The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been highly critical of how the Trump administration has treated the State Department. Morale was awful under Rex Tillerson and has barely improved under successor Mike Pompeo. The situation was so bad in 2017 that even Trump appointees publicly acknowledged the morale problem. In 2019, Foreign Service officers keep leaving the administration, writing Washington Post op-eds to explain: “More and more I found myself in a defensive stance, struggling to explain to foreign peoples the blatant contradictions at home. … I can no longer justify to him, or to myself, my complicity in the actions of this administration.”

Still, perhaps Pompeo means what he says about returning the swagger to the State Department. Susan Glasser’s recent New Yorker profile of him was not terribly flattering but acknowledged that morale had improved somewhat. In a recent interview with the Washington Examiner, Pompeo pledged: “I want to make the State Department a place where people want to come serve. I always think when you’re responsible for a team that one of the things you can do that outlasts your time and service is that you can create a culture and an environment where the best and brightest from all across America want to come be [a] part of that team.”

Furthermore, Pompeo has taken action when his subordinates behave badly. Earlier this month, Pompeo fired policy planning director Kiron Skinner for her “abusive” management style. According to Politico’s Eliana Johnson and Nahal Toosi, “State Department officials said Skinner acted unprofessionally in multiple ways, including yelling in public spaces and using homophobic language.” This secretary of state is unafraid to take tough actions to eliminate bad eggs, even when such actions threaten his pet projects.

That leads me to the question animating today’s column and directed at Pompeo: Why does Assistant Secretary of State Kevin Moley still have a job?

Some background: Fourteen months ago, Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer broke a story alleging that Mari Stull, a political appointee in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs (IO), was vetting the political affiliation and views of career employees. This would violate the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, as well as the guidelines laid out in the Foreign Affairs Manual. Stull worked for and was appointed by Moley, the assistant secretary of state for IO. In response to the article, the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) opened an investigation into the matter.

OIG published its findings last week in a 30-page report that incriminates both Stull and Moley. Some of the highlights:

  • “Throughout its review of the IO Bureau, OIG found that the leadership of IO failed to meet the Department’s Leadership and Management Principles. Nearly every employee interviewed by OIG raised concerns about the leadership of IO and the treatment of staff. Then-Under Secretary Shannon told OIG that IO employees had described to him a negative and ‘vindictive’ environment in IO cultivated by Assistant Secretary Moley and Ms. Stull.”
  • “Several current and former IO employees reported that Assistant Secretary Moley and Ms. Stull frequently berated employees, raised their voices, and generally engaged in unprofessional behavior toward staff. Senior Department officials outside of IO were particularly concerned about such treatment directed at more junior employees.”
  • “Other employees reported that they were reprimanded by Assistant Secretary Moley and Ms. Stull for following established Department policies and procedures.”
  • “Assistant Secretary Moley criticized employees when they told him that official travel that he planned in May 2018 did not qualify for first class accommodations under the Department’s travel policies and accused them of ‘not fighting hard enough’ to meet his demands.”

There’s plenty more, but those excerpts provide the general idea.

There are two other points worth noting. The first is that the problems were severe enough for acting director general for the Foreign Service William Todd, undersecretary for political affairs Thomas Shannon, Shannon’s successor Stephen Mull and deputy secretary John Sullivan to meet with Moley at various points to discuss Stull’s bad behavior, as well as sagging morale at IO.

The second is that Moley’s mismanagement of the situation led to an exodus of IO staff. As the OIG report says, “Approximately 50 of 300 domestic IO employees have departed IO since Assistant Secretary Moley took over its leadership, and nearly all of the former employees who OIG interviewed stated that poor leadership of the bureau contributed to their decision to depart.”

OIG recommended disciplinary action for Moley. (Stull left the State Department in January.) The State Department responded by saying that Moley “has been counseled by Department leaders on appropriate leadership and management of the bureau. Further discipline will be considered following OIG’s assessment of [Moley’s] response to the draft OIG report.” Moley’s response is included in the final OIG report, and it’s pretty laughable. Moley tries to pin most of the blame on Stull. But his denials contradict what Sullivan and Shannon told OIG and other facts OIG discovered.

Given Moley’s fact-challenged response, those who care about U.S. diplomacy — which presumably includes Pompeo — should hope he is gone soon. The day after the OIG report was released, Politico’s Toosi reported widespread frustration that Moley still had a job, especially given that Pompeo fired Skinner for similar transgressions: “If Moley isn’t fired, it sets a bad precedent for holding anyone else accountable, current and former staffers argued. ‘It’s offensive that [Moley] is collecting a taxpayer-funded paycheck today,’ one staffer said.”

The Los Angeles Times’s Tracy Wilkinson reported that “morale is sinking” at the State Department and that further resignations from Foreign Service officers are pending. Keeping Moley around despite documented examples of horrible management seems like a surefire way for Pompeo to contradict his pledge to “make the State Department a place where people want to come serve.”

Pompeo’s principal calling card as secretary of state has been his willingness to make the Faustian bargain of staying in President Trump’s good graces. It would be nice if he showed that he cared as much about the workplace culture of his employees as he does about the whims of the president. What happens to Moley will be an interesting test of whether Pompeo means what he says.