Two Officials, Two Agencies, Two Exits with Harsh Words for Trump Team

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting in June. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting in June. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

With much of the federal workforce bracing for cutbacks and departures, two high-level officials who recently resigned are opening up about frustrations with their agencies’ direction under the Trump administration.

Nancy McEldowney, who retired in June as director of the Arlington, Va.-based Foreign Service Institute, told Government Executive that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s actions reveal a lack of respect for expertise that is manifested in the sudden dismissals of accomplished career officers.

“Inside State, there’s a tone of distrust and disregard and some very specific instances of mistreatment of career staff by political appointees,” she said on Tuesday. “That is engendering the very hostility and opposition that the White House says it doesn’t want.”

Over at the Environmental Protection Agency, Elizabeth “Betsy” Southerland on Tuesday worked through an advocacy group to announce her resignation as director of the Office of Science and Technology in the Office of Water. She took on Administrator Scott Pruitt for “pursuing policies that promise to repeat human health and environmental catastrophes.”

In a statement released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Southerland went public as a dissenter from the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda, saying, “Today the environmental field is suffering from the temporary triumph of myth over truth. The truth is there is NO war on coal, there is NO economic crisis caused by environmental protection, and climate change IS caused by man’s activities.”

‘A Larger Problem’

At State, Ambassador McEldowney said that while she didn't condone leaks of classified information, the fact that State staff are leaking to the press “is symptomatic of a larger problem.”  

“If this administration is going to define disagreement as disloyalty, then it is headed toward a ruinous outcome,” she said. “It will inevitably lead to the death of expertise and the rise of an idiocracy.”

McEldowney, now distinguished professor of practice and director of the Foreign Service masters program at Georgetown University, held high-level posts in Europe and the Near East and also served as president of the National Defense University. She said she was particularly alarmed by the Trump team’s “waves of removals of senior officials” that began in January with the resignation under pressure of a half-dozen that included Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy, who had 44 years of federal service.

“He was given 48 hours to clear out his office,” she said, noting that the system prevents a new administration from literally saying, “You’re fired,” but allows resignations under pressure. Other abrupt removals included Kristie Kenney, the State Department’s counselor asked to leave in February, followed by much of her team. Then in June, Tillerson removed Director General of the Foreign Service Arnold Chacon. And last month saw the departure of acting assistant secretary for diplomatic security Bill Miller, she noted.

“No one objects to the idea that a new team would want to bring in new appointees or even career officials,” said McEldowney, who resigned after she was offered a post at Georgetown. “It’s even traditional and expected. But normally, over my 30-year career, it was done in a manner respectful of the loyal senior people who’ve provided service to both Democrats and Republicans. It allowed for an orderly transition and handover of responsibilities.”

The removals, she added, erode trust between the career staff and political appointees.

What’s more, McEldowney worries that President Trump’s reliance on former military leaders ignores “career people with great expertise in foreign policy and diplomacy,” and risks “driving us down a path of greater militarization of our foreign policy.”

“I take no pleasure in criticizing Secretary Tillerson or the things going on at State,” she said. “Tillerson has never worked policy before, has never worked in the U.S. government, and didn’t have relationships with the White House or across the cabinet,” she said, “so it’s not surprising he finds government bewildering and difficult.” (In July, Tillerson confessed to a Los Angeles Times reporter that, in contrast to the centralized decision-making authority he enjoyed while running Exxon-Mobil, government “is largely not a highly disciplined organization.”)

Asked for comment, a State official said in an email to Government Executive, “On Jan. 20, all department assistant secretaries tendered their resignations to the president. All department presidential appointees serve at the pleasure of the president and secretary of State. I would also note that retirement levels remain at historic norms. 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.”

Philosophical Objections

EPA’s Southerland, a 30-year veteran, told Government Executive that Pruitt “doesn’t talk to staff and doesn’t have a computer in his office, so there’s no written information from him to anyone.” Pruitt’s political staff relays his instructions to employees, she said.

A winner of a Distinguished Presidential Rank Award in 2015, Southerland focused her policy objections on EPA’s effort to repeal 30 rules on toxic substances and health practices as well as Pruitt’s “abandonment of the polluter-pays principle that underlies all environmental statutes.”

Pruitt’s policies stressing “state’s rights” threaten the EPA’s longstanding approach to federalism and cooperation with the states, she said in her statement. To implement Pruitt’s “regulation trading” program, “EPA will have to choose which congressional law to ignore, and face litigation through costly citizen suits. This poses a real Sophie’s choice for public health agencies like EPA,” she said.

While resignations for most employees are “an emotional experience,” Southerland said, her own decision was a combination of her philosophical objections and her own family responsibilities.

EPA did not respond to Government Executive’s requests for comment. But according to Southerland, the agency has received, as of July 24, 444 takers on the buyout offers for as many as 1,227 positions. The buyouts require departure by Sept. 2.

Meanwhile, the EPA Alumni Organization is set to announce that is it setting up a job bank for newly departed employees.

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