Has the State Department been subjected to an ideological purge under the auspices of President Donald Trump? Inquiring House Democrats want to know.
In a letter sent to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan on Thursday, Representatives Elijah Cummings and Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrats on the House Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees, are demanding an explanation after receiving “disturbing new documents” from a whistle-blower indicating that senior political appointees at State worked to push out or demote career diplomats deemed insufficiently loyal to Trump and his agenda, with the assistance of right-wing activists and White House officials.
The documents, also obtained by Politico, consist of a series of emails between State Department and White House officials, as well as outside parties including former House speaker Newt Gingrich, conservative activist Barbara Ledeen, and the neoconservative ideologue David Wurmser, a former adviser to Vice-President Dick Cheney and U.N. Ambassador John Bolton.
The congressmen express particular concern over the reassignment of Iran expert Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, a career civil servant who had been the subject of a malicious article at the little-read Conservative Review last March saying she had “burrowed into the government” under Trump, calling her an architect of the Iran nuclear deal who had misled the public about it, and insinuating that she had ties to the regime in Tehran, owing to an internship she took in college with the National Iranian American Council.
Nowrouzzadeh, who joined the civil service in 2005 during the Bush administration and later served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, was indeed a key figure in crafting the Iran deal. So were many other people at the NSC and State, but not all of them had the misfortune of an obviously Iranian surname, which is what put Nowrouzzadeh on right-wing media’s radar in the first place.
The Conservative Review hit piece made its way through the inboxes of the aforementioned activists: Wurmser forwarded it to Gingrich with the note “I think a little cleaning is in order here”; Gingrich then forwarded that message to former secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin.
Nowrouzzadeh had been detailed to the secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff in July 2016, where she worked on issues related to Iran and Arab countries in the Persian Gulf region — an assignment meant to last one year. Nowrouzzadeh contacted the head of the policy team, Brian Hook, asking for his help in correcting the record after being smeared.
Instead, according to Cummings’s and Engel’s letter, “Hook forwarded her email to other political appointees at the Department, who then forwarded it to officials at the White House and used it as a basis for a wide-ranging internal discussion that questioned her loyalty to President Trump.” In the course of those discussions, White House Liaison Julia Haller falsely stated that Nowrouzzadeh was born in Iran (in fact, she was born in Connecticut).
In April, a month after the Conservative Review piece landed, her detail was cut short by three months and she was reassigned to her previous post at the Office of Iranian Affairs — to which she objected, saying her assignment had not been completed as the senior officials claimed and that the curtailment was not carried out according to the terms of her memorandum of understanding.
Nowrouzzadeh was the second “Obama holdover” to be abruptly reassigned after coming under attack in the right-wing press, Politico reported at the time; Andrew Quinn, a member of the National Economic Council who had helped negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, had just been sent back to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative after being attacked for his “globalist” views by Breitbart News.
Nowrouzzadeh was by no means the only career staffer at State targeted for a Trumpist inquisition: Politico adds that Hook emailed himself a list of potentially disloyal staffers last April, referring to one as a “leaker and troublemaker” and to another as a “turncoat.” In one of the emails, Breitbart staffer Joel Pollak offers to give Tillerson aide Matt Mowers “additional background” on “Obama holdovers.” Hook’s deputy, Edward Lacey, referred to several of the career public servants on the Policy Planning staff as “Obama/Clinton loyalists not at all supportive of President Trump’s foreign policy agenda.”
These new revelations strongly suggest that the exodus of career talent from the State Department over which Tillerson presided was no mere side effect of his mismanagement, but in some cases a deliberate effort by Trump’s political appointees within the department to remove or marginalize employees they saw as disloyal or ideologically unfit.
Nothing about this story comes as a surprise, given Trump’s marked disdain for diplomacy, foreign aid, and American engagement in global affairs generally, as well as the Bannonite principles of anti-intellectualism, anti-globalism, and obsession with dismantling the “administrative state” that underpin his administration ideologically. Purging undesirables and politicizing elements of the government that are designed to resist partisanship are fairly textbook moves for any nationalist government, after all, and what agency could be more crawling with globalists than the State Department?
Of course Trump has presided over a personnel crisis in a department whose work he holds in contempt. Transparently politically motivated staffing decisions like what befell Nowrouzzadeh have an impact beyond the employees directly affected: How many other career diplomats and civil servants, one must wonder, have opted to quit their jobs or take early retirement after seeing their colleagues dismissed, demoted, or reassigned for no reason other than their assumed political loyalties?
Under federal law, career civil servants can’t be fired without cause or for political reasons. When Trump called on Congress to curtail civil-service protections and make it easier for him to fire federal employees during his State of the Union address in January, some of us feared that he was looking to legalize these politically motivated dismissals. In light of the latest revelations from the State Department, these fears look increasingly well-founded.