Yet diplomats worry that over time Pompeo and the president will fall out of sync, even if they agree on the broad strokes of a policy.
When Mike Pompeo took over as secretary of state in April, U.S. diplomats viewed him as a liberator rescuing them from the irrelevance they felt under his predecessor, Rex Tillerson.
Nearly two months later, some are having second thoughts.
Many State employees feel hoodwinked by Pompeo’s claim that he lifted a departmental hiring freeze. Staffers are alarmed about reports that a political appointee is vetting career staffers for loyalty to President Donald Trump. And many fear that Pompeo won’t be able to fill vacant leadership slots quickly enough, or with the right people.
Pompeo’s foot soldiers haven’t given up on him – not yet. Current and former State Department officials say he’s an improvement over Tillerson. They admit, however, that that’s a low bar.
“People are still hopeful about Pompeo. But they’re getting a dose of reality,” said Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.
The former CIA director-turned-chief U.S. diplomat has sounded reassuring notes since taking the reins at State. He’s told his beleaguered workforce that he wants to help them get their “swagger” back – even hashtagging that word on Twitter. Unlike the introverted Tillerson, Pompeo seems to genuinely enjoy mingling with staffers.
Last week, Pompeo emailed department employees to praise their work on Trump’s recent summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, an event he wrote left him "optimistic that one of the last traces of the Cold War may be on the cusp of change forever."
"You make the United States proud," he wrote to the staff. "Keep crushing it."
But the feeling isn’t entirely mutual.
Take the case of the hiring freeze. In one of his first moves as secretary, Pompeo vowed to lift the hiring freeze imposed by Tillerson, who many employees saw as strangely obsessed with cutting the department’s budget and size. Pompeo’s announcement thrilled State staffers stressed out by large workloads and limited promotion opportunities. His email announcing the move – in which he called State’s workforce “our most valuable asset” – was a crowning touch.
The euphoria was premature.
In the weeks since, staffers have been told that many of the jobs cut under Tillerson will not be filled – at least not anytime soon. When POLITICO asked if Pompeo’s hiring plans included achieving pre-Tillerson jobs numbers, a State spokesman said, “Not at this time.” Pompeo has to balance congressional directives, Trump’s desire to shrink the federal workforce and some Tillerson-era hiring decisions. But some staffers feel as if he misled them with his overly optimistic email; one called his announcement “a farce."
Career officials are also increasingly worried about whether Pompeo will protect people already on the job.
Earlier this month, Foreign Policy reported that State Department diplomats are accusing Mari Stull, a political appointee in State’s bureau of International Organizations – which deals with entities such as the United Nations – of vetting career employees’ social media pages and past work to see if they are sufficiently loyal to Trump. Citing unnamed sources, Foreign Policy reported that Stull is “actively making lists and gathering intel” and that her actions are helping spur three senior officials in the bureau to leave.
Stull’s alleged actions have infuriated career staffers who take pride in their status as non-partisan employees sworn to implement the policies of whichever party controls the White House.
A former food-and-beverage lobbyist and wine blogger who went by the name “Vino Vixen,” Stull joined the department earlier this year – before Pompeo’s arrival. But although the State Department insists that under Pompeo "political retribution will not be tolerated," Stull remains in her role as an adviser and it’s not clear if she’s been reprimanded in any way.
When POLITICO asked about Stull this week, a State spokesman stressed that Pompeo values career staffers. “We take these allegations seriously and are looking into the matter,” the spokesman said. Stull could not be reached for comment.
U.S. diplomats have been pleasantly surprised that Pompeo asked Stephen Mull, a top-ranking Foreign Service officer, to serve as the acting undersecretary for political affairs. Some had feared that Mull would be blackballed because, under then-President Barack Obama, he was tasked with implementing the Iran nuclear deal. Trump quit the deal last month.
At the same time, many officials are irked by reports that Pompeo may pull the Tillerson-era nomination of another Foreign Service officer, Susan Thornton, for the role of assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) opposes Thornton, alleging she’s soft on China. That gives Pompeo an excuse to cancel her nomination, but it would upset staffers eager to see career diplomats advance.
“This would be an ideal case for the secretary to take a stand,” said Thomas Countryman, a former career diplomat who served as an assistant secretary of state under Obama.
Staffers give Pompeo credit for wanting to fill the many vacant positions at the department. The secretary even brought on a former West Point classmate, New York state-raised businessman Ulrich Brechbuhl, as a top adviser whose duties include recruiting. What’s not entirely clear is whether Pompeo will enjoy more clout than Tillerson, who often saw his hiring choices vetoed by the Trump White House.
