Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has isolated himself from his own department and allowed subordinates to fill a handful of top positions with people who actively opposed Donald Trump’s election, according to current and former State Department officials and national security experts with specific knowledge of the situation.
News reports often depict a White House “in chaos.” But the real chaos, according to three State Department employees who spoke with American Greatness on the condition of anonymity, is at Foggy Bottom.
Rumors have circulated for months that Tillerson either plans to resign or is waiting for the president to fire him. The staffers describe an amateur secretary of state who has “checked out” and effectively removed himself from major decision making.
Hundreds of Empty Desks
About 200 State Department jobs require Senate confirmation. But the Senate cannot confirm nominees it does not have. More than nine months into the new administration, most of the senior State Department positions—assistant and deputy assistant secretary posts—remain unfilled.
What’s more, the United States currently has no ambassador to the European Union, or to key allies such as France, Germany, Australia, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia. Meantime, Obama Administration holdovers remain ensconced in the department and stationed at embassies in the Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East.
The leadership vacuum has been filled by a small group opposed to the president’s “America First” agenda.
At the heart of the problem, these officials say, are the two people closest to Tillerson: chief of staff Margaret Peterlin and senior policy advisor Brian Hook, who runs the State Department’s in-house think tank.
Peterlin and Hook are longtime personal friends who current staffers say are running the department like a private fiefdom for their benefit and in opposition to the president and his stated policies.
‘Boxing Out’ Trump Supporters
The lack of staffing gives the duo unprecedented power over State Department policy. Since joining Tillerson’s team, Peterlin and Hook have created a tight bottleneck, separating the 75,000 State Department staffers—true experts in international relations—from the secretary. As the New York Times reported in August, “all decisions, no matter how trivial, must be sent to Mr. Tillerson or his top aides: Margaret Peterlin, his chief of staff, and Brian Hook, the director of policy planning.” In practice, however, that has meant Peterlin and Hook make the decisions.
More important, sources who spoke with American Greatness say, Peterlin and Hook have stymied every effort by pro-Trump policy officials to get jobs at the State Department.
“Peterlin is literally sitting on stacks of résumés,” one national security expert told American Greatness. Together, Peterlin and Hook are “boxing out anyone who supports Trump’s foreign policy agenda,” he added.
Peterlin, an attorney and former Commerce Department official in the George W. Bush Administration, was hired to help guide political appointments through the vetting and confirmation process. She reportedly bonded with Tillerson during his confirmation hearings, and he hired her as his chief of staff.
Peterlin then brought in Hook, who co-founded the John Hay Initiative, a group of former Mitt Romney foreign-policy advisors who publicly refused to support Trump because he would “act in ways that make America less safe.” In a May 2016 profile of NeverTrump Republicans, Hook told Politico, “Even if you say you support him as the nominee, you go down the list of his positions and you see you disagree on every one.”
Hook now directs the department’s Office of Policy Planning, responsible for churning out policy briefs and helping to shape the nation’s long-term strategic agenda.
NeverTrumpers on Parade
In September, Peterlin and Hook hired David Feith, a former Wall Street Journal editorial writer and the son of Douglas J. Feith, one of the architects of the Iraq War. Feith shares with Peterlin and Hook a deep dislike for President Trump. Feith, according to one State Department employee with knowledge of the hire, had been rejected by the White House precisely because of his opposition to the president and his policies. Peterlin and Hook forced him through anyway.
Incredibly, even the State Department’s spokesman, R.C. Hammond, was an outspoken NeverTrumper before the election, frequently tweeting jibes and barbs at the candidate. Hammond, a former aide to Newt Gingrich, is now the face and one of the leading voices of U.S. public diplomacy.
Many of these anti-Trump hires have occurred in the face of a hiring freeze Tillerson imposed earlier this year following an executive order to review agency and department staffing, along with the White House’s request to cut the State Department’s budget by 30 percent. But rather than put a check on untrustworthy career bureaucrats, the move had the opposite effect of empowering the president’s opponents.
State’s anti-Trump climate has shut out several top-notch foreign policy hands.
Kiron Skinner, founding director of the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University and a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, worked on Trump’s national security transition team and was hired as a senior policy advisor. She was considered for the job Hook now has in the Office of Policy Planning. But she was isolated from career staffers and quit after a few days.
At least Skinner managed to get into the building. Another former Reagan Administration staffer with decades of experience in U.S.-Russian affairs and international economics had spent months in 2016 campaigning for the president in critical battleground states, including Pennsylvania and Ohio. As soon as Trump won the election, this experienced analyst and several other pro-Trump associates were passed over for State Department jobs. It’s to the point that even internship candidates are being rejected if they volunteered for the Trump campaign.
Tillerson or No, Personnel is Policy
When he agreed to take the top diplomat’s job, Tillerson reportedly asked President Trump for autonomy‚ and got it. Unfortunately, his leadership style has changed from his days running ExxonMobil. In his definitive history of ExxonMobil, journalist Steve Coll described Tillerson’s approach as open and informal. By contrast, Tillerson’s modus operandi at state has been described as isolated, unapproachable, even “draconian.”
In government today, the maxim that “personnel is policy” is truer than ever. As a result, the State Department mirrors the management style not of its leader, but of Tillerson’s chief aides who are at odds with the president’s stated foreign policy agenda.
Tillerson this week told the Wall Street Journal he would remain on the job “as long as the president thinks I’m useful.” But whether it’s Tillerson behind the secretary’s desk, or CIA Director Mike Pompeo, or any other foreign policy hand, a State Department staffed with opponents of the president is hardly useful to Americans who voted to reject the failed foreign policies of the past two administrations.
President Trump made “draining the swamp” a cornerstone of his campaign. How can he drain the swamp if the swamp dwellers control his administration and drown out voices of his most innovative supporters?
Chris Buskirk, Brandon Weichert, and Ben Boychuk contributed to this story. Content created by the Center for American Greatness, Inc. is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a significant audience. For licensing opportunities of our original content, please contact [email protected].