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It looks like Rex Tillerson’s job at the State Department, should he be confirmed, may have just become a bit more difficult. The Washington Post (WaPo) is reporting that The entire senior level of management officials resigned Wednesday, part of an ongoing mass exodus of senior foreign service officers who don’t want to stick around for the Trump era.
Just a few days ago, a separate WaPo article spoke about President Donald Trump’s search for a number 2 man to lead the State department, and the belief that the job would be given to the State Department’s long-serving undersecretary for management, Patrick Kennedy. For a good while, it looked as if Kennedy was angling to keep that job under Tillerson, as WaPo reported that he had been active in the transition taking place between the incoming and outgoing administrations.
Thus it was that much more shocking when reports started coming out stating that White House officials had confirmed Kennedy’s and three of his top officials’ resignation. Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond and Ambassador Gentry O. Smith, director of the Office of Foreign Missions, followed him out the door. It appears as though Kennedy will step down from foreign service at the end of the month, while the others may be reassigned elsewhere, reports WaPo.
In addition, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Gregory Starr retired Jan. 20, and the director of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, Lydia Muniz, departed the same day.
All of the management staff exits have led to what is being called a “complete housecleaning of all the senior officials,” by WaPo.
“It’s the single biggest simultaneous departure of institutional memory that anyone can remember, and that’s incredibly difficult to replicate,” said David Wade, who served as State Department chief of staff under Secretary of State John Kerry. “Department expertise in security, management, administrative and consular positions in particular are very difficult to replicate and particularly difficult to find in the private sector.”
While other smaller positions have also been reported to be exiting the State Department as well, Wade explained that the emptying of leadership in the management bureaus is more disruptive because those offices need to be led by people who know the department and have experience running its complicated bureaucracies. There’s no easy way to replace that via the private sector, he said.
“Diplomatic security, consular affairs, there’s just not a corollary that exists outside the department, and you can least afford a learning curve in these areas where issues can quickly become matters of life and death,” he said. “The muscle memory is critical. These retirements are a big loss. They leave a void. These are very difficult people to replace.”
There is, however, an ongoing internal argument over whether or not the Trump administration may have strong-armed Kennedy and his staff out, or if they left on their own. This is especially given that Kennedy had, according to WaPo, been taking on more responsibility inside the department and working closely with the transition. The report mentions that his departure even shocked State officials who were working with him.
One senior State Department official did respond to WaPo‘s request for comment on the situation, saying that all the officials had previously submitted their letters of resignation, as was required for all positions that are appointed by the president and that require confirmation by the Senate, known as PAS positions.
“No officer accepts a PAS position with the expectation that it is unlimited. And all officers understand that the President may choose to replace them at any time,” this official said. “These officers have served admirably and well. Their departure offers a moment to consider their accomplishments and thank them for their service. These are the patterns and rhythms of the career service.”
Whatever the truth may be coming out of the State Department, one thing is clear: should Tillerson be confirmed to the position, as part of an administration that has many, inside and outside of Washington, nervous, he will need capable people to navigate the bureaucracy and to reassure those under him that he can lead.