Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is rejecting criticism that his “redesign” of the 70,000-person State Department caused staff morale to plummet since the start of the Trump administration.
During a meeting Monday with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Tillerson told journalists “This department is performing extraordinary well, and I take exception to anyone who characterized it otherwise. It is not true. “
But at Friday’s State Department briefing, spokesperson Heather Nauert faced repeated questions about widespread criticism of Tillerson’s management of the department. "Sure, there is a morale issue in this building" she acknowledged. Nauert continued: "And that's why I say, you know, 'Folks, hang in there. We have a lot of work to be done. Please don't give up. Don't give up on this building. Don't give up on what America is doing. Don't give up on the importance of this job and career.' "
Nauert said the redesign is a work in progress, and said it might make many people feel better to know that reform ideas are coming from career officials with years of experience. “It’s not coming from a brand new political appointee, like myself.” She also argued that the overall size of the staff is not much different in the Trump administration than it was under President Obama.
The comments follow criticism of Tillerson by top U.S. lawmakers. Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen wrote to Tillerson, saying recent management decisions at the State Department threaten to “undermine the long-term health and effectiveness of American diplomacy.” The two senators urged Tillerson to end a hiring freeze.
At a recent Senate hearing to confirm new State Department nominees, Republican Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, who is usually an ally of Tillerson’s said, “The State Department, as you know, is not functioning particularly well, I hate to say. They are undermanned.”
The ranking Democratic member of the committee, Senator Ben Cardin, went even further. “If this sort of high-level decapitation of leadership were going on at the Defense Department, I can guarantee you that Congress would be up in arms.”
Tillerson has been criticized for supporting President Donald Trump’s proposed major budget cuts, which Congress reduced to an eight percent cut in overall staff worldwide. But many former ambassadors and analysts say a number of key ambassador posts have been left unfilled, as well as key Assistant Secretary jobs at the State Department in Washington.
Last week, Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, the President of the American Foreign Service Association, wrote in a newspaper article that the Trump administration is crippling U.S. diplomacy on a longer term basis by not valuing career staff members. “The talent being shown the door now is not only our top talent, but also talent that cannot be replicated overnight.”