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Diplomats testifying in impeachment inspire pride, worry

Positive reviews come with increased fears over safety and political retaliation

Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council senior director, and David Holmes, the counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, are sworn in before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council senior director, and David Holmes, the counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, are sworn in before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Few other parts of the U.S. government under the Trump administration feel as undermined and besieged as the State Department.

The department’s funding has repeatedly come under attack in White House budget requests; the expertise of its diplomats and policy specialists has routinely been ignored in favor of the opinions of Trump loyalists with little foreign affairs experience.

Senior political appointees have bullied its nonpartisan career workforce and accused them of disloyalty, according to recent findings from the department’s inspector general. Cumulatively, these working conditions have contributed to a sharp decline in morale that has resulted in a bleeding of talent from Foggy Bottom’s upper ranks while interest in joining the Foreign Service by young people has declined sharply compared to a decade ago.

So it’s been heartening but also a little nerve-wracking for the current and former State Department personnel tuning into the House Intelligence Committee’s public hearings in the Ukraine investigation to watch their colleagues play such a front-and-center role in laying out the facts concerning President Donald Trump’s attempts to coerce the Ukrainian government into investigating his political rivals.

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“It’s a really good news story for public servants everywhere,” said Jenna Ben-Yehuda, president of the Truman National Security Project and a former State Department official, commenting on the well-received appearance last week of William Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. “Frankly, I was unsurprised to see just the level of concision and precision and expertise with which both of them comported themselves because it was not dissimilar to what I experienced during any day of the week during my many years of experience.”

Former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was abruptly removed this spring from her post in Kyiv following a smear campaign orchestrated by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, also received plaudits for her public appearance, which she used to make a compelling argument for why what happened to her was harmful to broader U.S. national security interests. Yovanovitch testified that the Foreign Service, a corps of roughly 8,000 diplomats and nearly 6,000 other specialized professionals who staff embassies around the world, has been degraded during the Trump administration.

“This is about far, far more than me or a couple of individuals,” she said. “As Foreign Service professionals are being denigrated and undermined, the institution is also being degraded. This will soon cause real harm, if it hasn’t already.”

Derek Shearer, a former ambassador to Finland during the Clinton administration, said he believed Yovanovitch was voicing “the overwhelming majority opinion of Foreign Service officers.”

“I think they probably see her as speaking for them and appreciate that she did it, and did it in a classy way,” said Shearer, who now teaches diplomacy at Occidental College in California. “I’ve been hearing from people about how proud they were of Ambassador Taylor and George Kent. They basically stood up and spoke truth to power.”

Other career State Department officials including Jennifer Williams, a national security aide to Vice President Mike Pence, and Foreign Service officer David Holmes have earned positive reviews as well. Both testified this week about what they directly heard Trump say in relation to getting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to announce investigations into the Biden family and alleged Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Retaliation concerns

But the appearance of career officials from the National Security Council, State Department and the Pentagon before the cameras at the House’s impeachment inquiry is raising fears among their colleagues about threats to their safety from infuriated Trump supporters and political retaliation by the administration.

“There has not actually been any retaliation yet, but it is something that people are indeed concerned about,” said Ronald Neumann, a former three-time ambassador and deputy assistant secretary of State and now the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, an independent nonprofit association of former senior diplomats that seeks to strengthen U.S. diplomacy.

These fears are not unfounded. Trump has used his Twitter account to attack officials, such as Yovanovitch, who testified in the impeachment inquiry. Other testifying officials have received threats, including Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an NSC official whose security is being monitored by the Army after he shared concerns about the safety of his family. And Fiona Hill, a former NSC senior director for Europe and Russia, testified Thursday that repeated attempts have been made to publish her home address on Twitter.

Vindman took time during his appearance this week to acknowledge the attacks against himself and other witnesses in the impeachment inquiry. “I want to state that the vile character attacks on these distinguished and honorable public servants is reprehensible,” said the Iraq War veteran, calling the attacks “callow and cowardly.”

Last week, the Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent a letter to top leaders of the State Department, urging them to protect from retaliation those State employees testifying in the impeachment inquiry. Though some GOP lawmakers such as Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Chip Roy of Texas have separately condemned the attacks questioning the loyalty and patriotism of impeachment witnesses such as Vindman, their overall impact appears to be muted.

Notably, no Republicans signed the letter circulated by the Foreign Relations Committee.

“It’s just sad that we can’t get a single Republican senator to stand up and say this is wrong,” Shearer said. “This is profiles in cowardice.”

“If there was retribution, I absolutely would hope that Congress in a bipartisan way would step up to protect these patriots who have had the courage to step up and talk about what they are seeing as wrong,” said California Democrat Ami Bera, who leads the House Foreign Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

To help defray the financial costs of hiring a personal lawyer for those Foreign Service members who have been called to testify, the American Foreign Service Association is soliciting its members to make donations to the association’s legal defense fund. So far, the effort has raised “tens of thousands of dollars,” according to the association, most of it through small-dollar contributions.

Brain-drain fears

Fears about political impact on the State Department come as the agency has already experienced a significant drop in employee workplace satisfaction under the Trump administration. The department is currently ranked 14th out of 17 large U.S. agencies in employee satisfaction, according to the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. That ranking includes the second-largest drop from 2017-2018 in employee satisfaction, 3.3 points.

The departure from the State Department in the early days of the Trump administration of some of its highest-ranked Foreign Service Officers has been well-documented. The department has responded by ramping up Foreign Service promotions.

“Skyrocketing promotion rates are up almost 20 percent over the last two years,” a department spokesperson said. “That’s a real investment in our team’s future.”

But another important barometer for the future of the Foreign Service is not looking so great: The number of Americans annually taking the arduous Foreign Service Officer Test is down sharply from the 21,000 who took it in 2009 to just above 9,000 this year. Anything below 9,000 is a cause of concern, according to a former department official, who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject.

Shearer said he is sometimes asked for career advice by his former students who are now in the Foreign Service. He said he advises them to keep their heads down and wait it out.

“We don’t want you all to leave because of what is going on. I hear from them how both agonizing and depressing it is, and, of course, how could it not be when you have a president who doesn’t believe in diplomacy and thinks his professional diplomats are traitors?” Shearer said. “If this continues, not only is the morale of the State Department going to suffer, but the quality of Americans and especially young people like my students, who are going to want to serve their country, is going to be severely affected.”

Katherine Tully McManus contributed to this report.

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