Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s team wants to mitigate a “morale issue” that threatens to create a wave of retirements from the diplomatic corps, his spokeswoman acknowledged Friday.
“There is a morale issue in this building, and that's why I say, 'folks, hang in there,’” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters.
Tillerson’s team has been criticized by veterans of the Obama administration for months, as it sought to cut the diplomatic budget and reorganize the State Department. Those complaints expanded to include Republican and Democratic lawmakers over the last several days, who faulted the progress of the reorganization and complained they were receiving too little information about it from the State Department.
“The redesign is an effort that continues to take place,” Nauert said. “We don't have all of the answers to provide people right now. Admittedly, the department could do a better job of communicating every single step along the way of the redesign process.”
She spoke days after a top Senate Republican criticized a “very unsatisfactory” staff briefing provided to Congress. “I don't think they're anywhere close to having a plan to present relative to the reforms that they want to make there,” said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who began the year as an administration ally before developing into one of President Trump’s top critics.
Nauert indicated the department is most worried about how the career foreign service officers react. “I hope they don't give up,” she said. “I know that times may seem tough right now. I know that the headlines coming out of the State Department do not look good, do not look promising.”
She emphasized that the redesign process is being led by career diplomats, rather than Tillerson or Trump’s political allies.
“This department regards the overall redesign as being an employee-led, employee-driven process,” Nauert said. “People who love this building, who are part of this institution, who believe so firmly in what the State Department does are the key people who are involved in seeing this process through.”
State Department morale has been a vulnerability for Tillerson, especially in recent days during which congressional Democrats have blamed him for a wave of retirements. “[W]e remain profoundly concerned about what appears to be the intentional hollowing-out of our senior diplomatic ranks and the entire State Department with no apparent goal,” a group of Democrats from the House Foreign Affairs Committee wrote Tillerson on Thursday.
Nauert rejected the premise of those criticisms, however. She noted that 249 foreign service officers and specialists retired between January and mid-November of last year, compared to 244 departures in 2017. And she emphasized that the ranks of the current diplomatic corps will be “nearly identical” to last year’s levels if Congress approves 63 pending nominations.
“We have virtually the same number of senior foreign service officers who will be serving after Congress approves their promotion as were serving last year at this time,” Nauert said. “The difference is only 10, according to the numbers that I've been given.”
Still, Nauert said Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and Under Secretary of State Tom Shannon, respectively the second- and third-highest ranking officials at the State Department, understand that the morale problem is real.
“It breaks my heart to hear that some feel that they aren't wanted or aren't needed or aren't appreciated,” Nauert said. “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 this career.”