Pompeo is already facing pressure over one expected nomination – that of Ronald Mortensen to serve as the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration. Mortensen has already drawn opposition from several senators, including at least two Republicans. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chris Coons (D-Md.) sent Pompeo a letter blasting Mortensen, a conservative activist, as “a virulent opponent of immigration.”
Trump announced his intent to nominate Mortensen on May 25. Given the timeframes involved in sifting through candidates and vetting them, it’s likely that Mortensen’s selection was in the works before Pompeo shifted over to Foggy Bottom. But the secretary’s apparent willingness to accept the nomination has career staffers worried that he won’t defend the department’s interests.
That view wasn’t helped last month when, in hearings on Capitol Hill, Pompeo did not speak out against Trump’s repeated attempts to cut State’s budget by roughly 30 percent. “I’ll make sure we have every single dollar we need and not one dollar more,” was the furthest Pompeo was willing to go.
Pompeo has been upset by leaks to media outlets. At one point, after a story surprised him, he complained to aides, “This never happened at the CIA!” according to a person familiar with the issue.
The secretary’s unhappiness has spurred the department’s chief spokesperson, Heather Nauert, to push colleagues to avoid unauthorized press contacts. Now, any press query that deals with hot-button issues such as Russia, North Korea, or Iran must be coordinated with Nauert, even if there already are pre-approved talking points that can be used.
Nauert’s push – first reported by Axios – has frustrated public affairs officers in the department’s bureaus. Some are afraid to even respond to reporters’ phone calls, the person familiar with the issue said. Many press officers find their requests for clearing statements dragging out as they await Nauert’s approval.
“The unauthorized release of information whether it’s classified or not is always a concern of the State Department,” Nauert said in a statement. “As the person responsible for managing the department’s communications, it’s within the scope of my duties to have conversations with colleagues about our communications process.”
Decision-making is less centralized under Pompeo than Tillerson, staffers say with relief. The previous secretary, whom Trump fired in March, and a few top aides tried to weigh in on everything. That created massive backlogs of requests for action in the State Department’s 7th floor executive suites.
Under Pompeo, “things don’t just die on the 7th floor so it feels a bit more like getting business done,” one staffer said.
As assistant secretaries have slowly come on board, they have asserted their authority on various fronts. That appears to have eroded some of the power of the secretary’s Policy Planning Staff, current and former staffers say. Under Tillerson, that unit grew immensely influential, weighing in on day-to-day decision-making to an unusual degree. (Traditionally, it was an in-house think tank tackling medium and long-term strategy.)
"Pompeo at least has a more open process. You’re not hearing as much that everything goes through policy planning or the secretary won’t talk to anybody," said Ilan Goldenberg, a former State Department official who’s been keeping tabs on career staffers treatment under Trump. "It’s a low bar because of how terrible Tillerson was on all of these things."
To the surprise of many diplomats, however, Pompeo has kept on board Brian Hook, the director of the Policy Planning Staff. Hook was a top Tillerson aide who inspired tremendous resentment for largely shutting out the various State bureaus that historically had a major role in policy-making. He’s also alleged to have had in a role in the questionable sidelining of a career staffer with expertise on Iran – a case now being investigated by at least two federal watchdog offices.
Hook has cultivated good relationships in the White House, and his presence has offered some level of continuity for Pompeo. However, it’s not clear how long he’ll stick around, and his departure would be viewed as a positive by many at State.
Pompeo is more aligned with Trump on policy than Tillerson. He’s been a stalwart defender of Trump’s decision to quit the Iran nuclear deal and, aside from Trump, has led the U.S. side of the discussions with North Koreans over their nuclear program.
This has made the State Department feel more included in U.S. foreign policy-making than under Tillerson, who clashed with Trump on a range of issues.
Yet diplomats worry that over time Pompeo and the president will fall out of sync, even if they agree on the broad strokes of a policy. Since Trump’s June 12 summit with Kim, for instance, Trump has claimed there is no longer a North Korean nuclear threat to the United States, while Pompeo has been trying to arrange future talks about dealing with that still real threat.
There’s also some concern that Pompeo will spend so much time focusing on major challenges, like North Korea and Iran, that less urgent but still important topics will get short shrift. There’s concern, for example, that Pompeo isn’t paying enough attention to shoring up longstanding U.S. relationships with countries in Europe and Asia that Trump has undermined.
“Does he have time for other things? Does he have energy for other things?” one senior Foreign Service officer wondered. Still, like others, he praised even the surface-level moves by Pompeo as boosting morale: “He meets with people. He praises people in public. He’s trying hard – I give him credit for that.”
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