By Arshad Mohammed and Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The treatment of U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch – disparaged by President Donald Trump and abruptly recalled from Ukraine – exemplifies what current and former U.S. officials describe as a campaign by Trump against career diplomats.
A veteran diplomat who has led the U.S. embassies in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, Yovanovitch’s stint as ambassador in Kiev was cut short when she was recalled to Washington in May as Trump allies levelled unsubstantiated charges of disloyalty and other allegations against her.
Former Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, a career foreign service officer who served in top diplomatic posts under Republican and Democratic presidents, described her treatment as part of a wider “campaign within and against the department.”
“There is a quite reckless and dangerous effort underway not only to sideline career expertise but to sideline the department as an institution,” said Burns, author of “The Back Channel,” a memoir of his career that calls for a renewal of U.S. diplomacy.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Attempts to reach Yovanovitch and other State Department officials also went unanswered.
Yovanovitch is now embroiled in the Democratic-led House of Representatives’ inquiry into whether Trump should be impeached for pressing his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to investigate unsubstantiated corruption charges against Democratic political rival Joe Biden and Biden’s son, Hunter. Both Bidens deny any wrongdoing.
She has agreed to give a deposition to congressional committees on Oct. 11.
Trump has denied pressuring Zelenskiy and defended his request to the Ukrainian president. On Sunday, he wrote on Twitter that as president he has “an OBLIGATION to look into possible, or probable, CORRUPTION!”
Ukrainian prosecutors have said they will review 15 old probes related to a gas company where Hunter Biden once served on the board, but added that they are unaware of any evidence of wrongdoing by Biden’s son.
Described by colleagues as a consummate professional, Yovanovitch in March became the target of allegations – vehemently denied by the State Department – that she gave a Ukrainian prosecutor a list of people not to prosecute.
Trump allies called for her removal, accusing her of criticizing the president to foreign officials, something current and former colleagues found inconceivable. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, alleged that she blocked efforts to persuade Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
Trump himself, according to a White House summary, described her as “bad news” to Zelenskiy in a July 25 call in which he sought Zelinskiy’s help to investigate Biden and his son.
“She’s going to go through some things,” Trump added.
“There is the particularly pernicious practice of going after individual career officers, either because they worked on controversial issues in the last administration, or as in the case of Masha Yovanovitch, a terrific apolitical career diplomat who was doing her job extraordinarily well, were attacked, deeply unfairly, for political reasons,” Burns said.
“We have career people who did their jobs, followed their instructions, served their country loyally, and they are being treated as pawns in a political struggle,” said a senior U.S diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Pompeo has tried to improve morale at the State Department. Last year, he nearly doubled promotions of top American diplomats as he sought to restore ties with a workforce alienated by his predecessor, Rex Tillerson.
However, current and former officials say Trump’s push to marginalise career diplomats can be seen in his proposed roughly 30% State Department budget cuts, his appointment of the highest proportion of political ambassadors in modern history and his drastic reduction in the number of career officials with confirmed posts as assistant secretaries of state and higher.
As a result, there are fewer top jobs in Washington or abroad available for the most senior U.S. diplomats.
The proposed budget cuts have not been enacted because Congress has refused to pass them.
The State Department has been whipsawed by major policy decisions abruptly announced by Trump over Twitter. These include a 2018 suspension of security aid to Pakistan and a breakoff of talks in September with the Taliban on a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
It also has been shaken by high-profile investigations by the department inspector general and Congress into allegations of retaliation and other mistreatment of career officials by political appointees.
“My impression is that the president does not respect diplomats or diplomacy at all and this translates to many of his political appointees in the Department of State,” said Richard Armitage, a veteran Republican foreign policy expert who served as deputy secretary of state under Republican George W. Bush.
Asked why so many senior State Department positions are held by “acting” assistant secretaries, Armitage replied: “Because they don’t care about personnel. They don’t care about policy. They only care about the care and feeding of Donald J. Trump.”
(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mary Milliken, Tom Brown and Daniel Wallis)