Concerns around the State Department that President Donald Trump’s transition was in chaos seem mistaken. What if it’s by design? What if Trump decided America doesn’t need State and if he can’t get away with closing it down, he can disable, deconstruct and defund it?
The question is not theoretical. Trump wants to cut government, shift money to infrastructure and other proposed programs, and views military force, or its threat, as a primary tool of global problem-solving. Never a favorite of conservatives, State seems an easy target for Trump. But he will quickly find out he’ll need State to keep the lights on at embassies and consulates, and find some way to process visas. After that, there is a lot to cut few will miss.
While we can’t see into Trump’s mind, we may be able to gauge his intentions. Things do not look good at State. The department didn’t hold a regular press briefing in January or February, nor has Secretary of State Rex Tillerson answered questions in public. There may be little to talk about – a bad sign in these first 100 days. The briefings are also a tool to get America’s broader foreign policy message out to the globe, and for now that message is that no one is home at State.
Tillerson wasn’t present, as is typical, at several White House meetings with foreign leaders, and has taken only two short trips abroad. (By March 6 of her term, Hillary Clinton had already visited nine countries, John Kerry, 10.) Of the 17 sets of official remarks Tillerson delivered, 12 were substance-free messages to countries on their national days.
Sources inside State say he is nowhere to be seen around the building, either in person or virtually via demands for information. State’s long hallways, which should be abuzz as new faces arrive with policy initiatives, and career staff work to bring them up to date on existing issues, are instead pretty quiet places.
Meanwhile, Trump has proposed devastating cuts to State’s budget, already only about 1 percent of federal spending. The administration has left many of the 64 special representative and other ambassador-level domestic positions empty, with no sign anyone will fill them soon. Many of the jobs were already under scrutiny by Congress during Obama’s time, and the current administration is unlikely to defend them.
Tillerson also laid off a number of his own staff, some of whom were Obama-era holdovers, and has not rushed to replace them. These vacancies may show Trump’s intent to not rely on State for foreign policy opinion.
Already seen by many inside the Trump administration as too closely tied to the Hillary Clinton campaign (some senior State officials associated with Clinton were purged in late January), the State Department has done little to help itself via the leaked dissent memo aimed at Trump’s first so-called Muslim ban, and the subsequent leaked memo admonishing State staffers to stop leaking.
Add in a Federal-wide hiring freeze, and the only good news at Foggy Bottom is that it’s no longer hard to find a seat in the cafeteria.
So is this it? The end of the Department of State, founded alongside the republic in 1789, with Thomas Jefferson as its first leader? Is anyone going to miss most of it?
Maybe not. The actions described above refer to the “political” State Department, the traditional organ of diplomacy that once negotiated treaties and ended wars, but more and more since 9/11 (perhaps earlier) has been supplemented if not left behind by modern communications that allow Washington policymakers to deal directly with counterparts abroad.
There is also a lot of bloat in State, mostly via overlap with other government agencies. State does trade promotion, as do other parts of the government, specifically the U.S. Commercial Service. State’s economic and political reporting exist alongside that of the intelligence community. (The WikiLeaks cables, years of State Department effort, contained as much filler and gossip as they did cogent policy advice.)
Even within State, overlap grows like wild mushrooms. Large swaths of bureaucracy exist only to support other swaths of bureaucracy. And no one can really be sure what the Department’s Special Representative for the Great Lakes Region of Africa does.
Throw in the growing role of the military in international relations, and Trump’s opinion that nobody negotiates better than he does on his own, and you end up with far too much State Department.
So what will Trump need to hold on to?
Those 294 embassies and consulates State operates serve a function as America’s concierge that cannot be easily replaced.
Dozens of U.S. government agencies rely on State’s international real estate for office space and support to keep their costs down. Traveling American government VIPs need someone to arrange their security and get their hotels and receptions booked. Supporting CODELS (Congressional Delegations’ visits to foreign lands) is a right of passage for State Department employees. While stationed in London, I escorted so many Important Somebodies shopping I was named “Ambassador to Harrods Department Store” by my colleagues.
Never mind handling the logistics for a full-on presidential visit to a foreign country. Trump will need this side of State to stay.
Trump will also need to keep the function of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs somewhere inside government. Consular performs the traditional jobs of assisting Americans overseas when they’re arrested, caught up in a natural disaster, or just need help with a new passport.
The big swinging bat of consular work, however, is visa issuance. Visas are what fills the American economy with tourists, Silicon Valley with engineers and universities with foreign students. Visas are the State Department’s cash cow: in FY2015 Consular issued close to 11 million tourist, worker and student visas at a typical fee of $160. That’s well over $1.7 billion in revenue in addition to the budget Congress allots State. Consular holds a cash surplus whose dollar amount is one of the most closely held non-national security secrets inside government.
Yet in a Trumpian calculus, what looks like a strength at Foggy Bottom might turn out to be a weakness. State fought viciously after 9/11 to hold on to consular work, even as the Bush administration sought to consolidate the function into the then-new Department of Homeland Security.
State won that bureaucratic fight in 2001, but if the Trump administration really wanted to wipe away most of the State Department proper, it could simply kick out the most profitable leg holding up the whole edifice, and it’s unclear Congress would even need to be involved. Like a Jenga tower, Trump can pick away at the top positions for media and political points, but if he really wants to see it all fall down, he’ll attack the bottom.
Watch for it; it’ll help tell you how serious this fight really is.
Peter Van Buren is the author of "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” His next book is “Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.” @WeMeantWell The views presented here are the author’s own and do not represent those of the Department of State
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.