For State Department workers, dissenters are reason for a rallying cry

Former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch leaves the US Capitol on Oct. 11 after her deposition to lawmakers.
Former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch leaves the US Capitol on Oct. 11 after her deposition to lawmakers.AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — State Department Foreign Service officers usually express their views in formal diplomatic cables, but these days they are using closed Facebook groups and encrypted apps to convey their pride in Marie L. Yovanovitch, the ousted ambassador to Ukraine, whose House testimony opened the floodgates on the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

#GoMasha is their rallying cry.

In private conversations, they trade admiring notes about career State Department officials like William B. Taylor Jr. and George P. Kent, who delivered damning testimony about a shadow Ukraine policy infected by partisan politics and presidential conspiracy theories, and William V. Roebuck, a senior diplomat in Syria who wrote a searing memo on how Trump abandoned the Kurds and upended U.S. influence.


And they are opening their wallets to help raise money — including nearly $10,000 last Monday alone — to offset the legal bills of department officials called to testify before Congress.

Rarely has the State Department, often seen as a staid pillar of the establishment, been the center of a revolt against a president and his top appointees. But as a parade of department officials has recounted to lawmakers how policy was hijacked by partisan politics, many career diplomats say they have been inspired by their colleagues’ willingness to stand up to far more powerful voices after nearly three years of being ignored or disparaged by Trump and those he has chosen to lead the department.

In fact, when open impeachment hearings begin next week, the first to testify will be diplomats, appearing despite directives from the White House for administration officials to defy Congress on such requests. They will include Yovanovitch, a revered diplomat whose abrupt recall in May under suspicious circumstances was a galvanizing moment for her colleagues.

“What we’ve seen is a dawning recognition that Foreign Service officers are just as deeply patriotic as their colleagues in the military,” said Molly Montgomery, who spent 14 years in the Foreign Service before leaving government last year after a stint in the office of Vice President Mike Pence. “There’s a feeling of immense pride that the public is seeing Foreign Service officers for who they are.”


But the uprising has come at a cost, deepening the divide between career diplomats and an administration that took office determined to cut their budget and diminish their influence. And in interviews over recent days, department officials acknowledged that this moment of team spirit would probably prove fleeting, and that the State Department would return to what current and former diplomats described as a crisis of morale.

A growing number of Foreign Service officers have opted to leave, many earlier than planned; one recent retirement class was by far the largest ever, according to the American Foreign Service Association.

Some of those who remain are shying away from plum policy jobs that in any other time would be considered a career boost. Instead, they are choosing to “hide out” in language training and other low-profile postings, hoping to avoid being tainted by the politics of the Trump administration — or even being noticed by officials watchful for dissenters.

“There’s outrage over the mistreatment of career officers and failure to stand up for them.” said William J. Burns, who served as an ambassador under four presidents and, during the Obama administration, became only the second career diplomat to ascend to deputy secretary of state. “There’s pride in the dignity of those officers in these undignified times, and in how vividly their plain-spoken courage and professionalism brings to life the wider value of public service.”


Burns added, “There’s growing concern about the hollowing out of American diplomacy and the huge challenge of its renewal.”

The competing feelings of pride and despair were evident in interviews with more than 20 current Foreign Service officers and State Department civil servants, as well as several more officials who recently departed after long careers on the diplomatic front lines. The current officials spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of what they called potentially career-ending retaliation from Trump political appointees.

Like the military or the CIA, the State Department is its own separate culture and one that views the world in terms very different from Trump’s. As with the military, an immunity to domestic politics is among the Foreign Service’s most cherished ideals.

That is not to say that career diplomats have no personal opinions about the presidents and secretaries they serve, but even career officials who have worked for multiple presidents of both parties say they have seen nothing like the Trump era.

“I wake up and read the testimony and I’m proud of my colleagues for telling the truth,” said a U.S. diplomat serving in Asia. “But my heart hurts when I see how they’re being treated by our own president.”

And one crucial difference with the military is the culture of dissent that is a point of pride in the State Department. The American Foreign Service Association even bestows multiple awards each year for diplomats who have shown “integrity, intellectual courage and constructive dissent,” and past secretaries of state have said they appreciate differing opinions.


