President Donald Trump came into office promising to run the federal government like a private business, and, like almost any new chief executive officer, he’s looking to restructure.
One of his biggest targets? The State Department.
Conversations with more than a dozen people in and outside of State who are involved in or monitoring the administration’s plans suggest some broad outlines are emerging about State’s future, including from proposed budget cuts accepted by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and from a 2016 Heritage Foundation report that laid out some dramatic ways to reshape the department.
Deep cuts are expected to hit State’s environmental and cultural programs, while divisions that deal with arms control and military affairs may see consolidation. The number of special envoys, who focus on everything from climate change to LGBT issues, will be pared down. The counterterrorism bureau will likely escape unscathed, but diplomats who deal with economics or women’s issues may see some changes.
Although it’s still early and much is in flux, anxiety is rife at State. That’s because, unlike in the past, the staffers are expecting not simply reshuffling or additional departments, but rather large cuts and the elimination of entire divisions. Even if Congress rejects the budget cuts proposed by the administration, as several leading lawmakers have indicated it will do, Tillerson is still expected to make major changes.
“I think there are some in the administration who are looking at this like a corporate reorganization, but one of the problems with a corporation, a business, is that the bottom line is earnings. But at the State Department, what is your bottom line?” asked Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. “Your bottom line involves the political part of security operations, the possibility of an unknown future crisis. It involves the protection of American citizens abroad and the promotion of American business. It’s very difficult to quantify.”
The prospect of reorganization is especially weighing on staffers dealing with issues that don’t seem to be a top priority for the Trump administration, such as human rights. While many career officials said they’re not reflexively opposed to restructuring some operations, many are worried about shielding programs that have long been considered core to the U.S. diplomatic mission — and some “are creatively trying to figure out how to make a case for keeping some of the programs running that they built,” said a former State official who regularly speaks to current employees.
Every new secretary of state wants to make his or her mark on the department, which employs about 75,000 people worldwide. In a 2006 speech, Condoleezza Rice outlined a plan to shift hundreds of diplomatic positions from Europe to countries like China, India and Lebanon. And Hillary Clinton established a number of new positions at the department, including the ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues and the Office of Global Youth Issues.
“My sense is that Tillerson wants to go big,” said a State Department official who’s familiar with the discussions. “In terms of streamlining, he seems to like straight lines, direct lines, clear hierarchies with a small number of people reporting to him.”
Trump issued an executive order in mid-March asking Cabinet leaders for proposals by mid-September on how to restructure their agencies. The State Department declined to comment on Tillerson’s plans.
In the meantime, U.S. diplomats and others in the foreign policy realm are reading up on Trump’s budget proposals, looking for clues in administration officials’ public and private statements and leafing through the Heritage report to game out likely scenarios. In some cases, Trump aides are willing to confirm their guesses.
A Trump administration official told POLITICO that the president will not name a special envoy for climate change. The climate envoy helped lead international global warming talks during the Obama administration and played a central role in clinching the nearly 200-nation Paris climate agreement.
Already, State’s political appointees have largely ceded their work on international climate issues to the White House, according to two people briefed on the arrangement, a move that gives warring factions in the West Wing heavy influence over whether the United States should pull out of the Paris deal.
There’s plenty of support across the State Department for scaling back the overall number of special envoys. Depending on how you count such envoys — a category some take to include so-called special representatives, coordinators and other advisers — there are about five dozen. Many of the slots have stayed vacant under Tillerson.
The envoys tend to reflect an administration’s priorities, so few expect the Trump team to keep the one dedicated to, say, closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. But Congress may intervene to protect some of the slots: On March 10, a bipartisan group of about 170 lawmakers wrote to Trump urging him to fill and keep the special envoy position dedicated to combating anti-Semitism, calling it a “crucial office.”
People familiar with Trump transition talks told POLITICO earlier this year that there was a belief that State should focus more on fighting terrorism and less on “soft power” subjects such as democracy promotion. And in proposing cutting the State Department’s fiscal year 2018 budget by about 30 percent, Trump aides specifically cast it as a “hard power” blueprint focused on boosting military might.
But former and current State officials say they don’t expect the elimination of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor — the very embodiment of “soft power” Trump aides dismiss. That’s because there’s strong support in Congress for that bureau, especially among Republicans worried about the rights of Christians in the Middle East.
“You can imagine a very long line of Democratic and Republican members of the Senate that would be very concerned” if that bureau were axed, said a Senate Democratic aide who’s been in touch with Trump transition and administration officials about reorganization plans.
Multiple sources pointed to the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations as one ripe for elimination. The bureau was established in 2011 under Clinton with the goal of trying to prevent and defuse conflicts. But critics say its role has never been well-defined, concerns echoed in a 2014 inspector general’s report.
The administration last month also proposed cutting some $2.9 billion from what remains of the current fiscal year’s budget for State and related programs. That proposal, which also has met resistance in Congress, includes plans to whack State’s educational and cultural programs, its reproductive health initiatives, which affect many women, and its spending on international organizations.
Already, Tillerson has made what appear to be permanent changes to State’s top leadership. He has emptied the slots of the department’s deputy secretary for management and its counselor position and has indicated he will not fill those roles.
Tillerson is expected to appoint a policy-focused deputy secretary for the department — the choice is reported to be GOP attorney John J. Sullivan. But Tillerson has left most of the other leadership slots at State vacant, another reason employees suspect he is pondering serious restructuring.
The Democratic Senate aide stressed that it’s very early days and it’s not clear where some of the possibilities bandied about presently stand.
But some of the changes that have been discussed include streamlining what’s known at State as the “T” family, which includes bureaus that deal with arms control, political-military affairs and nuclear nonproliferation, the aide said. Another idea floated is bringing the U.S. Agency for International Development entirely under the purview of State, the aide said.
The aide also noted that there’s been talk of rejiggering the State Department bureaus devoted to specific regions of the world to be more aligned with the Department of Defense’s Combatant Commands.
This is not a new idea unique to the Trump administration, but it could mean major shifts in which desk officers and deputy assistant secretaries report to which division. For example, South America falls under the Pentagon’s Southern Command, while Canada and Mexico are under its Northern Command. But at State, the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs includes South America as well as Canada and Mexico.
Some of the changes, such as making USAID part of State, will likely require authorization from Congress, officials and analysts said. The exact level of congressional involvement will depend in part on whether bureaus or various functions were somehow mandated by legislation.
“We’re not reflexively or allergically against changes,” the Democratic Senate aide said. “But exactly what they propose and the logic for it is something that we need to see.”
Various stakeholders nearly all mentioned the 2016 report by the Heritage Foundation’s Brett Schaefer. A former senior State Department official said Trump transition aides were “enamored” of the report and took it into meetings.
The report has numerous recommendations, including culling the number of special envoys, eliminating the slot of deputy secretary for management and resources, and bringing USAID under the leadership of an undersecretary of state. It also suggests changes to State’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs that include limiting activities that are primarily the responsibility of other U.S. agencies, such as the Treasury Department.
Schaefer said he talked to a range of people as he prepared his recommendations and found there was a broad consensus that State could be more efficient.
“Every administration makes changes, but I suspect there’s going to be a little bit more along the way of changes under this administration than in previous ones,” he said.
Even if every idea the Trump administration proposes doesn’t become a reality, Schaefer added, it’s worth simply having the debate. “Ultimately, in the end this is a healthy process,” he said.
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