Mutiny at Foggy Bottom: State Department management resigns en masse

Mass exodus rocks the State Department days after Donald Trump signs an executive order freezing all federal hiring

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published January 26, 2017 5:42PM (EST)

 (Reuters/Jim Young)
(Reuters/Jim Young)

Rex Tillerson hasn't even been confirmed as the State Department's new secretary, but already the former Exxon CEO is already facing a mutiny from several top staffers.

While visiting the agency's Foggy Bottom headquarters on Wednesday, Tillerson witnessed his entire senior level management team walk out on him, according to a bombshell new report from The Washington Post.

Late Wednesday afternoon, the undersecretary for management, Patrick Kennedy, unexpectedly stepped down after nine years in his role. Also departing were Joyce Anne Barr, assistant secretary of state for administration;   Michele Bond, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs; and Ambassador Gentry O. Smith, director of the Office of Foreign Missions.

"Patrick Kennedy will resign as under secretary for management on January 27, and retire from the Department of State on January 31," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told the Washington Examiner on Wednesday.

"It’s the single biggest simultaneous departure of institutional memory that anyone can remember, and that’s incredibly difficult to replicate,” David Wade, who served as State Department chief of staff under former secretary of state John Kerry, told the Post. The four officials, who have served under both Republican and Democratic administrations, were charged with managing the State Department and overseeing its staff and diplomatic posts abroad.

The Post further noted that "several senior foreign service officers" in regional State Department outposts have left or resigned their positions since the election.

“Diplomatic security, consular affairs, there’s just not a corollary that exists outside the department, and you at least can afford a learning curve in these areas where issues can quickly become matters of life and death,” Wade explained. “The muscle memory is critical. These retirements are a big loss. They leave a void. These are very difficult people to replace.”

Kennedy held senior diplomatic positions through the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies, which culminated in serving as the secretary of state's senior adviser on issues related to the management of the State Department. Kennedy was reportedly actively working to assist Donald Trump’s transition team and his departure came as a shock to current and former foreign policy officials.

At the time of Tillerson's Wednesday's visit, the Trump team was seeking to hire Tillerson's deputy and three other officials — and replace Kennedy. A diplomat since 1973, Kennedy came under intense criticism from the GOP for the department's insufficient security at the diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans were killed in 2012. "Whether Kennedy left on his own volition or was pushed out by the incoming Trump team is a matter of dispute inside the department," the Post's Josh Rogin reported. Tillerson was at the agency's headquarters when the senior officials tendered their resignations, according to the Post.

Wednesday's mass exodus of major career staffers follows the Jan. 20 resignations of Gregory Starr, assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security; and Lydia Muniz, director of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations. In total, six senior officials in charge of management at the State Department have departed their posts during the new administration of President Donald Trump.

Earlier this week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted along party lines in favor of moving ahead the confirmation of Tillerson. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he is working to schedule a full Senate vote for Tillerson. "I'll be filing cloture on secretary of State nominee Tillerson, which will ripen next week," McConnell told reporters during a weekly press conference.
The move would set up a procedural vote for early next week. If confirmed, Trump’s pick for secretary of state will surely begin his term without the assistance of career civil servants who can help him navigate the inner workings of the department. Trump has yet to fill many top diplomatic jobs, including the deputy secretary roles.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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Donald Trump Rex Tillerson State Department