In addition to the key leadership vacancies, the federal hiring freeze also could hobble operations.
Four career Foreign Service officers who formed the State Department’s management team during the Obama administration are leaving just as the Trump administration gets underway.
As reported in detail on Thursday by Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin (and confirmed later by the department), resignations were received from Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy, Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond and Ambassador Gentry Smith, director of the Office of Foreign Missions.
Kennedy will retire from the foreign service Jan. 31, while the others have already left, according the news report, though they could be transferred to new Foreign Service posts. (Fox News published a story of Kennedy’s retirement on Wednesday night.)
Kennedy, who was put in the job by President George. W. Bush in 2007, became entangled in both the Benghazi and the private email server controversies that unfolded when Hillary Clinton was secretary of State. Rogin reported that he had been angling for a job under Tillerson, who still faces a Senate vote for his nomination.
Acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement to Government Executive, "As is standard with every transition, the outgoing administration, in coordination with the incoming one, requested all politically appointed officers submit letters of resignation. The department encourages and advocates for senior officers to compete for high level offices in the department. These positions are political appointments, and require the president to nominate and the Senate to confirm them in these roles.”
He went on to explain that political appointees all know they can be replaced by a president at will. “These officers have served admirably and well. Their departure offers a moment to consider their accomplishments and thank them for their service.”
The American Foreign Service Association, the professional association and labor union for diplomats, issued a statement noting that "While this appears to be a large turnover in a short period of time, a change of administration always brings personnel changes, and there is nothing unusual about rotations or retirements in the Foreign Service. Indeed, both are essential to the development of a steady stream of experienced leaders ready to assume critical roles at State."
"Given the talent available in our diplomatic corps, we expect that the new secretary will have no trouble finding the right people at State to fill out his senior leadership team," the statement said.
Drafting a management team is just one of the problems the incoming secretary will face in the near term. On Wednesday, AFSA President Ambassador Barbara Stephenson noted that Trump’s Jan. 23 executive order implementing a federal hiring freeze could “weaken the Foreign Service and undermine America’s global leadership.”
“Disrupting the regular flow of new Foreign Service officers and specialists into the Service damages America’s national interests not only now but also for decades to come. Just as it takes twenty years to develop a navy captain or an army colonel, so it takes two decades to develop a new Foreign Service officer into a seasoned leader ready to run an embassy and guide an important bilateral relationship,” she said.
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