But Trump and his allies have made clear that they see the diplomats crying foul over his Ukraine policy as “deep state” saboteurs. After Taylor’s appearance on Capitol Hill last month, Trump lashed out at him, without evidence, as a “Never Trumper.”

“Right now I think morale is really probably as low as I have ever known it in the 35 years that I served in the Foreign Service,” said Linda Thomas-Greenwood, a former director general of the Foreign Service who retired from the State Department in 2017.

Many diplomats expressed hope when Trump named as his first secretary of state Rex W. Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil executive who had no government experience but had worked closely with several foreign governments. But Tillerson spent his first few months freezing hiring, acquiescing to huge budget cuts and doing what he called redefining “lines of authority” rather than focusing on Russia, China and a fracturing Middle East.

Their mood brightened with the arrival in April 2018 of Tillerson’s successor, Mike Pompeo, who dropped the critique of the department as bloated, and vowed to return “swagger” to its limping ranks. Unlike Tillerson, who was brusquely fired, Pompeo is close to Trump, and initially restored a sense of relevancy to the department.


But the imbroglio over Ukraine has renewed, and even sharpened, the despair by revealing the way Trump administration officials were willing to withhold U.S. aid until Ukraine committed to investigating the president’s political enemies.

It has also exposed how Pompeo allowed an inexperienced Trump donor turned ambassador to the European Union, Gordon D. Sondland, to assume a lead role in Ukraine policy, and how Pompeo agreed to remove Yovanovitch from her job in Ukraine after she became the target of unfounded rumors circulated by the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

And it has demonstrated that Pompeo’s close alliance with Trump, which comes in part from an instinct to please the president that Tillerson lacked, may translate to more direct, and unwelcome, White House influence over the State Department’s work.

Career diplomats and civil servants described an internal reckoning over the Ukraine affair not unlike the stages of grief: an initial sense of shock, replaced by anger, giving way to sadness.

For now, however, those feelings are leavened by satisfaction at seeing career diplomats trained to shun the limelight step forward to defend U.S. ideals under enormous pressure.

With the exception of Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, the Harvard-educated Army officer who served as a White House adviser on Ukraine, it has been career State Department employees who have provided the most damning evidence of Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine.

Yovanovitch told House investigators that Giuliani tried to get a visa for a Ukrainian prosecutor the State Department had already rejected because of his corrupt dealings. Her successor in Kyiv, Taylor, testified that it was Giuliani’s idea to pressure Ukraine’s president to publicly commit to an inquiry into Trump’s political opponents.

Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state, said Trump apparently wanted Ukraine’s president to investigate the family of former Vice President Joe Biden, as well as Hillary Clinton. And Michael McKinley, who directly advised Pompeo and served as a liaison for the Foreign Service, quit because he felt Trump was using the State Department for political gain.

“In 37 years in the Foreign Service and different parts of the globe and working on many controversial issues, working 10 years back in Washington, I had never seen that,” McKinley told House lawmakers last month.

At the same time, McKinley said that Pompeo had taken important steps to stabilize his department after Tillerson’s unhappy tenure. Pompeo “does deserve credit for rebuilding the institution, processes, creating opportunities, and, frankly, ambitions for the Foreign Service,” he said.

The weeks of testimony offered a rare glimpse of a State Department culture that normally avoids the spotlight, and served as a kind of catharsis for the pent-up frustrations of U.S. diplomats across the world.

“They’re saying what we all think,” one career State Department official in Washington said of the testimony.

Eric S. Rubin, a former ambassador to Bulgaria and the president of the American Foreign Service Association, which represents career diplomats, said the impeachment inquiry had provided “an opportunity to talk to our fellow Americans about what we do, and why it matters for America’s security and prosperity.”

His organization has raised tens of thousands of dollars for diplomats’ legal defense, mostly in small donations, and not just from people who work at the State Department. The one requirement for contributing, Rubin said, “is that you have to be an American.”

Some career diplomats fear that the new respect they have earned from the public may do little to shield them from Trump administration officials who are probably wary of them now more than ever, particularly if the president is elected to a second term next year.

“There’s a deep worry about what will become of the Foreign Service when this is all over,” said Montgomery, the former Foreign Service officer who briefly worked for Pence, “about who will be left, and whether the norm of an apolitical Foreign Service trusted by the State Department’s political leadership can be restored.”