More than two months into Joe Biden’s presidency, former President Donald Trump’s choices are still undermining the State Department, frustrating administration officials and victims of Trump-era moves such as his harsh crackdown on immigration.
Biden’s own approach to appointing top officials is contributing to the problem, critics say, preventing the State Department from making critical progress.
The president has yet to nominate anyone for the vast majority of posts he needs to fill at the agency, including the 22 assistant secretary positions that oversee State Department bureaus. He isn’t expected to tap his first slate of ambassadors until next month ― a full month later than President Barack Obama. And he has yet to give big jobs or a boost to career State Department employees who felt harassed, demoralized and undervalued under Trump.
“There is a whole lot of diplomatic disappointment at the State Department and our embassies,” said Brett Bruen, a White House official under Obama and former diplomat.
It’s frustrating; there is no way around it. We wish there were more positions filled at this point. Congressional aide
The Trump administration’s reluctance to acknowledge the results of the 2020 election is at the root of the problem, observers say. Because General Services Administration head Emily Murphy waited until nearly three weeks after Election Day to begin cooperating with Biden’s transition team, the incoming president was delayed in providing the names of prospective nominees to the FBI for background checks.
The upshot is that the procedure became “abnormally long,” even for former officials receiving new positions like U.S. Agency for International Development administrator nominee Samantha Power, said a congressional aide who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive confirmation process.
If Biden chose, he could speed up the process by sending more nominations to Capitol Hill so consideration could begin even before their paperwork was fully completed, the aide added, noting that the president hasn’t yet identified candidates for many senior posts.
“It’s frustrating; there is no way around it,” the aide said. “Putting ascertainment delays aside, we wish there were more positions filled at this point.”
Turning Off Talent
The slow pace of staffing the State Department is particularly worrying for two groups of experts on U.S. foreign policy: the agency’s career staff, and outside national security analysts hoping to help Biden fulfill his promise to bolster diplomacy and improve America’s handling of global affairs.
Meanwhile, professionals in the foreign and civil service are watching as key roles go to politically connected figures. Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a leading candidate to be the ambassador to China or Japan, for instance, and Cindy McCain ― the widow of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and one of the few Republicans to endorse Biden ― is certain to get a plum posting.
Even figures with State Department backgrounds who already have or are expected to get high-profile posts, such as Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Victoria Nuland and Nicholas Burns, have cultivated strong political links apart from serving in government and rising through standard promotion procedures.
Biden had said “current career officials would be elevated and empowered under this Administration,” Bruen told HuffPost via email. “Where the heck are they? Not one of them have been named to a leadership position at the State Department.”
He noted that only one senior White House national security post is held by a State Department official.
Until the department gets more high-ranking officials who are fully empowered and have the benefit of Senate confirmation, it’s hard for diplomats to map out next steps for their careers and to have influence in crafting Biden’s policies.
Adding to career staffers’ concerns, Biden quickly selected aides for many White House national security jobs that do not require Senate consideration, possibly signaling he will continue the long-running trend of empowering the National Security Council to lead on foreign affairs rather than the State Department.
A State Department spokesperson told HuffPost that Secretary of State Antony Blinken sees the agency’s staff as its “greatest asset.”
“Under Secretary Blinken’s leadership, career experts will always be at the center of our diplomacy, and he is committed to ensuring that they will help to lead it by serving in many of the Department’s most senior positions,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.
“Addressing and filling vital senior leadership positions at the State Department is one of the Secretary’s highest and most immediate priorities, and the Department is working closely with the White House to identify and select qualified candidates.”
There is going to be a loss of talent at some point if a lot of the new next-generation thinkers get written off. National security analyst
Beyond Foggy Bottom, aspiring officials who have cultivated international relations expertise but were reluctant to serve under Trump say the delay in appointments and Biden’s reliance on Obama-era personnel has led to confusion and a sense that it’s futile to continue to focus on government appointments over other opportunities.
“It’s a black box… [and] it’s especially bad at State,” said one national security analyst who sought anonymity to preserve relationships.
That uncertainty is driving fears that Biden will ignore new approaches to international relations and calls to include a more diverse range of voices in policy-making.
“I talk to people all the time who have incredible backgrounds, and they have no idea how to go around getting in,” the analyst continued. “There is going to be a loss of talent at some point if a lot of the new next-generation thinkers get written off.”
The analyst said they and many of their peers were considering taking their skills elsewhere, outside Washington and government work.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The staffing delays may have ripple effects for people all over the world, dashing hopes of a quick and clear turn away from Trump’s disdain for most foreigners.
In 2019, Mohamed Haggag, a 30-year-old engineer in Egypt, was one of thousands of people worldwide who won the U.S.’s annual visa lottery, which provides a pathway to move to America. But just months later, Trump stopped U.S. embassies from issuing new visas, saying more immigration would harm U.S. workers struggling during the coronavirus pandemic.
Haggag said he expected “things under Biden would get better.” And the new president did revoke one of Trump’s pandemic barriers to entry last month.
But that didn’t mean diversity visa hopefuls like Haggag could get back on track. He and others are still fighting in court for the right to even apply for the visa, despite their wins. Meanwhile, Biden’s State Department has said it will not issue visas to people who won the lottery for 2020 “as the deadlines for visa issuance in those fiscal years have expired.”
It said that applied to lottery winners going back to 2017 ― confirming that it would not provide U.S. diversity visas to tens of thousands of lottery winners who were unable to obtain the visas they were entitled to because of Trump’s travel ban mainly targeting Muslim-majority countries.
Manar Waheed, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said there is more the State Department could do.
“This does not have to be a closed issue,” she said, arguing that the State Department could offer humanitarian parole to diversity visa winners as a temporary solution, enabling them to begin the process of moving as lawmakers tweak to the lottery rules to permit them to become U.S. citizens.
“This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is something that can allow them to build lives in safety,” Waheed said.
The American Civil Liberties Union also wants Biden to address other consequences of Trump-era policies to reduce immigration by expediting the processing of visa applications and reopening those that were denied to people simply on the basis of their nationality under Trump’s travel ban.
With a backlog of tens of thousands of visa applications, however, and limited political power at the State Department so far, it’s hard to imagine the Biden administration pulling off a broad redo of Trump’s clampdown.
“We continue to have a deep bench of experienced career professionals serving in key positions that are highly capable and able to help the Secretary lead the Department,” the agency spokesperson wrote to HuffPost.
Still, for people hoping for sweeping change from the new administration, a long wait seems inevitable.
“I only do two things in my life: I work and I follow the lottery news in America,” Haggag said.
Rowaida Abdelaziz contributed reporting.