In their testimonies, the diplomats have described being sidelined on Ukraine policy as Trumpâs personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and other Trump political appointees â apparently at the presidentâs direction â pursued a âshadowâ foreign policy that included withholding some $400 million in military aid to Kyiv. Their boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has attacked…
In their testimonies, the diplomats have described being sidelined on Ukraine policy as Trumpâs personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and other Trump political appointees â apparently at the presidentâs direction â pursued a âshadowâ foreign policy that included withholding some $400 million in military aid to Kyiv. Their boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has attacked the House process as â troublingâ and defended the legitimacy of Giulianiâs efforts.
Overall, the diplomatsâ testimony has bolstered allegations that Trump tried to improperly pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival. But some also used the platform to air long-held grievances over Trump and his aidesâ treatment of the State Departmentâs career staffers, several of whom were demoted or sidelined following attacks by the conservative media.
The defiance has risks: that it will deepen the rift between Trump and the State Department while fueling more global confusion over U.S. foreign policy positions. Many of Trumpâs top aides view Foggy Bottom as a den of Democratic intrigue â a long- and widely held suspicion on the right with roots in the Cold War.
For now, though, it feels pretty good to hit back.
âPeople are fed up,â said Laura Kennedy, a former U.S. ambassador who remains in touch with officials still in the State Department. âThereâs a deep well of resentment thatâs just bubbled toward the top.â
Thereâs also anxiety.
Serving diplomats say the impeachment inquiry has become a constant source of questions from their foreign counterparts and overseas press, and that itâs a challenging issue to explain, especially given the State Departmentâs role.
Former officials say theyâre fielding calls from still-serving diplomats worried about their futures. The possibility that the impeachment inquiry could rope in junior diplomats, or grow beyond Ukraine and Europe, isnât far from peopleâs minds. A private Facebook group for Foreign Service officers considering quitting their jobs has seen a significant jump in participants.
âLower-level people are still terrified theyâll be wrapped up in this,â a former State official said. âTheyâre glad to see Masha, Mike and George wave the flag for the Foreign Service but still not convinced people wonât get screwed.â
âMashaâ is a reference to Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who gave a deposition to lawmakers on Oct. 11 under subpoena from the investigating House committees and despite State Department objections. Her opening statement decried Trumpâs machinations on Ukraine while calling for more support for the Foreign Service.
Yovanovitch was recalled from Ukraine in May, a few months before her tenure was up, after Trump allies spread rumors that she was biased against the president. In a July 25 phone call with Ukraineâs leader thatâs at the heart of the impeachment inquiry, Trump called her âbad newsâ and said she was âgoing to go through some things.â
Yovanovitch told lawmakers that, in her 30-plus years as a diplomat, she always stuck to the required ethos of non-partisanship. So she was âincredulousâ at being recalled over âfalse claims.â She warned that the State Department is being âattacked and hollowed out from withinâ and stressed that the repercussions go beyond Foggy Bottom.
The harm will also âcome when those diplomats who soldier on and do their best to represent our nation face partners abroad who question whether the ambassador truly speaks for the president and can be counted upon as a reliable partner,â she said in her opening statement.
Yovanovitch was followed on Capitol Hill by two other prominent career Foreign Service officers: George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary whose portfolio includes Ukraine; and Michael McKinley, who just days ago resigned as a senior adviser to Pompeo. Three other State Department officials â Bill Taylor, now the top U.S. diplomat in Kyiv; Philip Reeker, the acting assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs; and Suriya Jayanti, a Foreign Service officer based in Kyiv â have been summoned to testify; others could follow.
Kent described being told by a superior to âlay lowâ on Ukraine policy as Giuliani, the politically appointed U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and others allegedly ignored established diplomatic paths to pursue questionable interests in Ukraine.
McKinley told impeachment investigators that he resigned in part because of Trumpâs attacks on Yovanovitch and Pompeoâs seeming unwillingness to protect career diplomats from political retaliation. McKinley had grown to find the situation âunbearable,â a former colleague told POLITICO.
Like Yovanovitch, Kent testified in defiance of instructions from the White House and Pompeo. Both remain on the State Department payroll.
Hill staffers have indicated that they subpoenaed the diplomats to give them some cover so they could cooperate. McKinley, having resigned from State, testified voluntarily.
A current State official said that, within the department, Yovanovitch and Kent in particular are being viewed with âstrong respect and sympathy.â They are seen as âcareer public servants who became collateral damage in political issues,â the staffer said, adding that thereâs a âpretty long line of them in this administration.â
McKinley, too, is viewed in positive terms for testifying, but many career staffers are wondering why it took him so long to resign â Yovanovitch was, after all, recalled around five months ago.
Neither the State Department nor the White House responded to a request for comment on this story. On Thursday, however, Trumpâs acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, took a shot at the diplomats who testified, calling them âcareer bureaucrats who are saying, âYou know what? I donât like President Trumpâs politics so Iâm going to participate in this witch hunt.ââ
Also testifying this month were Sondland, a Trump donor who was named an ambassador despite no diplomatic experience; and Kurt Volker, a former Foreign Service officer who took on an unpaid political appointment as a special U.S. envoy tasked with shepherding peace talks between Ukraine and Russia. Volker quit the position before testifying.
The inquiryâs revelations have alarmed even the most diplomatic of diplomats.
