Impeachment Transcripts Show Tanking Morale at State as Foreign Service Officers Raise Legal Defense Funds
"It's scary," one State Department official says.
“It had a very significant effect on morale, and the silence from the department was viewed as puzzling and baffling.” That’s how Michael McKinley, former senior advisor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, characterized the lack of support from Pompeo and other top brass at the department for former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.
McKinley, a former ambassador and career foreign service officer, made the remarks during a deposition as part of the House’s impeachment inquiry into President Trump, according to a transcript of his testimony released this week.
McKinley repeatedly asked Pompeo and other senior officials at State to issue a statement in support of Yovanovitch, in light of President Trump's disparaging comments about her during a phone call with the Ukrainian president. That call, a reconstructed transcript of which was released by the White House, now sits at the center of the impeachment probe.
Pompeo declined to issue such a statement. McKinley repeatedly described throughout his deposition how demoralized the career foreign service workforce had become in the face of Trump’s attacks and the department’s refusal to stick up for its employees. McKinley said he reached that conclusion after conversations with as many as a dozen foreign service officers.
Issuing a statement, he said, would “send a message to the foreign service that we respect professionalism.”
Ultimately, McKinely opted to resign over the decision to withhold a public show of support.
“I wasn’t looking to create any news story out of it,” McKinley said, adding that “people were very aware that I was concerned about what I saw as the lack of public support for department employees.”
In her testimony, which House investigators also released on Monday, Yovanonvitch said she felt threatened by Trump’s comments that she was “going to go through some things.” She said she did not know what that meant, but she was “very concerned,” adding, “I still am.” According to her testimony, State summoned Yovanovitch back to Washington from Ukraine in a 1 a.m. telephone call telling her she had to get on the next flight out due to concerns about her security. The career FSO said she “so far" has not feared for her personal safety, but a number of her friends “are very concerned.”
Representatives of the foreign service who spoke to Government Executive this week are looking for new ways to demonstrate the support the State Department has, at times, declined to provide.
“This is nothing that we’ve ever encountered before,” said Eric Rubin, president of the nearly 100-year-old American Foreign Service Association and himself a career FSO and former ambassador. “Nor did we want to encounter it. But it encountered us.”
Rubin said AFSA has taken on a “significant responsibility” to assist its members caught in the middle of the impeachment battle. Congress has subpoenaed several AFSA members, who are being told by State not to cooperate.
“That puts them in an impossible position between two branches of government,” Rubin said, adding the foreign service has never had a situation like it. “We’re having to gear up to address this new set of challenges, which we have been doing.”
To that end, AFSA is spearheading multiple efforts. Last month, it began a fundraising campaign—soliciting donations from members and the public alike—for a legal defense fund for any FSOs asked to testify before Congress. It is also working out agreements with law firms to provide pro bono services for its members. Federal employees generally cannot accept free legal services due to ethics constraints, but AFSA can provide a loophole in which it, rather than the employee, is accepting the services.
“These are kind of extraordinary times,” said Tom Yazgerdi, AFSA’s State vice president who still works out of the department’s headquarters in Washington. “You find out how good your organization is to help you when you’re presented with some sort of crisis. It’s tough, especially for our mid-level officers who might be presented with a subpoena from Congress. It’s scary.”
Rubin warned the fallout from recent events could extend beyond just the immediate investigation.
“We need new blood and we need new talent coming in,” he said. “If people look at this and say, ‘If I choose to do a career in federal service . . . is this what it’s going to be like for me? Am I going to be subpoenaed? Am I going to have to hire lawyers?’ Maybe not literally, but it’s out there as a concern and disincentive.”
Yazgerdi emphasized that AFSA, which serves as both a professional association and a union, does not want to take sides or engage in purely political disputes.
“We’re not here to go to war with anyone,” he said. “We very much seek not to do that. By the same token though, we have to defend our principles, as well, and our members.” He added FSOs “want to get through these troubled times . . . hopefully with our service intact.”