or President Trump himself—and thus they reflect the Trump administration’s willingness to manipulate government business for partisan political ends,” the OSC report concluded.

Pompeo’s team at the time insisted he was delivering the speech on personal time, that White House, State Department, and RNC lawyers signed off on the matter, and that no State Department resources or equipment were used during the recording of the RNC video address. The OSC in its report said Pompeo’s decision to change State Department policy to lift restrictions on a secretary of state addressing political party conventions “was made against the advice provided to Secretary Pompeo by senior State Department lawyers.”

A spokesperson for Pompeo did not respond to a request for comment.

“We look forward to studying the OSC report in detail. OSC plays an important role in enforcing the Hatch Act and upholding high standards of integrity in government,” the State Department spokesperson said in response to the matter.

The second report, also released in recent weeks, came from a routine inspection by OIG of the U.S. Embassy in Iceland several months after Trump’s ambassador to Iceland, Jeffrey Ross Gunter, left his post when Trump lost the 2020 presidential election.

OIG reported that embassy staff were “still recovering from what they described as a threatening and intimidating environment created by the former ambassador,” including “multiple instances in which the former ambassador had threatened to sue Department officials and embassy staff who expressed disagreement with him, questioned his wishes, or were perceived to be ‘disloyal’ to him.”

Gunter is a dermatologist by trade and a deep-pocketed donor to Trump’s presidential campaign and the Republican Party with no prior diplomatic experience. Foreign Policy was unable to reach Gunter for comment on the matter. (Both Democratic and Republican administrations have long practiced nominating campaign donors without prior diplomatic experience to some ambassador posts abroad.)

He is not the first Trump ambassador or State Department appointee to court controversy or be faced with allegations of bullying, mismanaging, or harassing staff. Several diplomats said the OIG report on the embassy in Iceland reflected a broader problem of low morale at some U.S. embassies abroad run by Trump political donors-turned-ambassadors, leading to management issues and diplomatic frictions with the host countries that administration officials in Washington refused to address.

OIG “found the embassy was focused on rebuilding its relationship with the government of Iceland following a deterioration of that relationship under the former ambassador,” according to its report.

The third report, released this month, came from OIG after a number of expensive gifts went missing from the Office of the Chief of Protocol’s gift vault, which stores items that are from or will be given to foreign governments and dignitaries.

When the current officials of the Office of the Chief of Protocol replaced those appointed under the Trump administration on Jan. 20, they found the office’s gift vault “in a state of disarray.” After conducting an inventory of the vault, they made a referral to OIG.

These missing items included a bottle of Suntory Hibiki 30-year-old Japanese whisky valued at $5,800, a 22-karat gold commemorative coin valued at $560, and a number of gifts for the canceled G-7 Summit, including eight porcelain and copper vases valued collectively at $20,000 and several bags of monogramed commemorative items, such as pewter trays, marble trinket boxes, and leather portfolios, each valued at $680.

Though the missing vases were eventually found, OIG couldn’t locate the rest, attributing the loss to inaccurate recordkeeping, the lack of an inventory system, and no security cameras installed outside the vault—a request that was denied by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which said cameras in domestic facilities are used to protect classified information and systems, not property of substantial value.

Eric Rubin, the president of the American Foreign Service Association—the union that represents foreign service officers—did not comment directly on the slate of new watchdog reports but urged President Joe Biden to appoint a new State Department inspector general. Trump fired the previous inspector general, Steve Linick, in May 2020. Democratic lawmakers accused Trump of firing him to stymie oversight investigations into his administration. The deputy inspector general, Diana Shaw, is filling the role in an acting capacity.

It “is long past time for the president to nominate a candidate for State Department Inspector General, a critical position always but especially important right now,” Rubin said.

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

Zinya Salfiti is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @zinyasalfitii

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