Max Bergmann, who has worked at the State Department for six years, and most notably was the speechwriter to former Secretary of State John Kerry, as well as other important roles, went back to his old offices to attend the departure of a former colleague and midlevel official – what he found was surprising to say the least.
He was so disgusted about what he was told and found happening during his visit that he wrote an op-ed in Politico talking about the total ‘chaos’ happening behind the scenes at one of America’s most important departments.
“As I made the rounds and spoke with usually buttoned-up career officials, some who I knew well, some who I didn’t, from a cross section of offices covering various regions and functions, no one held back. To a person, I heard that the State Department was in “chaos,” “a disaster,” “terrible,” the leadership “totally incompetent.” This reflected what I had been hearing the past few months from friends still inside the department, but hearing it in rapid fire made my stomach churn. As I walked through the halls once stalked by diplomatic giants like Dean Acheson and James Baker, the deconstruction was literally visible. Furniture from now-closed offices crowded the hallways. Dropping in on one of my old offices, I expected to see a former colleague—a career senior foreign service officer—but was stunned to find out she had been abruptly forced into retirement and had departed the previous week. This office, once bustling, had just one person present, keeping on the lights.”
He noted that when Secretary of State Tillerson was announced to head the department, there was initially a bit of excitement, with the thinking that a corporate executive would be able to run it effectively. That hasn’t happened. Instead of ‘reorganizing, he’s downsizing,’ Bergmann wrote.
A lot of this staffing discord could be due to the current fight happening right now between Tillerson and the White House. Recently, it was reported that Tillerson completely lost his cool with President Trump’s closest aides during a meeting that took place in chief of staff Reince Priebus’s office.
Tillerson was apparently mad at the fact that Trump promised him full autonomy in making personnel decisions when he was first brought on, but to date, the White House has been rejecting his staff proposals. Tillerson says they don’t like the fact that they’re either 1) Democrats or 2) Republicans who have been critical of Trump in the past, even though they are the most qualified according to him.
Gathered at the meeting (in addition to Priebus) was Johnny DeStefano, the head of the presidential personnel office, and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, as well as Margaret Peterlin, Tillerson’s chief of staff.
The encounter was described by four people to be so explosive that Kushner confronted Peterlin afterward to tell her how unprofessional she thought Tillerson’s outburst was – and that something needed to be done about it.
Tillerson also accused the White House of leaking damaging information about him to the news media and warned DeStefano that they were to “haver no role in staffing” while “expressing frustration that anybody would know better” than him on who should be able to work in his department.
Whether the White House or Tillerson is entirely to blame, one thing is apparent: Trump’s administration is currently struggling to fill key positions throughout his government, having only announced only 151 nominations while more than 500 critical jobs across the executive branch remain. The State Department is no exception.
Tillerson does have to shoulder some of the criticism, though. According to Bergmann, people just don’t want to work in that kind of environment anymore, it’s that bad. And, Tillerson’s leadership hasn’t been that great.
“Tillerson has canceled the incoming class of foreign service officers. This as if the Navy told all of its incoming Naval Academy officers they weren’t needed. Senior officers have been unceremoniously pushed out. Many saw the writing on the wall and just retired, and many others are now awaiting buyout offers. He has dismissed State’s equivalent of an officer reserve—retired FSOs, who are often called upon to fill State’s many short-term staffing gaps, have been sent home despite no one to replace them. Office managers are now told three people must depart before they can make one hire. And now Bloomberg reports that Tillerson is blocking all lateral transfers within the department, preventing staffers from moving to another office even if it has an opening. Managers can’t fill openings; employees feel trapped.”
This all means one thing: American diplomacy is taking a major hit in the Trump Administration.