The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump team asked State Department for info on women’s issues programs, sparking fears of another witch hunt

President-Elect Donald J. Trump smiles to members of the media after a meeting with military leadership at the Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, FL. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The Trump transition team instructed the State Department to turn over all information Wednesday about “gender-related staffing, programming, and funding,” setting off alarm bells among those who fear that the new administration is going to purge programs that promote women’s equality along with the people who work on them.

Only a week after being embroiled in a controversy over collecting information on Energy Department climate change officials, the Trump team seems to be at it again. On Wednesday morning, the State Department leadership sent out what’s called a “Flash Transition Tasker” to a long list of offices and bureaus. This official request mandated that all State Department offices provide to the Trump team by 5 p.m. Wednesday full reports on the positions and programs at the State Department dedicated to promoting a range of women’s and gender issues around the world.

I obtained a copy of the State Department request, which said each office should include information on all existing programs and activities that “promote gender equality, such as ending gender-based violence, promoting women’s participation in economic and political spheres, entrepreneurship, etc.”

How the Obama administration pushed Turkey into Russia’s arms

The request did not ask directly for the names of the officials who work on these programs but stated that, in their reports, each office “should note positions whose primary functions are to promote such issues.”

Last week, a member of the Trump transition sent a questionnaire to the Energy Department asking for the names of all department officials who worked on the Paris climate change accords. The Energy Department refused to provide the names. The transition team said later that the questionnaire was not sanctioned by the transition leadership and was not standard protocol.

The Trump transition team did authorize Wednesday’s request and the State Department did fulfill it, three State Department officials told me, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. One senior State Department official said that because the Trump team’s request did not ask for names, only positions of staffers who work on gender and women’s issues, the State Department felt compelled to cooperate.

“It’s not clear to us what the intent is behind this request,” the official said. “The Trump team could be looking to advance gender issues and make it a priority — or you could look at it as a witch hunt.”

Congress wants to strengthen Trump’s hand to negotiate on Syria

Despite that ambiguity, fears spread quickly Wednesday throughout State Department headquarters that the incoming Trump administration might use this information to single out both political appointees and career officials who worked on these programs.

“These types of requests send a cold chill through the Department and career diplomats dedicated to their work and service to the country,” a different State Department official told me. “It’s devastating to morale.”

The Trump transition team issued a list of 74 questions for the Energy Department, asking officials there to identify which employees involved in climate talks. (Video: Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

Eliot Engel (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told me today that this request speaks directly to the warning that he and the other 18 Democrats on the committee issued last week about potential Trump administration “witch hunts” over Obama administration policies that transition officials don’t agree with.

“Transition officials need to explain, immediately, why this alarming demand was made,” Engel said. “It’s troubling that the Trump transition team seems to be singling out this issue and those who work on it. Last week, my colleagues and I sent a clear signal that we wouldn’t tolerate the targeting of State Department employees by the next Administration.”

The House Foreign Affairs Committee Democrats wrote a letter to Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Dec. 15 asking him not to comply with any Trump transition efforts to single out State Department employees who might face retribution in the next administration for working on certain issues.

“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,” the committee Democrats said. The minority committee staff is setting up a web portal for bureaucrats to report such attempts to Congress.

Advocating for women and girls abroad was a major focus of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state. Clinton raised the priority of women’s and gender issues at the State Department, for example, by making the Office of Global Women’s Issues part of her personal staff. That office spearheaded several programs to promote and protect women in oppressive countries, such as the Women, Peace and Security initiative, which was based on the argument that increased security for women can contribute to overall peace and security, and vice versa.

The U.S. government’s attention to the plight of women and girls abroad continued after Clinton left office. The House voted unanimously to pass the Women, Peace and Security Act just last month, which was meant to make the State Department’s initiative permanent.

In March, Kerry announced a national strategy to promote the protection of adolescent girls around the world from things such as forced marriage, genital cutting, sexual violence and denial of access to education.

“We are here, all of us, every single one of us, because we believe … that equitable treatment of women and girls is and always must be a core tenet of America’s global leadership,” he said.

The Trump transition team did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Trump did not lay out many specific policies on women’s and gender issues during the campaign but did call for terminating funding for Planned Parenthood in the United States. Internationally, Republicans have long wished to restore what’s known as the “Mexico City Policy,” which would bar the U.S. government from funding any foreign aid programs that promote or enable abortions as a method of family planning. President Obama abolished that policy in 2009.

Trump’s campaign did issue a plan for easing the burden of child care, reportedly on the advice of Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump. On equal pay for women, Trump implied there was no need for promoting it. “You’re going to make the same if you do as good of a job,” he said.

In the end, the Trump transition team has a right to information about how federal agencies work and who works in them. And there’s probably no way to stop the Trump administration from drastically changing how the U.S. government approaches women’s and gender issues if it is determined to do so.

But there have only been three “Flash Transition Taskers” issued by the State Department on policy areas: counterterrorism, countering violent extremism and now women’s issues. That reveals what the Trump team believes are its priorities in terms of changing policy upon taking office.

The fact that the Trump staffers are rushing to figure out what resources are being spent on women’s issues is likely a sign that they plan to reduce funding and attention to these programs. That could affect not only the State Department personnel who work on those issues, but also millions of women and girls around the world.