Rex Tillerson may be the most unpopular secretary of state in the history of the State Department. When President Donald Trump fired him on Tuesday, Tillerson was in the midst of implementing a massive effort to downsize the diplomatic corps. In the process, he neither built consensus around his particular vision of State Department modernization nor did he seek the guidance of the career bureaucracy. As a result, career civil servants and senior Foreign Service officers left the department in staggering numbers. Now that it’s Tillerson’s turn to pack his bags, no one will miss him.
Could Tillerson’s replacement, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, do a better job?
Pompeo is not likely to undo Tillerson’s work to “trim the fat,” which aligns well with the administration’s talk of shrinking the size of government. But it is possible, though not guaranteed, that Pompeo will slow down the pace and include other department staff in the process. He is, after all, coming from an agency where he was the only political appointee amid thousands of veteran bureaucrats. One hopes that during his short stint there he learned to take advantage of a deep bench of expertise — choosing to include, rather than circumvent, experts both on matters of foreign policy as well as internal management issues.
That’s good news for the State Department, which never had a chance to provide input on how it might rethink its structure and processes to realign a smaller bureaucracy with the Trump administration’s policy goals. Now it has another chance to do so, and Pompeo would be right to consult the multiple stakeholders who should be part of that process, such as the civil service, Foreign Service, U.S. embassies and consulates overseas, and other agencies with overlapping interests. Pompeo will discover that the State Department is not resistant to change but rather that it opposes being excluded from conversations about its own future.
As a former four-term congressman and former military officer, Pompeo is also more likely than Tillerson to be aware of the relationships between political appointees and career employees in the U.S. government and how to soothe tensions between them. This situational awareness would have come in handy last year when Tillerson renovated the seventh floor of the State Department to create more office space for a greatly expanded policy planning staff of politically appointed advisers. Career officials viewed the move as an attempt to replicate the bureaucracy, not enhance it. Tillerson’s failure was not in expanding his team, but rather in failing to communicate its purpose and explain its link to the rest of the department. During times of uncertainty, transition and change, any large bureaucracy like the State Department will naturally make assumptions to fill the information gaps.
Rex Tillerson, outgoing U.S. secretary of state | Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
Pompeo will also be better positioned to represent the United States overseas than Tillerson, whose lack of influence with the president gave him almost zero leverage when dealing with his foreign counterparts. The fact that Pompeo is a Trump loyalist and worked on the campaign will also provide some comfort to foreign governments, who remain unsure about how best to influence and shape opinion around Trump’s inner circle — and who want to understand what those early morning tweets are actually about. Maybe the State Department will take the center stage in American diplomacy again.
Pompeo’s close relationship with Trump will help in other ways, too. Tillerson and the White House disagreed over who should fill top State Department slots traditionally reserved for political appointees, leaving many critical posts vacant to this day. It would appear that Pompeo’s arrival now opens up the possibility of more expedient appointments of White House-approved staff to the State Department.
There is a flip side to this. Many of those vacant positions will soon be occupied by the White House’s favorite donors, children of Trump’s business associates and campaign staffers who know nothing about diplomacy. While this may happen with every administration, we know from the past 14 months how much Trump’s political appointees can affect the day to day business of running the United States. Just ask the employees of the Environmental Protection Agency, where “nearly half of Trump political appointees have industry ties,” according to recent Associated Press analysis.
Pompeo’s ultimate test will be how he manages his loyalties to the president against his responsibilities to the institution he intends to lead
But having the president aligned with his secretary of state once again will primarily be a good thing for the State Department. The secretary of state is the president’s representative around the world. If he is not aligned with the president, or if he’s kept out of the loop, the people on the rungs below aren’t able to do their jobs. Pompeo’s close relationship with the president will no doubt increase State Department engagement on the administration’s priority policies, such as combating extremism, trade, the Middle East, China and North Korea. It will preclude moments of exclusion, such as when Tillerson and his staff were not consulted on the executive order banning travel to the United States of individuals from seven majority Muslim countries. My former colleagues who work on these issues should get ready to be busy once again — the State Department will likely have its designated voice back at those National Security Council meetings and briefing materials will be in order.
Mike Pompeo speaks in a discussion with author and columnist Marc Thiessen at the American Enterprise Institute, January 23, 2018 in Washington, DC | Drew Angerer/Getty Images
The Pompeo-Trump alignment may pose some opportunities for a beleaguered and demoralized State Department, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to like the policy that come out of a fully staffed “America-first” agency. Trump may more aggressively operationalize his Iran, North Korea and Syria policies once Pompeo is at the helm of the department and be able to appoint Trump loyalists to positions with actual decision-making power. And then there’s also the worry that Pompeo is too close to the president. As CIA director, Pompeo has made inconsistent statements on the Russia investigation, leading to concerns about his ability to separate politics from policy and intelligence matters. At times, he has parted ways with the president to agree with intelligence community assessments, but at others he has sided with falsehoods pushed by Trump himself.
Pompeo’s ultimate test will be how he manages his loyalties to the president against his responsibilities to the institution he intends to lead. He may be able to step in where Tillerson could not, but he is by no means immune to the ongoing struggle between president and bureaucracy that Trump himself has engendered.
Shamila N. Chaudhary is senior fellow at New America and senior adviser to the dean at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. She served at the White House National Security Council during the Obama Administration as director for Pakistan and Afghanistan and on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s policy planning staff.