Foreign Policy recently reported on a State Department town hall meeting where Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan “acknowledged having failed to act more vigorously to shield State Department staffers from retaliation by the Trump administration for their perceived political views” and reportedly said that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lacked the authority to fire a top Trump political appointee accused of inflicting, or abetting, the alleged harassment. (See State Department Failed to Shield Its Diplomats From Political Reprisals, Officials Concede; also Workplace Horror Award Goes to the IO Bureau, @StateDept Offers Counseling in Uppercase Voice).
Most notable items from the report:
— Deputy Secretary Sullivan and P’s David Hale “acknowledged shortcomings in their response and pledged to make amends for staffers whose careers were upended in a long-running controversy that triggered an investigation by the department’s inspector general.”
— “I will be the first to admit the failure on my part to have done more to address the situation,” Sullivan told the gathering, according to an account of the meeting relayed to Foreign Policy.
— Hale encouraged staffers whose careers were damaged as a result of political retaliation to come to him to seek some sort of professional remedy or, if they preferred, to pursue a formal grievance against the department. “I’d like to help; I’d also like people to know they can come to me,” Hale said. He pledged to take their case to the undersecretary of state for management, the director general, or human resources “to make amends.”
— “There’s absolutely no doubt that what was going on was completely unacceptable,” Hale said. “Misconduct is a soft word, frankly, to use for what has occurred.”
–[M]any of the questions revolved around the fate of Moley and why action had not been taken sooner to discipline him. And some noted that officials in other bureaus of the State Department have been subject to similar mistreatment. […] And other staffers privately expressed skepticism that the State Department’s leadership would hold Moley accountable, noting that Foggy Bottom’s top brass had known about the allegations of political targeting for well over a year and had failed to act swiftly to stop it.
— The “general vibe after the meeting was a mix of bitter disappointment and depression,” one State Department official told Foreign Policy, who was skeptical about assurances that Moley would be reprimanded. “Bottom line here is that there will be NO action taken on Kevin Moley.”
— “The decision to ignore the IG report is devastating,” said another staffer in the bureau. “Ultimately, it renders this kind of vicious political targeting acceptable.”
Perhaps the most shocking thing reportedly said by Deputy Secretary Sullivan:
“The secretary can’t fire an assistant secretary appointed by a president, so it adds a layer of complexity there,” Sullivan said.
Well, first, this individual is not the only non-career official appointed by the president. According to AFSA, the State Department has 74 political ambassadors (or 45.4% ) appointed by Trump, and confirmed by the Senate. In addition, there are 55 senior officials in Foggy Bottom where 50 of them (or 90.9%) are also political appointees; almost all of them were presidentially appointed and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
So, we’d like to understand what Sullivan told State Department employees actually means. If Secretary Pompeo cannot fire an assistant secretary appointed by a president, does this mean, he cannot fire any of the politically appointed senior officials and political ambassadors working for him? Those are his highest ranking officials. They are appointed by the president but they do not report to the president or the White House but to the secretary of state. How can the secretary manage his agency without authority to, as the FAM likes to put it, “promote the efficiency of the Service?”
Good gracious! Who, pray tell, can the Secretary of State fire?
Second, when Sullivan says “The secretary can’t fire an assistant secretary appointed by a president” does this mean Pompeo is not allowed to do so, or was told not to do it (base on what law or regulations exactly?). Or is it that the secretary is using his discretion as agency head not to fire this one individual?
As often the case these days, we’re quite perplexed about this reported excuse. The deputy secretary appears to be making a rather sweeping statement here, not just with this secretary, and not just with this assistant secretary or this president: “The secretary can’t fire an assistant secretary appointed by a president.”
Remember Elizabeth Tamposi? She was Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs from 1989 – 1992 during the George H. W. Bush Administration. She was a political appointee. Her tenure is noted for the scandal related to the search of passport records of then presidential candidates Bill Clinton and Ross Perot (see Throwback Thursday: An Election, an FOIA, and @StateDept in the Eye of the Storm). She was dismissed by acting Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger.
An acting Secretary of State fired an assistant secretary of state appointed by a president, and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Remember Secretary Colin Powell and Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Mary Ryan? She was a widely respected career employee, and the “only U.S. government official to be fired as a consequence of the worst attack ever on U.S. soil” (see Remembering Mary Ryan, FSJ, June 2010)? The secretary of state fired a Senate-confirmed appointee of President George W. Bush. There was apparently another assistant secretary fired by Secretary Powell but we could not find a publicly available citation, so we’re leaving that out.
During the fallout from the Benghazi attack, the assistant secretary, principal deputy, and deputy assistant secretary all lost their jobs in Diplomatic Security. In the NEA bureau, one deputy assistant secretary lost his job; his firing reportedly ordered by the State Department counselor. This report says that then Secretary Clinton accepted the resignation of the DS assistant secretary. Whether “S” or “M” made the decision concerning the departure of the DS assistant secretary is not clear, but somebody in Foggy Bottom had the authority to do it.
In recent years, there were also very public departures by political ambassadors to Luxembourg, Kenya, and Malta; all were presidentially nominated and Senate confirmed.
Now, we have the Deputy Secretary of State telling employees that their agency head lacks this authority; an authority which has clearly been exercised by previous secretaries of state several times in the past, in very public ways. So this is mighty confusing for your poor blogger who can’t make sense of the goings on there.
We do want to know where does Sullivan’s “The secretary can’t fire an assistant secretary appointed by a president” excuse come from. We think this has implications not just for this secretary and the agency going forward but potentially for future secretaries of state.
Exclusive: Deputy Secretary of State, John Sullivan, tells rank and file career officials that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lacks the authority to fire senior State Department official, Kevin Moley, who was censored for political retaliation https://t.co/W7iTmtNz2O
— columlynch (@columlynch) September 3, 2019
His answer: "I do not."
— House Foreign Affairs Committee (@HouseForeign) August 22, 2019
- Senior Officials Concede Loss of U.S. Clout as Trump Prepares For U.N. Summit .
- Workplace Horror Award Goes to the IO Bureau, @StateDept Offers Counseling in Uppercase Voice .
- Congress Demands Pompeo Turn Over Documents on Political Targeting of @StateDept Employees .
- State/OIG and OSC Reportedly Looking Into Political Reprisals @StateDept .
- Delayed Report Over Retaliation Against @StateDept Career Staffers Heats Up