Worries Grow As Top Posts Remain Vacant At State Department | KUOW News and Information

Worries Grow As Top Posts Remain Vacant At State Department

Mar 10, 2017
Originally published on March 15, 2017 6:21 am

The Trump administration has cleared out the top echelons at the State Department. The latest departures include the assistant secretaries of state for Asia and Africa, who left this week.

Foreign governments are noticing all the vacancies — and so is Congress.

"We've had a lot of hearings and we've not had any Trump presentations at any of those hearings," said Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "There's no one to speak on behalf of the Trump administration."

Cardin spoke to reporters ahead of a Thursday hearing on Yemen, a country where the Trump administration has already carried out a military operation that resulted in civilian casualties and the loss of an American service member.

"I mean, Yemen could explode," Cardin said. "It is already boiling ... and yet we don't have a policy for Yemen. That's just one example."

The same vacuum could also be felt at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, which held a hearing Thursday into Russian disinformation campaigns in Europe and the U.S.

Republican Chairman Ed Royce warned that Russia is trying to discredit Western democratic institutions and splinter NATO. But again, no Trump officials were present to speak on behalf of the administration.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Hunstman has reportedly accepted the job of ambassador to Russia — but there's been no official nomination yet. Congress might soon have an opportunity to ask him questions about Russia policy at a confirmation hearing. However, congressional aides say no such hearings are scheduled. The administration's few ambassadorial picks haven't even advanced to that stage.

Take Trump's apparent choice for ambassador to the U.K. At a luncheon back in January, Trump pointed to New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, describing him as "the ambassador Woody Johnson, going to Saint James," meaning ambassador to the Court of Saint James, the formal diplomatic title for the U.S. ambassador to Britain.

The White House has not yet made that official.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is still waiting for an ethics review and other paperwork to consider Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as ambassador to China. And it has yet to receive all the needed paperwork for two career diplomats to serve as ambassadors to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Senegal.

Meanwhile, the White House has yet to name any other top diplomats — some 60 slots remain vacant — or fill any of the 30 top jobs at headquarters requiring Senate confirmation, from deputy secretary of state on down to regional assistant secretaries. But according to ProPublica, the administration has placed hundreds of officials in agency jobs not requiring Senate confirmation — including nearly two dozen advisers and assistants at the State Department.

For now, career diplomats remain in the top jobs requiring Senate confirmation. But Cardin pointed out that Congress can't call these diplomats up to Capitol Hill to speak on behalf of Trump administration policies.

"It wouldn't be fair and that's not useful," Cardin said.

Four of his Democratic colleagues have written to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, raising concerns that the State Department is "experiencing significant management challenges, being cut out of important Administration foreign policy decisions, and facing potentially devastating budget cuts that would severely undermine U.S. diplomatic leadership and weaken National Security."

In another sign of a vacuum at the State Department, Mexico's foreign secretary, Luis Videgaray, arrived in Washington Thursday and skipped Foggy Bottom altogether. When asked about the visit, a State Department spokesman didn't even know the Mexican delegation was meeting President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and other White House officials.

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The Trump administration has cleared out the top ranks at the State Department. Career diplomats in charge of whole regions, like Africa and Asia, left this week. Many of the vacant positions require Senate confirmation, and the White House is not rushing to fill those slots. Foreign governments have noticed the vacuum, as has Congress, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The Trump administration has yet to fill dozens of diplomatic jobs aside from secretary of state, U.N. ambassador and ambassador to Israel, who is awaiting full Senate confirmation. The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin of Maryland, has taken note.

BEN CARDIN: And we've had lots of hearings, and we have not had any trump presentations at any of those hearings because there's no one to speak on behalf of the Trump administration.

KELEMEN: The latest hearing was on Yemen, and Cardin says it would have been nice to hear from the administration which has already conducted a military raid there.

CARDIN: I mean Yemen is - it could explode. It's already boiling, and yet we don't have a policy for Yemen. That's just one example.

KELEMEN: This week the House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing into Russian disinformation campaigns in Europe and the U.S. And the Republican chairman, Ed Royce, warned that Russia is trying to discredit Western democratic institutions and splinter NATO.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ED ROYCE: I'm afraid it is no exaggeration to say the long-term future of the European security order and America's role as an Atlantic power is at risk.

KELEMEN: Again, there were no Trump administration officials to speak. The administration has reportedly decided on an ambassador to Russia, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. So lawmakers might soon be able to ask him questions at a future confirmation hearing. But Senate aides say there are no confirmation hearings on the schedule.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So we're sitting next to the ambassador.

KELEMEN: At a luncheon the day before he was inaugurated, President Trump pointed to New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, calling him ambassador to the Court of St. James. But Trump has not yet formally nominated Johnson to be the ambassador to the U.K. The Senate is still waiting for all the paperwork for former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad to be ambassador to China and for two career diplomats who have been nominated to serve in Congo and Senegal. When asked about all this, a White House official said only, I have no updates.

The White House also hasn't named a deputy secretary of state or any undersecretaries. Career diplomats are filling in. But as Maryland Senator Cardin points out, Congress can't call them up to the Hill to speak on behalf of the Trump administration's policies.

CARDIN: It wouldn't be fair. So that's not useful.

KELEMEN: And there are questions about the State Department's influence with this White House. Mexico's foreign minister came to Washington this week, and the State Department spokesman didn't even know. The delegation was here to meet President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.