Congress looks to strengthen hand in State Department following impeachment

Congress looks to strengthen hand in State Department following impeachment
© Greg Nash

High-profile dismissals of U.S. diplomats who participated in the House impeachment inquiry are raising questions about what oversight authority Congress has to push back on the president's actions.

American diplomats serve at the “pleasure of the president,” but charges of political retribution, campaigns of disinformation and threats to personal safety are prompting some members of Congress to call for more concrete protections for the officials.

“Choosing who serves on your team is one thing. Kicking someone out because they're not loyal to your personal political agenda is another,” Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezHillicon Valley: Facebook launches portal for coronavirus information | EU sees spike in Russian misinformation on outbreak | Senate Dem bill would encourage mail-in voting | Lawmakers question safety of Google virus website Democratic senators press Google over privacy of coronavirus screening site Menendez calls for 'Marie Yovanovitch bill' to protect foreign service employees MORE (D-N.J.), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said during a speech at the Brookings Institution last week.

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Menendez is working on a handful of proposals crafted in response to the impeachment trial against the president. The reforms target what he views as the most troubling instances of abuse of power in foreign policy and against the diplomatic corps.

Included among these reforms is a proposal to give Congress more power to investigate and question the removal of senior career foreign officers, setting up a greater tension between the legislative and executive branches.

“It is time the State Department tells us before it removes a career diplomat why it is doing so,” Menendez said.

Yet critics charge that this amounts to overreach and creates bureaucratic hurdles that could harm a diplomatic mission.

“The president needs to retain the freedom to remove ambassadors,” said Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and a three-time ambassador.

“You’ll have some that are removed for bad reasons, some for good reasons, but I don’t think you can solve the problem by having a legal lever on there. I think that’s the wrong solution to a real problem.”

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Menendez’s plan stems from the controversy surrounding the recall of former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie YovanovitchMarie YovanovitchAmerica's diplomats deserve our respect House panel says key witness isn't cooperating in probe into Yovanovitch surveillance President Trump's assault on checks and balances: Five acts in four weeks MORE and the organized campaign of disinformation pushing for her removal, the scope of which was only revealed throughout the impeachment inquiry.

Yovanovitch retired last month from the foreign service after serving as a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University upon her return from Kyiv.

Her departure from Ukraine was a central part of the House’s impeachment investigation into the president, of which he was acquitted in the Senate last month on articles of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

Yovanovitch was seen as the target of a campaign of disinformation organized by Trump associates, intent on smearing her character and securing her removal from Kyiv.

The Trump administration instructed the State Department to refuse to comply with congressional subpoenas surrounding the impeachment inquiry into Ukraine. And the department has largely avoided answering media questions surrounding Yovanovitch’s removal.

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoThe new war for soft power hegemony Organizing evacuations during a shutdown The Saudi-Russia oil fight is the last thing the economy needs in a pandemic MORE said the department was “obligated” to investigate the suggestion that Yovanovitch was being surveilled by private citizens who were associates of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump fires intelligence community inspector general who flagged Ukraine whistleblower complaint Trump organization has laid off over 1000 employees due to pandemic: report Trump invokes Defense Production Act to prevent export of surgical masks, gloves MORE. But no further details of the investigation have been provided.

“I appreciate what he’s trying to do because I see the threat to diplomats,” Neumann said. “But I have doubts that in the long run you want a permanent congressional hand in trying to manage personnel within the department.”

The Trump administration seemingly tested the limits of executive power throughout the impeachment inquiry, refusing to provide documents and witnesses for the House’s investigation and exploiting the limit of Congress’s ability to conduct oversight.

“It's really a question of, do they have the oversight authority? Yes. How well are they positioned to enforce it? Not really well,” said a former staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“As the Article I institution — the most important of our democratic institutions — Congress should have a much larger role in the creation of an oversight of U.S. foreign policy,” the staffer said.

“The precedent this episode sets is a troubling one. And there are precedents in other previous administrations, Democrat and Republican, that are also troubling.”

The State Department’s Office of Inspector General has investigated other instances of alleged political retaliation against career State Department employees in the Trump Era.

Most recently, an inspector general report published in November found that an employee was unjustly removed from her position by senior staff over baseless accusations that she was loyal to the Obama administration and her work was compromised due to her Iranian ethnicity.

The president has also exacted political retribution against specific individuals who testified in the impeachment inquiry, dismissing his politically appointed U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon SondlandGordon SondlandWhite House withdraws nomination for Pentagon budget chief who questioned Ukraine aid hold Juan Williams: Will the GOP ever curb Trump? House wants documents on McEntee's security clearances MORE, and firing National Security Council staff members Lt. Col. Alexander VindmanAlexander VindmanAmerica's diplomats deserve our respect White House withdraws nomination for Pentagon budget chief who questioned Ukraine aid hold Juan Williams: Will the GOP ever curb Trump? MORE and his brother Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman.

It's uncommon for Congress to publicly intervene in the dismissal of a foreign service officer, although behind the scenes pressure from lawmakers on administration officials and the president is not unprecedented.

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonRemembering Tom Coburn's quiet persistence Coronavirus pushes GOP's Biden-Burisma probe to back burner GOP seeks up to 0 billion to maximize financial help to airlines, other impacted industries MORE (R-Wis.) told reporters last week he advised Trump not to dismiss Sondland before his tenure ended.

Neumann, of the American Academy of Diplomacy, said State Department employees who testified in the impeachment inquiry have so far been shielded from such overt retaliation within the department and remain in their positions.

This includes David Hale, under secretary for political affairs; Phil Reeker, acting assistant secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs; George Kent, deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs; and David Holmes, senior staff member at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.

Career State Department foreign officer Bill Taylor, who testified twice in the impeachment investigation, came out of retirement to fulfill the charge d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine following Yovanovitch’s removal. He left the embassy in January but has yet to speak publicly surrounding his departure.

“There is a written pledge from the State Department that there will be no retaliation,” Neumann said. “It’s critical for the Department and it’s critical for Secretary Pompeo’s reputation that that pledge be honored. So far it is being honored.”