US foreign service vacuum as Trump purges public servants

By on 30/01/2017 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Rex Tillerson, incoming secretary of state, US state department

The entire top management team of the US state department left government last week, fueling fears that the foreign service will see a mass exodus of talent under president Donald Trump and incoming secretary of state Rex Tillerson.

Patrick Kennedy resigned his position as undersecretary for management on 25 January, along with director of the office of foreign missions Gentry Smith, and the assistant secretaries of state for administration, Joyce Anne Barr, and consular affairs, Michele Bond.

The four officials held political appointments, which career officials can serve but only at the pleasure of an incoming administration. As standard, officials above a certain rank submit a letter of resignation when a new president is appointed, but they are often kept on – at least until they can be replaced – to ensure a smooth transition.

While some reports insinuate that the team quit over Trump’s controversial positions on foreign policy issues, a senior state department official told Politico: “Their resignations were accepted. It’s not that they were quitting.”

The resignation of acting under secretary of state for arms control and international security, Thomas Countryman, has also been accepted, as has that of David Robinson, the assistant secretary of state for conflict stabilisation operations.

Former ambassador Laura Kennedy tweeted her concern: “As a career diplomat, I experienced many transitions and never saw anything like this dangerous purge of public servants now underway at state.”

Trump aides have long been threatening to purge the federal workforce, and one of the president’s first actions was to impose a hiring freeze. In an executive order signed on Saturday, Trump also ordered a lifetime ban on administration officials lobbying for foreign governments.

“The Trump administration is trying to make its mark on the federal government’s apparatus,” Donald Kettl, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, told Global Government Forum.

“Disruption has been the keynote from the beginning of the campaign. Now, on taking office, Trump has created a great deal of disruption to destabilise the existing power base in Washington.

“But that, in turn, has greatly concerned many experienced career officials inside government, some of whom are concerned about the policy direction and many of whom are worried about the overall climate of uncertainty.”

Career officials are also uneasy at Trump’s tendency to reach deep into the details of government operations, added Kettle, pointing to the president’s call for the head of the National Park Service to provide photos of the crowd at his inauguration.

Earlier this month, the Republicans reinstated an obscure rule from 1876 that allows them to target specific government programmes and individual federal workers for cuts.

The loss of experienced officials from the state department will make it difficult for the new administration to get its footing, as will the fact that Trump is beginning to lag in making second and third tier political appointments, Kettl continued.

The four state department officials to walk out last Wednesday served under both Republican and Democratic administrations, and Kennedy has been in the foreign service since 1973. They join a growing list of departing civil servants, including assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security Gregory Starr and director of the bureau of overseas building operations, Lydia Muniz.

Meanwhile, Trump has appointed several military personnel and political allies to top positions in the National Security Council, whilst reducing the influence of diplomats and intelligence chiefs. Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, former chairman of far-right news website Breitbart, has been granted a seat on the council while the roles of the joint chiefs of staff and the director of national intelligence have been downgraded to an ‘invite only’ status.

The American Foreign Service Association, the union representing diplomats, commented on the “large turnover in a short period of time” in the state department, and called on Tillerson to pick replacements from within the foreign service.

“The skills that are needed for these positions are exceedingly rare outside the foreign service,” it said in a statement. “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.”

These changes in the personnel and power balance amongst those leading international relations decision-making within the USA is likely to have played a key role in bringing forward Trump’s executive order denying citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries entry to the US. The order was reportedly drafted by Bannon, who appears to be winning a battle for influence with Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus.

For up to date government news and international best practice follow us on Twitter @globegov

See also:

Trump’s Cabinet unfolds amid rumour and turmoil

Team Trump – what we know so far

What a Trump presidency means for other governments

Populism enables ‘endemic corruption’, report warns

Ripples around the world: Brexit’s implications for Europe and beyond

About Tamsin Rutter

Tamsin Rutter is a journalist based in Brussels, Belgium. She writes on a variety of topics, including public services, cities, local and central government and education. She was formerly the deputy editor of the Guardian's Public Leaders Network and Housing Network.


  1. Wayne Schulz says:

    Tam, and if no one want’s to work at State anymore or would rather flip burgers than subject themselves to working under tyrannical conditions, exactly where does that leave us?

  2. Sheryl says:

    It’s not business as usual – when will the press get that through their heads? President Trump was elected so he could Clear The Swamp!

    • Wayne Schulz says:

      Clearing the swamp? Taking apart key components of the government in a capricious manner, recklessly endangering the Nation and alienating key allies is more like it. Installing a cabinet full of pay-to-play choices that are more corrupt than the ones before, that is not draining the swamp. The whole campaign was built on simple mined jingoisms that mean nothing. Now this Nation is being run like a reality show. Newsflash- world politics, diplomacy and economics is not a game to be played with grade school playground rules. The Office of the President which at one time was revered is now a embarrassment. We as a nation rank 29th in the world for education across the board. I have to say that if the elected officials are a direct reflection of the electorate the electoral college is extremely accurate. This isn’t “business as usual” it is a wholesale blowout of the United States. Did you ever see Wall Street? This administration is acting not so much as a group that will save America, but more like a group that is going to carve it up into tiny pieces and sell it off to line their own pockets. Nepotism and cronyism runs rampant. The swamp isn’t being drained it is being enhanced with more venomous snakes, more exotic poisonous spiders and a new type of vitreous toxic sludge. You are not going to see any beautiful orchids blooming in this new and improved swamp. But rest assured it is still a swamp. In order to control the outcome of any event it is necessary to control both sides. There is only one political force in this country that simply masquerades as two. It’s driving force is the acquisition of wealth and power and it covers everything you have and everything you ever will have.

  3. Wayne Schulz says:

    *covets not covers (cor)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *