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Democrats warn State Department of potential Trump ‘witch-hunts’

U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). (ZACH GIBSON/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Democrats in Congress, upset by the Trump transition team’s efforts to identify Energy Department officials who worked on climate change, are trying to head off a larger effort to identify and potentially purge bureaucrats who worked on Obama administration policies at the State Department.

The Obama administration’s political appointees will leave office en masse when President-elect Donald Trump takes office, but the civil servants and career diplomats who worked with them will largely remain. The fear is that the Trump team will try to single out career officials who have worked on several Obama foreign policy items that they may seek to reverse, such as the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate accords.

Earlier this week, the Energy Department refused a request by the Trump transition team to identify specific officials and contractors who have worked on climate change. On Wednesday, the Trump transition team said that this request had not been officially authorized. On Thursday, all but one of the Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry to urge him to reject any similar requests that his agency might get from the incoming administration.

“We believe your Department should work to ensure a smooth transition of power,” said the letter, led by ranking Democrat Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.). “However, individual civil servants, Foreign Service Officers, and other staff should not be singled out for their work in support of policy objectives that clash with the next Administration’s goals, leaving them vulnerable to retribution by the incoming Administration.”

The House Foreign Affairs Committee Democrats are setting up a portal on their website enabling State Department and USAID whistleblowers to alert them of any unethical or illegal practices, including but not limited to efforts to single out federal employees who may not agree with the Trump agenda.

“In our view, gathering names in this manner bears striking resemblance to dark chapters in our history marked by enemies lists and political witch hunts,” 18 of the 19 committee Democrats said. “We want to make sure that you and the Department of State know that you have our full support as you seek to protect the Department’s public servants.”

The only committee Democrat not to sign the letter was Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who met with the president-elect at Trump Tower last month.

There’s no indication that the Trump team has asked the State Department to single out officials or contractors connected to any particular policy, committee sources told me. But Democrats were taken aback by the Energy Department request and want to prepare for a wider purge effort.

A senior State Department official told me that Kerry had received the letter and was preparing a formal reply. “We would, of course, not comply with such a request for names,” the official said.

The Trump transition team did not reply to a request for comment.

Fears of a purge of career officials also extend to the Defense Department and the intelligence community, in light of Trump’s public attack on the CIA after it assessed that the Russian government intervened in the U.S. election to aid his candidacy.

There are also concerns that Trump’s incoming national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, could seek to replace top defense and national security officials. Before being ousted as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, he clashed with other officials and analysts over what he saw as an effort to oversell successes and downplay setbacks in the war on Islamic terrorism.

As president, Trump is entitled to install a team of senior officials to run national security agencies who will advance his foreign policy goals. The professionals working in those agencies will be obligated to help them. But they should not be punished for helping the Obama team that they were also duty-bound to assist.

Update: On Friday, Gabbard requested her name be added to the letter, which was then resent to Kerry. Gabbard said she hadn’t seen the letter before due to confusion caused by an office move, according to committee sources.