Trying to Defend President Trump’s Derision, Diplomatically

Trying to Defend President Trump’s Derision, Diplomatically

“I’ve advised people to keep their heads down and focus on the job at hand,” he said, adding: “It’s not easy.”

Historically, few jobs are better than those given to United States ambassadors. Meals come on white tablecloths, maids do the laundry and a car and driver are always waiting to whisk them away to important meetings or glittering parties. They even get the glorious title of plenipotentiary, or all-powerful.


President Trump and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, in Bedminster, N.J., in August.

Al Drago for The New York Times

Nearly a third of the ambassadors in 168 American embassies worldwide are political appointees — many of whom were big political donors before they were given plush assignments to wealthy countries where they are rarely expected to conduct high-stakes diplomacy.

No longer.

Woody Johnson, the owner of the New York Jets, landed in August as the ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, the august name for diplomatic missions to the United Kingdom. It is one of the most prestigious posts in the American foreign service, and is as much of a social whirl as a policy conduit between Washington and London. But Mr. Johnson has repeatedly had to hustle over to Britain’s foreign ministry to explain incendiary presidential tweets that have put what both countries have long described as their “special relationship” on the thinnest ice in decades.

Peter Hoekstra’s appointment as ambassador to the Netherlands must have seemed a similarly breezy posting for the former Michigan congressman. But days into his stint, he was grilled by Dutch reporters in a confrontation that went viral over his false claim in 2015 that politicians and cars had been burned by Muslims there, which he took days to retract.

Pakistan’s foreign office summoned Ambassador David Hale early this year for a dressing down after Mr. Trump threatened in a tweet to cut aid over Islamabad’s “lies & deceit.” And in Panama, Ambassador John Feeley quit last month, saying he no longer could serve under Mr. Trump.


David Hale, right, the American ambassador to Pakistan. He has been chastised by the Pakistani government over Mr. Trump’s critical tweets.

Aamir Qureshi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Those who have decided to stay are in the awkward position of defending policies that, in some cases, hit close to home.

Ambassador Tulinabo S. Mushingi, who serves in Senegal and Guinea-Bissau, was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and later became a United States citizen. He speaks four languages, has a Ph.D. from Georgetown University and is a highly decorated career foreign service officer. He must now explain Mr. Trump’s insistence that people with similar origins should not be allowed to visit the United States because they would “never go back to their huts” in Africa. Mr. Mushingi did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

“I think I can speak for many of my senior colleagues when I say that, while we’ve all faced challenges, what’s different now is that the president’s rhetoric is so disrespectful that we’re losing the respect and relationships that we have spent decades building,” said Dana Shell Smith, who resigned in June as ambassador to Qatar after tweeting her disagreements with the president.

Compounding the discontent is a sense of gloom hanging over the State Department that dozens of officials in recent weeks said has been a prime reason that at least 353 foreign service officers quit between last March and December, with hundreds more considering following them out the door.


Peter Hoekstra, right, the American ambassador to the Netherlands, presented his credentials to King Willem-Alexander earlier this month.

Patrick Van Katwijk/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It is not new, or even all that uncommon, for foreign service officers to disagree with a president. Many opposed President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Others disagreed with President Barack Obama’s passivity in Syria in 2013. But it is not Mr. Trump alone that has inspired the rampant unhappiness across the department.

Career diplomats also complain that Mr. Tillerson has paralyzed decision-making, failed to recruit vital leadership, ignores entire continents and surrounds himself with a small cadre of aides instead of talking to department veterans.

“I never briefed the secretary and many of my counterparts never briefed him either,” said Patricia Haslach, who served as the acting assistant secretary of economic and business affairs until Nov. 30.

Donald Y. Yamamoto, the acting assistant secretary for Africa, said the first time he briefed the secretary was when a conclave of African diplomats came to Washington on Nov. 17.


Read that Protest Letter Ambassadors to African Nations Sent to Trump

On Wednesday, more than 80 former ambassadors to African nations over the last several decades sent a letter of protest to President Trump for his remarks last week when he derided “shithole” African countries during an immigration debate.

OPEN Document

Hopes for Mr. Tillerson within the department were once high. The former chief executive of Exxon Mobil was seen as the most impressive of Mr. Trump’s cabinet picks, and his plans for a top-to-bottom departmental reorganization was almost universally seen as needed.

“I defended him for months,” said Virginia Bennett, the former acting assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, who retired on Nov. 30 after also never having briefed Mr. Tillerson. “But he has tied the department in knots.”

Morale plunged in December when Mr. Tillerson finally revealed the results of his yearlong reorganization effort, which spent about $7 million on consultants. It concluded with a pledge by Mr. Tillerson to fix the department’s turgid email system and improve medical leaves and travel arrangements — bureaucratic problems that underwhelmed many.

“Everything he listed we’d already identified as a problem before he arrived, and were working on fixes that he froze to do his reorganization,” said Alex Karagiannis, who retired in November from a senior position in the bureau of human resources. “He made everything worse.”

Speculation that Mr. Tillerson would be forced out over his strained relationship with Mr. Trump was so widespread that the secretary called a news conference in October to affirm his support for the president. More recently, Mr. Tillerson has insisted that he will remain in his job through the end of 2018.

Mr. Tillerson said this week that he is not warned ahead of time when the president tweets, and that it usually takes him at least an hour to gauge reaction and decide how to respond.

“It allows me to begin to think about: ‘How do we take that?’” he said.

Reuben E. Brigety II, an ambassador to the African Union during the Obama administration, said it is highly detrimental — and unusual — for the “secretary of state to be alienated both from the president and the professional diplomatic corps at the same time.”

“In fact, it’s never happened before,” Mr. Brigety said. “This has to change.”

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