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Just days after President Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, two leading House Democrats have come forward with whistleblower claims that White House and State Department officials sought to ouster agency career employees they believed weren’t loyal to the president’s foreign policy goals.
In a letter to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan — now serving as the acting head of the department following Tillerson’s firing — and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) raised concerns over emails between senior Trump administration officials.
“We have obtained extremely disturbing new documents from a whistleblower indicating that high-level officials at the White House and State Department worked with a network of conservative activists to conduct a ‘cleaning’ of employees they believe were not sufficiently ‘supportive’ of President Trump’s agenda,” the lawmakers wrote.
Emails between State Department political appointees, Cummings and Engel wrote, characterize career employees with phrases such as “a leaker and a troublemaker,” “turncoat,” “associated with previous policy” and “Obama/Clinton loyalists not at all supportive of President Trump’s foreign policy agenda.”
The email chain also reportedly includes messages from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and David Wurmser, who served as an adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney.
According to the whistleblower documents, Gingrich forwarded an email urging staff firings, written by Wurmser, to State Department political appointees.
“I think a cleaning is in order here,” Wurmser reportedly wrote. “I hear Tillerson actually has been reasonably good on stuff like this and cleaning house, but there are so many that it boggles the mind…”
Several of the emails obtained by an agency whistleblower and passed along to Cummings and Engel, focus on Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, a State Department foreign affairs officer.
In March 2017, a website called the Conservative Review published an article claiming Nowrouzzadeh, who had served on the staff of the National Security Council under the Obama administration, had “burrowed into the government under President Trump.”
After the article ran, the whistleblower says Nowrouzzadeh emailed her supervisor, Brian Hook, the director of policy planning staff, to “correct the record.”
“I am and have been a career civil servant for nearly 12 years now. I began government service in the Bush administration at DoD/NSA … I’ve adapted my work to the policy of every administration I have worked for,” Nowrouzzadeh reportedly wrote to Hook.
However, the whistleblower claims Hook forwarded the email to senior State Department officials, who later forwarded the email to White House officials. From there, the senior political officials reportedly began questioning Nowrouzzadeh’s prior work under the Obama administration.
“As background, she worked on the Iran Deal, specifically works on Iran within [the Policy Planning Staff], was born in Iran and upon my understanding cried when the President won,” Julia Haller, the White House’s liaison to the State Department, reportedly wrote in one email.
Nowrouzzadeh was removed from her detail to the policy planning staff three months early, which she reportedly said breached a memorandum of understanding she had with the State Department.
Cummings and Engel, the ranking members of the House Oversight and Government Affairs and House Foreign Affairs committees, have asked Sullivan and Kelly for additional documents related to State Department staffing decisions.
The lawmakers also have requested interviews with several of the State Department political officials mentioned in the whistleblower emails.
“Over the last year, we have heard many reports of political attacks on career employees at the State Department, but we had not seen evidence of how extensive, blunt and inappropriate these attacks were until now,” the lawmakers wrote.
At a press briefing Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert confirmed the agency has received the letter, and “regards those types of communications very seriously.”
Nauert said the State Department will respond to the letter and went on to say she’s never personally witnessed the kind of behavior described by lawmakers.
“I have found my colleagues to be extremely professional. Those on staff who have been here for many years, I have found them almost blind to politics,” Nauert said.
Moving from hiring freeze to ‘strategic hiring initiative’
The lawmakers’ letter comes just days after Sullivan announced his intention to lift the agency’s hiring freeze, and instead move forward with a strategic hiring initiative that “aligns our talent and human capital needs with foreign policy and budget priorities.”
“The Department of State and USAID will move forward with separate hiring and staffing initiatives to ensure our workforces are fully prepared to meet the challenges of 21st-century diplomacy and development,” Sullivan wrote in a March 12 memo obtained by Federal News Radio.
In another memo obtained by Federal News Radio, USAID Administrator Mark Green told employees the strategic hiring initiative would lift the State Department’s hiring freeze, and would allow USAID to handle its own hiring decisions.
“The Department of State confirmed that it will be making a transition from a hiring freeze to a new Strategic Hiring Initiative that aligns its workforce-planning with the Administration’s foreign-policy and budgetary priorities. In a letter to me, Deputy Secretary John Sullivan indicates that, effective immediately, USAID ‘should initiate its own hiring processes to accommodate the Agency’s staffing needs,'” Green wrote in a March 12 memo.
Green’s memo says USAID will continue to manage its workforce through its Hiring and Reassignment Review Board (HRRB), which it stood up in July 2017.
The hiring board meets monthly to review external hires, internal transfers and promotions. It also monitors attrition levels, identifies skills gaps in the agency’s workforce and identifies “essential positions” that are the highest priority to fill.
“This corporate view ensures we remain within our funding levels; support our Redesign efforts; and recruit, retain and deploy the talent we need to fulfill the Administration’s vision for 21st-century diplomacy and development,” Green wrote.
According to the memo, USAID will soon proceed with the hiring of some qualified candidates for the foreign service in high-priority categories.
“We will continue to collaborate and share our experience with the Department of State as it formalizes its new Strategic Hiring Initiative to empower Bureaus and leadership at all levels to align their human-capital needs with the Secretary’s priorities,” Green wrote.