Trump’s war on the State Department

President Trump is seeking to radically remodel the State Department in an unprecedented way, according to former officials from administrations of both political parties. 

The administration’s efforts, which include a proposed budget cut of nearly 30 percent, a hiring freeze and a potential reshuffling of offices within the State Department, have left scores of positions unfilled, demoralizing the staff that remain.

Past GOP presidents have also sought to cut the State Department down to size, and even current employees have acknowledged bureaucratic problems at Foggy Bottom.

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But some former officials describe Trump's efforts as something unseen before — a war of sorts on the State Department that if carried out would leave it hobbling. 

“My suspicion is that within the White House, particularly amongst the nationalist faction … that this seems to actually be a concerted effort to diminish the role of the State Department in U.S. foreign policy and hamper its abilities to pursue policies that would be considered overly globalist,” said Stewart Patrick, who served on the policy planning staff at the State Department in the George W. Bush administration.

“They also don’t see much use, frankly, in diplomacy,” said Patrick, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The White House, which has sought to promote an “America First” policy at home and abroad, isn’t worried about been perceived as taking unprecedented steps at the State Department. 

“The president was elected to shake up Washington, not continue business as usual,” a White House official said. “He’s promised to spend more at home and less abroad, and his budget reflects that.”

At the same time, they reject the idea that diplomacy has been sidelined.

“The president has used diplomacy with China to bring unprecedented pressure on North Korea and its nuclear program. The president has used diplomacy to get NATO members to contribute more to defense,” the official said. “The idea that diplomacy has taken a backseat just does not square with reality.”

Trump is now on a trip to Paris, where he will attend the Bastille Day parade. He held a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday.

The Trump administration’s efforts to remake the State Department include a March 13 executive order that set forth a branch-wide reorganization review that could result in a reshuffling or elimination of agencies and offices.

The administration is mulling a proposal that would relocate the State Department’s bureaus of Consular Affairs and Population, Refugees, and Migration to the Department of Homeland Security, according to CNN.

There is also the possibility of a merger between the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), an independent agency that receives guidance from the secretary of State.

Trump’s budget proposes steep cuts to foreign aid, which has sparked concerns among lawmakers. 

“My one sense is that the knives are out for USAID in the White House,” said Gordon Adams, a senior White House official for national security and foreign policy budgets during the Clinton administration.

Patrick says that the White House view is that a “lot of development and foreign assistance is basically pouring money down a rat hole.”

Former State Department officials say they are not opposed to reviewing agency operations to reduce spending, but they say severe cuts could reverse gains in global health and education that have been made in recent years.

“We have never before seen a third of their budget potentially being eliminated,” said Anita McBride, who worked in the Reagan White House and both Bush administrations. “If we pull back too much and it affects the good work on the ground, those countries will see it as a reason to not invest as much as they should.”

The full 30 percent cut is unlikely to pass Congress given vocal objections from some Republicans, though Adams noted that even a 10 to 15 percent cut would be steep.

The Trump administration’s handling of the State Department has left employees worried about the future of the agency, according to a survey prepared for Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonOvernight Regulation: Trump adviser affirms plans to leave climate deal | FDA to study new cigarette warning labels | DOJ investigating Equifax stock sales Top US security official targeted in Cuba Embassy covert attacks: report Trump adviser tells foreign officials no change on Paris climate deal MORE and obtained by The Wall Street Journal.

State Department and USAID employees also expressed frustration with how agencies function, which Tillerson plans to address in the redesign review. The survey has been circulated internally but withheld from the public.

For months, there have been signs of low morale among rank-and-file State Department employees. The Atlantic reported in March that normal day-to-day operations at the department had stopped, leaving employees with little to do and anxious about the future.

A hiring freeze, as well as nascent tensions between Tillerson and the White House, have left scores of unfilled positions at the department nearly six months since Trump took office — some at the very top of the organization.

A June 26 memo from Tillerson reported by Bloomberg directed bureaus to temporarily stop reassignments and blocked them from hiring new personnel, pending the reorganization review.

However, Tillerson partially broke the hiring freeze in late June to allow for the hiring of foreign service officers, bending to pressure from lawmakers.

“People are both flabbergasted and really distraught at what they think is a department being undermined from the inside,” said Rob Berschinski, who served as deputy assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor in the Obama administration.

“A department focused on foreign policy is increasingly a department focused on whether their function is appreciated and will continue to exist.”

The developments have put Tillerson in a tight spot, facing pressure from Capitol Hill over the budget and slow political hires and butting heads with the White House over hiring for senior positions at the department. He has notably shied away from the media, and reports suggest a distance between him and rank-and-file department employees.

The chief diplomat has also been absent for key meetings, including one on the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan back in May. He is seen as having lost influence within the administration to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and the president’s “generals”— Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

“It is top-to-bottom a dismissing of the State Department,” Adams said. “This is about the most systematic dismantling of a federal department that I’ve witnessed.”

Tillerson has signaled his desire to listen to those under him when redesigning the department. He is due to report to the Office of Management and Budget on the effort by mid-September.

And there are some who think Tillerson deserves more credit for his work at the State Department.

“Secretary Tillerson, he’s not your typical Washington person,” said Kim Holmes, who served as assistant secretary of State for international organization affairs in the George W. Bush administration.

“Secretary Tillerson’s style is not the same as Colin Powell,” added Holmes, who is now acting senior vice president for research at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation. “Colin Powell walked around and put his head in all of the offices and everybody loved him for it.”

But in the short term, the current state of affairs has exacerbated concerns about the future of the department and its operations.   

“I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” said Berschinski, the former Obama official, said. “I think we are going to continue to see an exodus of top talent at the department.”