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The political cowardice of Brian Hook

On the absence of political courage.

Brian Hook, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, gestures during an interview in Paris on June 27. (Nicolas Garriga/AP)

The Age of Trump has, for good or ill, defined political courage down. What has it done to political cowardice?

Consider the case of Brian Hook, who served in the State Department as the director of policy planning under Rex Tillerson and is now special envoy for Iran under Mike Pompeo. Hook has proved himself to be a rare political survivor between these two secretaries of state. That is impressive — far more impressive than his actual policy advice. He is not completely familiar with the Constitution, wrote a not-very-bright memo for Tillerson back in the day and sent out some very crazy emails in 2019 in an effort to ramp up the Iran sanctions.

How has Hook survived? He blows with the political winds.

We can see just how much after reading the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General report on “Politicized and Other Improper Personnel Practices.” Politico’s Nahal Toosi and the Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman and Erin Banco wrote about the report last week. As Toosi put it, “President Donald Trump’s political appointees inappropriately retaliated against a career civil servant at the State Department in part because of her ethnic background, her perceived political views, and the fact that she was in government during prior administrations.”

The most riveting part of the report is the degree to which Trump’s political appointees at State suspected career civil service and Foreign Service officers of being hidden Obama moles. As Toosi put it in a follow-up story: “Many Trump appointees were unfamiliar with such rules and basics about career staffers. The political appointees were also especially sensitive to pressure from conservative media outlets. Articles published by those outlets were frequently traded among the political appointees as they sought to sideline career employees.”

In some cases, the political appointees went further. Julia Haller, a temporary hire at State now working at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, emailed higher-ups about Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, a civil service employee with an unblemished record. Nowrouzzadeh was named in a March 2017 Conservative Review attack piece that riled up White House officials and outside allies such as Newt Gingrich. Haller, in response to queries regarding the story, claimed in an email, “As background, she worked on the Iran Deal, specifically works on Iran within [Policy Planning], was born in Iran and upon my understanding cried when the President won.” Haller was wrong about Nowrouzzadeh’s place of birth and admitted to OIG that the crying story was based on nothing but “office gossip.”

Nowrouzzadeh’s boss at Policy Planning was Brian Hook, who wound up receiving Haller’s emails, as well as those from other political appointees, suggesting that she needed to go. Hook characterized the information in the email as “helpful.”

Nowrouzzadeh also emailed Hook to explain why the story was bogus and seeking advice on how to rebut it. Hook never responded. She also met with Hook about it, and Hook told the OIG that “the article was ‘fairly standard’ and to be expected for individuals working on high-profile policies.”

Hook eventually responded to all of this by deciding to have Nowrouzzadeh (referred to as “Employee One” in the OIG report) removed from Policy Planning three months before her detail was due to end. Let’s quote from the report here:

OIG concludes that Mr. Hook would not have ended the detail early without being prompted by others who, as described previously, appear to have been motivated to prematurely end Employee One’s detail by factors unrelated to Employee One’s performance or willingness or capability to implement the new administration’s policies. To the extent that there was discussion about the rationale for ending her detail, it addressed only Employee One’s perceived political beliefs and perceived place of birth. Given this context, Mr. Hook’s own statements to OIG appear to be a post-hoc justification for terminating the detail early.

The portions of the report that deal with Hook are worth reading in full, because they make clear two things. First, Hook vigorously protested the OIG’s conclusions. Second, the OIG was unmoved by these protests, because they did not fit with, you know, the facts of the case.

Hook did not originate the attacks on Nowrouzzadeh. He simply absorbed everyone’s criticisms and took the path of least resistance. He then offered the OIG a plethora of rationalizations and lies in an effort to conceal his cowardice.

Every once in a while I break bread with a smart, honorable, traditionally conservative scholar to talk about the Age of Trump. This person is as appalled as I am by a lot of what the administration is doing. At the same time, this scholar usually notes, “Nothing catastrophic has happened yet.”

It’s true — Trump has not launched an ill-fated war like George W. Bush did or acceded to a peacekeeping intervention like Barack Obama did. Yet. But it is worth remembering that some policy disasters do not come from crisis decisions gone wrong. Sometimes the disaster is a slow-moving one. Preventive actions are not taken. Warning signs are ignored. Institutions are not tended. Transgressions of rules and norms are not punished.

The immediate effects are unobservable. The long-term effects are another story. The behavior of acolytes like Hook accelerate the damage. As Marie Yovanovitch said in her testimony Friday about the political attacks on Foggy Bottom:

The attacks are leading to a crisis in the State Department as the policy process is visibly unraveling, leadership vacancies go unfilled, and senior and mid-level officers ponder an uncertain future and head for the doors. The crisis has moved from the impact on individuals to an impact on the institution. The State Department is being hollowed out from within at a competitive and complex time on the world stage. This is not a time to undercut our diplomats.

By blowing with the political winds to preserve his influence, Hook undercut other diplomats and then lied to investigators about it. That is how cowards survive and thrive in the Age of Trump.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this article mistakenly referred to Nowrouzzadeh as a career Foreign Service officer. She is a civil service employee of the State Department.]