Has President Trumps efforts to “clean house” with top-level State Department officials left his administration ill-equipped in a time of need? Ten weeks after the president executed what some called a “purge,” notifying some of the highest ranking diplomats and telling them that their services were no longer needed, more than half of the positions listed in the agency’s leadership chart are still vacant or occupied by temporary acting officials. The vacancies seem to be raising questions about the White House’s ability or willingness to find competent personnel to fill these critical posts.
President Trump let go the undersecretary for arms control, the undersecretary for management, the assistant secretary for administration, the assistant secretary for consular affairs and the director of the office of foreign missions. He did not line up replacements for those positions. After this “purge,” other holdovers from previous administrations voluntarily quit their jobs. And now, two months later, the president has not found adequate replacements.
What worries Trump critics even further is that the president has made it clear that he sees the State Department as less valuable than past administrations. His budget suggests paring back the State Department budget by nearly one-third. Add to that the fact that one of the positions that the president has filled was an oil man who had no diplomatic experience, Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State.
Tillerson now leads a department with nearly three-dozen unoccupied senior positions that are designed to tackle specific issues and conflicts. There is no one right now focusing on these hotspots: State Department special envoy assigned to deal with the Six-Party Talks aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sudan and South Sudan, Myanmar, or Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is also no special envoy tasked with outreach to Muslim communities, combatting anti-Semitism or climate change.
A State Department spokesperson responded to these vacancies saying, “Acting career professionals are currently fulfilling positions as needed. We continue to have a deep bench of experienced career professionals serving in key positions that are highly capable and able to help the Secretary lead the Department.”
Jonathan Finer, former chief of staff and director of policy planning at the State Department, wrote, “Over time, vacancies will weaken U.S. diplomacy and force more and more business onto the desk of either the Secretary or the White House. One wonders if that may be the point.”
At this point, 57 countries or territories worldwide do not have a U.S. Ambassador because the president issued a December order for all politically appointed ambassadors to leave their posts by Inauguration Day.
What do you think about all of these vacancies in the State Department? Is Trump only focusing on loyalty and disregarding capability, as some critics are indicating?