The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump team narrowing search for State Department’s No. 2 official

President-elect Donald Trump has picked Rex Tillerson as his nominee for secretary of state. Here's what you need to know about Tillerson. (Video: Thomas Johnson, Victoria Walker, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Now that Rex Tillerson is set to be confirmed as secretary of state, the Trump administration’s personnel team is focusing hard on who will be his No. 2 official, a diplomatic and management position that will have added significance and power in a State Department led by the former ExxonMobil chief executive.

The search for deputy secretary of state was reopened this month when the expected choice, former deputy treasury secretary Robert Kimmitt, took himself out of the running, three transition sources said. Kimmitt, who had been approved by the then-transition team and Tillerson, withdrew due to a personal family issue, the sources said. The 70-year-old former Army officer had served on the White House National Security Council staff under President Reagan and in the State Department under President George H.W. Bush.

Two leading contenders for the job now are former White House and State Department official Elliott Abrams and former State Department official Paula Dobriansky. That list is not exhaustive and no decisions or announcement is expected until after Tillerson is confirmed, transition sources cautioned. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved his nomination Monday with an 11-to-10 party-line vote.

The Trump administration has decided not to appoint a deputy secretary of state for management, a post created by the Obama administration in 2009. This means the sole remaining deputy secretary will have enormous influence over both policy and management issues in Foggy Bottom. Both Abrams and Dobriansky have diplomatic backgrounds and experience working in the often thorny State Department bureaucracy.

“If you really want to drain the swamp you need some people who actually know how to do it but also are philosophically in line with this administration,” one transition source said. “This is a building where the foreign service crowd can really run amok if you don’t have someone reining them in.”

Abrams is a favorite of the conservative foreign policy community and also seen as someone who could balance out the Trump administration and Tillerson’s lack of focus on issues such as human rights. Although Trump said in his inauguration address, “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone,” he has also criticized countries such as Cuba and Saudi Arabia for mistreating their citizens.

Tillerson, in his confirmation hearing testimony, said that while “it is unreasonable to expect that every foreign policy endeavor will be driven by human rights considerations alone … our leadership demands action specifically focused on improving the conditions of people the world over.”

In 1991, Abrams pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information to Congress, related to his knowledge of secret operations to arm and fund the Nicaraguan rebels during the Iran-Contra affair. He was pardoned in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush.

Dobriansky is also a well-known and well-liked fixture in the GOP foreign policy establishment. She served as the State Department’s undersecretary for democracy and global affairs for the entire George W. Bush administration and was the special envoy to Northern Ireland it the administration’s latter years. Dobriansky visited Trump Tower on multiple occasions during the transition to discuss policy and a potential role in the administration.

Two officials who had been rumored for deputy secretary of state, former national security adviser Stephen Hadley and former deputy national security adviser and ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffrey, are not in contention for the State Department job, transition sources confirmed. The firm owned by Hadley, Condoleezza Rice and Bob Gates is a paid consultant for ExxonMobil and Jeffrey also worked as a paid consultant for ExxonMobil while Tillerson was chief executive. Rice, Hadley and Gates are said to be heavily involved in discussions with the Trump administration on a range of State Department appointments.

Inside the State Department, officials are also watching closely to see who will be appointed to the No. 3 position, undersecretary of state for political affairs. Tom Shannon has been held over for the time being but is not expected to be retained permanently. Speculation has centered around Beth Jones, a former assistant secretary of state and retired foreign service officer. Jones worked for Tillerson at ExxonMobil after leaving government.

The Trump team is also looking to replace Patrick Kennedy, the State Department’s long-serving undersecretary for management. Transition sources said that Kennedy is seen as too powerful inside the building and not aligned with the Trump administration’s interests. Republican lawmakers have also criticized Kennedy for his actions related to the Benghazi, Libya, attacks, both as the official who oversaw requests for more security and for his involvement in the subsequent State Department internal investigation.

Former State Department official and Goldman Sachs executive Erin Walsh is now the White House official in charge of managing appointments for the State Department and USAID, transition officials said. Walsh was the leader of the State Department landing team during the transition.

Over at the White House, more experts and officials have joined the National Security Council staff led by retired Gen. Michael T. Flynn. Victoria Coates, the longtime national security adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), has moved over to the White House to join the NSC’s “Strategic Initiatives Group.” That group also includes professor and former Breitbart editor Sebastian Gorka.

Longtime senate staffer Christopher Ford has joined the NSC staff to work on non-proliferation and nuclear issues. Ford has served as chief council for the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Senate Banking Committee and most recently the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. During the George W. Bush administration, Ford was a deputy assistant secretary of state in the bureau of arms control and international security, then led by John Bolton.

Former DIA and Central Command official Derek Harvey is also joining the NSC staff as a senior official dealing with the Middle East, transition sources said. Before joining the DIA in 2006, he spent 26 years as an Army intelligence officer, working closely with retired Gen. David Petraeus.

Flynn has also selected former Army intelligence officer Craig Deare as senior director for the Western Hemisphere. Deare is currently the dean of admissions at the College of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University. The addition of Harvey and Deare to the NSC staff continues Flynn’s pattern of selecting former military intelligence officers for key roles.