Administration

Diplomats describe all-time low in morale at State under Trump

The Trump administration's perennial push for steep budget cuts, an exodus of senior staffers with decades of experience and constant allegations that agency employees represent a deep state has sent morale at the State Department to an unprecedented low.

On top of that, President Trump has fired a senior diplomat after a whisper campaign mounted by his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and abandoned steadfast allies in the Middle East to fend for themselves on the battlefield at the behest of Turkey's government.

Current and former diplomats say the weight of those events is taking a startling and measurable toll on American foreign relations, and on their ability to carry out policy set by the White House.

Those diplomats are increasingly concerned that the White House and senior State Department leadership do not have their backs, particularly after Trump's allies launched a whisper campaign that ended in the recall of Marie Yovanovitch as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

They also worry the president's decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria - abandoning longtime Kurdish allies who fought the war against the Islamic State - will cause other allies to think twice about partnering with the United States.

"We have squandered our global leadership, alienated our friends and emboldened our enemies," said one U.S. ambassador, who asked not to be named to provide a candid assessment. Morale in recent weeks, the ambassador said, "is at a new low, although I am not sure it could fall much lower than where it has been for the past three years."

The State Department and White House did not respond to requests for comment.

In interviews, half a dozen current and former senior foreign service officers said the last few weeks have undermined what little faith they had left in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one of Trump's closest advisers.

Pompeo arrived in Foggy Bottom after diplomats endured a trying year under his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, who tried to slash his own budget and let senior civil and foreign service members walk out the door - a period one former ambassador called the "red terror." Tillerson's proposed cuts were so dramatic that Congress refused to allow them.

Pompeo and his top deputy held several town hall meetings and distributed videos of his foreign trips, dubbed "Miles with Mike," in what Pompeo called an effort to rebuild the State Department's "swagger."

"When Pompeo came in, people were absolutely willing to give him the benefit of the doubt," said Laura Kennedy, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan and deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs in the George W. Bush administration.

"Our cousins up the river in Langley said, 'Hey, he's a good guy,' " the former ambassador said, referring to the year Pompeo spent running the CIA earlier on in Trump's presidency.

But Pompeo's alliance with Trump has come at the cost of his reputation with career officials. He was on the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, when Trump promised that Yovanovitch was "going to go through some things." On Wednesday, Pompeo's former top aide, Michael McKinley, told House lawmakers that Pompeo did nothing when McKinley urged him to offer Yovanovitch a show of public support.

Pompeo on Sunday defended Trump's recall of Yovanovitch on ABC's "This Week."

"Ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the president," Pompeo said. "And when a president loses confidence in an ambassador - it's not in that ambassador, the State Department or America's best interests for them to continue to stay in their post."

Current and former officials have panned Pompeo's handling of the situation.

"Trump is Trump. I guess people just sort of get used to it. But a big change is in the perception of Pompeo," Kennedy said. "Big fat F in terms of this one."

The irony of that phone call, in which Trump pushed for Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Bdien, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, was that rooting out corruption has been at the heart of American policy toward Ukraine for years. Yovanovitch had made fighting corruption a cornerstone of her years in Kiev.

"Here's a U.S. ambassador pushing a major U.S. policy platform, fighting corruption. We all knew Ukraine's only chance was to get a handle on the corruption going on in that country," said the former ambassador who spoke to The Hill. 

"We're no longer the shining city on the hill. We've been out there espousing American values, and then we come home to see America isn't espousing American values," the former ambassador said. "You cannot go overseas and lecture a partner nation on corruption when you've got this going on with the president's sons. When people are currying favor with the White House by first and foremost booking themselves into the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C."

Now, the foreign service officers who pride themselves on carrying out their orders from Washington, regardless of whether those orders are given by a Democratic or Republican administration, believe that they serve at the pleasure of a president who views them as members of a so-called deep state.

"We do not expect, nor should we, that we can become the target of blatant political warfare apparently supported by our own department leadership," the current ambassador said. "Who knew that an administration could sink so low as to sell out its own employees, carrying out stated U.S. policy, for personal political gain?"

It has not been lost on current and former State Department officials that the first people to willingly sit down with the House Intelligence Committee during its impeachment inquiry have been ambassadors, including Yovanovitch, McKinley, former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland, a Trump ally and U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Another career foreign policy expert, Fiona Hill, also testified.

"In the last couple of weeks, it's almost like a dam has burst," Kennedy said. "People are just much more willing to speak out."

Some said that while the decision to end Yovanovitch's tenure early would harm their ability to advance American interests through diplomacy, the decision to pull troops out of Syria and leave Kurdish allies to fight Turkey's much more advanced military would cause more lasting damage.

"As shocking as the Ukraine situation is, Syria kills us," the former ambassador said. "This is an ally in a war. All the other allies are watching how we treat our allies."

Inside the State Department, tensions between political appointees and career appointees are rising, sources said. Yovanovitch's firing has underscored the tensions - and the lack of trust - between career officials and political appointees. Several sources said they felt they were being scrutinized by political appointees who could report disloyalty to senior officials. 

"Every day, you're suspect. You never know when you're going to be put to the guillotine," one senior foreign service officer said.

The staff reductions that began under Tillerson have left gaping holes that remain today, more than a year after he left the administration. Eight of the 28 assistant secretary positions are being run by acting secretaries who have not been confirmed by the Senate. Two more are vacant. One of six undersecretaries is acting, and two more posts - overseeing public diplomacy and civilian security, democracy and human rights - are vacant.

"A number of bureaus are being run by career people, but they're not nominated [to fill those roles on a permanent basis]. It sends a very strong signal of, 'We don't trust you, we don't respect you, and we won't empower you,' " Kennedy said.

Amid the departure of experienced senior officers, and further White House efforts to slash the State Department's budget, there are worrying signs that the ranks of the foreign service are not being replenished. The number of applicants who have taken the Foreign Service exam, the first step toward becoming a career foreign service officer, has fallen every year since 2009, when former President Obama took office.

During Trump's presidency, the number of applicants has dropped even more precipitously. In 2018, just 9,168 people took the test, the first step on an exhaustive path to becoming a Foreign Service officer; that figure was less than half the number who applied in 2013, according to the American Foreign Service Association. 

"What makes this really different is it comes against 2 1/2 or almost three years of unrelenting criticism of the foreign service, the civil service, constant denigration of the work, being told you're part of the deep swamp," Kennedy said. "This is a building that's been very seriously battered."

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