They include Patrick Kennedy, who had been the undersecretary of management since the George W. Bush administration, as well as Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond, and Gentry Smith, who directed the Office of Foreign Missions.
Trump administration sources told CNN that the officials had been fired rather than quit. State Department spokesman Mark Toner, meanwhile, presented the departures as routine changeover.
Longtime AP diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee points out that it’s not unusual to have top appointees resign at the change of administrations. Rogin fills in some context: Kennedy had been working closely with the Trump transition team and had been seeking to keep his job, though his hopes were fading. The abrupt resignations at this stage in the transition seems to have come as a surprise. They are made all the more important because Trump has not made any nominations for State positions beyond Tillerson, to say nothing of hearings of confirmation votes.
The resignations are not, primarily, a political story. They will further the impression among Trump’s critics that his administration is a chaotic mess staffed, when it’s staffed at all, by greenhorn newcomers. But the mass of voters don’t tend to get all that excited about internal managers at the State Department, especially since Trump and other Republicans have spent years railing against bureaucrats, and particularly bureaucrats who served under Hillary Clinton. If you think Foggy Bottom has been a disastrous mess, then house-cleaning might be a good thing. Kennedy’s name is not a household one, but he did come in for harsh criticism in the House report on the September 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi, arguably coming in for worse censure than Clinton herself.
But someone has to run the State Department, to keep the gears of diplomacy turning, and Rogin reports that the latest resignations are part of a “mass exodus of senior foreign service officers who don’t want to stick around for the Trump era.” In early January, The New York Times reported that Trump’s team would not grant grace periods to any outgoing ambassadors, a break with tradition. A source dismissed concerns about their departures to Fox News, pointing out that many ambassadors are political appointees whose major qualification for their jobs was raising lots of money for Barack Obama: “The number twos are career foreign service officers and more than capable of stepping into the roles.”
Despite Trump’s diminished global goals—he has suggested pulling back from the U.S.’s global commitments and focusing inward—the situation is far more complicated now.
If these four officials were pushed, then Trump seems to have taken a cavalier attitude toward the State Department’s ability to run itself without institutional knowledge. If they jumped, it’s tempting to view their departure as an example of official Washington’s resistance to President Trump.
There are more pressing unanswered questions at the moment. Who will Trump, and Tillerson, tap to fill the newly opened spots? Will more career Foreign Service agents depart, hollowing out the department’s operations? And will the State Department be prepared if a crisis strikes before those vacancies are filled?