Worries mount about vacancies in Trump’s State Department
Concerns are growing about a short-staffed State Department dealing with a host of international crises.
As President Trump begins his first foreign trip, seven of the nine senior State Department roles under Secretary Rex Tillerson remain vacant, including his top deputy. The only two officials in senior roles were appointed by former President Obama and have been kept on.
While the Trump administration has put the blame on Senate Democrats and the slow confirmation process, others say Trump has been slow to issue nominations.
There are roughly 200 positions at the State Department that require Senate confirmation, including key ambassadorships, the vast majority of which remain unfilled more than 100 days into the new administration.
“It’s really grim,” said Julie Smith, a former deputy national security adviser to Vice President Biden. “Our allies are feeling this. They lack interlocutors to deal with.”
The United States lacks ambassadors to NATO, the European Union, France, Germany, and Russia, Smith noted. For some of these diplomatic positions, Trump has yet to officially name nominees.
“All those people need to be in positions as soon as possible,” said Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Trump left Washington on Friday to embark on his first foreign trip, amid intense scrutiny over the ongoing FBI investigation into possible coordination between associates of his campaign and Moscow in Russia’s influence campaign against the presidential election.
Trump has also taken heat for exposing highly classified information to Russia — reportedly provided by Israel, a close U.S. ally — during an in-person meeting last week with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and Sergey Kislyak, Moscow’s ambassador to the United States.
Trump will journey across the Middle East and Western Europe over nine days, a trip that will feature stops in Saudi Arabia and Israel and appearances at meetings of the G7 and NATO.
While the trip could help the administration get its footing on the international stage, experts say the lack of progress on filling out State Department roles has already risked U.S. credibility with allies abroad.
“It contributes to a perception domestically and oversees that this isn’t a priority,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former adviser on Russia affairs to the State Department.
The absence of State Department officials has not been lost on Democrats.
“The State Department is the face of America’s values abroad, but the fact that the administration has not made nominations for dozens of its senior positions speaks volumes about their priorities,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“It is of course Secretary Tillerson’s prerogative to seek personnel and financial efficiencies, but there’s no excuse to not have a functional State Department four months into any Administration, particularly as crises continue to proliferate around the globe.”
“Secretary Tillerson will be coming before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a few weeks to defend the administration’s budget, and I will be asking tough questions about their hiring plans,” he added.
Democratic members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee sent a letter to Trump this month accusing him of “putting American diplomats at unnecessary risk” by failing to nominate an assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security.
While Republicans have been less willing to criticize Trump, some have acknowledged the slow pace of nominations for the State Department.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) observed in March that Tillerson had no “team” under him. “I think it’s incumbent for the president and the administration to get people nominated and confirmed,” McCain said during a speech in Brussels.
The lack of staff is one challenge facing Tillerson, who is said to be facing declining morale among civil servants and diplomats as the White House proposes steep cuts to State Department funding next fiscal year.
Charles Kupchan, a former senior director for European Affairs on the National Security Council under the Obama administration, said that Tillerson might not be as “plugged into” the building because of the dearth of political appointees beneath him.
“One hears that Secretary Tillerson is not plugged into the ‘building’ as fully as he might be, and that is understandable when there is a gap between the civil servants, the bureaucracy, and the top reaches of the State Department,” said Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“When you don’t have a full compliment of assistant secretaries and undersecretaries, it’s hard for information to flow upstairs to the secretary and it is difficult for information to flow downstairs back to the bureaucracy,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons that it’s very important to fill those positions.”
For its part, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is trying to move nominations “as quickly as possible,” Cardin said at the recent confirmation hearing of John Sullivan, a Republican lawyer who served in the George W. Bush administration and who Trump nominated to serve as deputy to Tillerson last month.
The panel advanced Sullivan’s nomination on Tuesday, teeing him up for a vote by the full Senate. On Monday, the Senate has scheduled a vote on the nomination of former Iowa Gov. Terry Brandstad to become ambassador to China.
During the recent confirmation hearing for former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown to become U.S. ambassador to New Zealand, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) noted the lack of ambassadors in the Asia-Pacific.
Tensions in the region have run high as a result of North Korea’s pursuit of its ballistic missile and nuclear programs as well as territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas.
“He will be, if confirmed — and I feel confident that he will — the only U.S. ambassador really in the region and certainly the only one in the New Zealand-Australia area, which is an incredibly important role for us,” Portman said.
“We now have a more dangerous and volatile world and those are two of our best allies and have literally been standing with us in conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq and beyond. I think it’s important that we have somebody there.”