In a furious essay in Foreign Affairs, William Burns, a highly regarded and famously measured Foreign Service veteran who now leads the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, turned heads in Washington when he compared Trumpâs treatment of U.S. diplomats to the days of communist-hunting led by Joseph McCarthy.
âThe damage from this assault â coming from within the executive branch itself, after nearly three years of unceasing diplomatic self-sabotage, and at a particularly fragile geopolitical moment â will likely prove to be even more severe to both diplomatic tradecraft and U.S. foreign policy,â Burns warned in the essay, which was widely read at the State Department.
Department employees say that in Foggy Bottom and beyond, civil and Foreign Service officers are doing their jobs and there are no work stoppages or visible expressions of protest. For instance, U.S. officials smoothly carried out their duties at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, whose main session last month coincided with the Democratsâ launch of the impeachment inquiry.
Yet the frustration inside the department has occasionally spilled out into public, even before the Ukraine revelations placed the Trump administrationâs unorthodox approach to diplomacy at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.
One dismissed the belief, widespread among Trump aides, that a âDeep Stateâ exists within the federal bureaucracy that is determined to thwart Trumpâs agenda. âIf the resistance does exist, it should be clear by this point that it has failed,â wrote the outgoing diplomat, Chuck Park.
The next month, another U.S. diplomat argued in an op-ed that nowâs the time to stay. âIf we all leave when it gets hard, who will be left to champion American diplomacy?â wrote Elizabeth Fitzsimmons, a deputy assistant secretary of State.
Much of the wrath is directed at Pompeo.
State Department employees say theyâre furious that he hasnât publicly supported Yovanovitch, who testified that the deputy secretary of state, John Sullivan, admitted to her that sheâd âdone nothing wrongâ but was being recalled anyway. (Pompeo declined to discuss Yovanovitch in an interview with POLITICO on Friday.)
State Department staffers also are livid that Pompeo has framed his resistance to congressional demands for information as being about protecting U.S. diplomats.
Pompeo took over the department in April 2018, after morale had sunk unusually low under Trumpâs first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. Tillerson had largely sidelined career diplomats and seemed willing to go along with steep budget cuts Trump proposed for the State Department â cuts Congress has repeatedly blocked.
Pompeo earned goodwill early by naming career staffers, such as McKinley, to top posts and saying he wanted to give State its âswaggerâ back. And he still has his fair share of defenders: An administration official who watches State closely dismissed allegations of a morale problem under Pompeo as âgarbageâ and said complaints were overblown.
But many State staffers say thereâs a growing sense Pompeo is willing to sell out the department to keep favor with Trump, whose backing heâll likely need if he runs for the Senate as many expect he will.
âPeople are generally disappointed that Pompeo seems to have abdicated principled leadership in favor of political games,â a U.S. diplomat overseas said in a text.
The disappointment in Pompeo isnât limited to the Ukraine controversy.
Heâs been slammed for not immediately firing an assistant secretary of State, Kevin Moley, after an August inspector general report found that Moley had subjected career staffers to political retaliation. Pompeo aides say he canât fire a Senate-confirmed official, but thereâs no sign heâs asked Trump to oust Moley, either. On Friday, Foreign Policy reported that Moley has announced heâll retire at the end of November.
The State Department inspector general is still probing other cases of alleged political retaliation. In some of those cases, which date to Tillersonâs time, longtime career staffers found themselves demoted or otherwise poorly treated after being cast as disloyal âObama holdoversâ by the conservative press.
At least one Trump political appointee accused of carrying out the retaliation, Iran envoy Brian Hook, still works for Pompeo. The inspector general report is due out this month, and career employees are watching closely to see what, if anything, Pompeo does in response.
Pompeoâs delivery this month of a speech to the American Association of Christian Counselors about how his faith influences him also troubled many U.S. diplomats. It didnât help that the State Department heavily promoted the speech, including splashing the title of the speech, âBeing a Christian Leader,â atop its homepage. Amid complaints that the department was violating the traditional separation of church and state, officials changed the headline.
âImagine the uproar if any senior U.S. official, let alone the secretary of State, made a public speech and then put out the remarks via official U.S. government channels titled âBeing a Buddhist Leader.â Or âBeing a Muslim Leader.â So bizarre,â the U.S. diplomat overseas said.
For his part, Pompeo insists heâs happy to cooperate with the impeachment probe as required âunder the law,â but heâs criticized Democrats for not permitting State Department lawyers to sit in on the testimonies.
As for diplomats who are testifying? âI hope they go to tell the truth,â he said.
The defiance shown by Yovanovitch and others may only deepen Trump and his top aidesâ long-standing suspicion of the State Department.
Just days after Trump took office, White House officials were infuriated after around 1,000 State Department officials signed a âdissent channelâ memo criticizing Trumpâs âtravel banâ on people from several Muslim-majority countries. The affair hardened perceptions among political appointees that the department was a Democratic bastion.
Later in 2017, when he was pressed on why heâd left so many top State Department positions empty, Trump said he simply didnât need them.
âThe one that matters is me,â Trump told Fox News. âIâm the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, thatâs what the policy is going to be.â
But for now, as the impeachment inquiry leads their colleagues to Capitol Hill, State Department staffers feel like they matter, too. âThey are sad, tired and scared,â one former State Department official said, âthough glad to see colleagues stand up and fulfill their oaths.â
Jake Sherman contributed to this report.