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House Democrats say they have proof State Dept. staff was pushed out over disloyalty to Trump

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), along with Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), cited documents from a whistleblower in a letter to White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Two top House Democrats said Thursday that they have proof the Trump administration engaged in an intentional effort to rid the State Department of career officials they suspected of being “disloyal” to President Trump, citing documents a whistleblower gave to the panel.

The ranking Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs and Oversight and Government Reform committees sent a letter to White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, writing that they received documents “indicating that high-level officials at the White House and State Department worked with a network of conservative activists to conduct a ‘cleaning’ of employees they believed were not sufficiently ‘supportive’ of President Trump’s agenda.”

In the letter, they asked for additional documents and communications about staffing decisions and for interviews with a number of senior White House and State Department officials appointed by Trump.

President Trump set a record for White House staff turnover in the first year. Here's an ongoing list of staff who have quit or been fired under Trump. (Video: Joyce Koh/Washington Post)

The list of officials they want to speak with includes the department’s chief and deputy chief of staff, director and deputy director of policy planning, and White House adviser and liaison. The committee also wants to interview the president’s deputy assistant for presidential personnel, Sean Doocey, and deputy White House counsel Makan Delrahim.

The whistleblower’s evidence appears to confirm a report from last year in Politico that Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, a State Department staffer who worked on the Iran deal, was reassigned after critical stories about her appeared in conservative media.

“Over the past year, we have heard many reports of political attacks on career employees at the State Department, but we had not seen evidence of how extensive, blunt, and inappropriate these attacks were until now,” Reps. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) wrote in the letter.

President Trump asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to step aside after months of disagreement, and picked CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him. (Video: The Washington Post)

There is also evidence that several more career staffers beyond Nowrouzzadeh were targeted, according to a congressional aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss complaints involving personnel matters.

The aide said several such employees had been temporarily assigned to the National Security Council, where some complained to national security adviser H.R. McMaster that they were being set up for their jobs to be terminated.

Most of the targeted employees had worked on Obama administration initiatives no longer supported in the Trump administration, such as the Iran deal, or were considered insufficiently loyal to Trump and his agenda.

After McMaster intervened to stop the inquiries, the aide said, a White House official contacted the State Department to press his suspicions with senior aides to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. It is not clear that Tillerson approved or knew of the email exchanges between his aides assessing the politics and loyalties of these State Department staff.

In their letter, Cummings and Engel detailed some of the exchanges from the whistleblower’s documents, including emails in which Trump-appointed senior staff referred to certain department employees as “turncoat,” “associated with previous policy,” “Obama/Clinton loyalists not at all supportive of President Trump’s foreign policy agenda,” and “a leaker and a troublemaker.”

The documents they cited also contain communications between administration officials and Trump supporters outside the White House, such as former House speaker Newt Gingrich. In one email Gingrich forwarded to Trump-appointed State Department officials, another booster, David Wurmser, suggested “cleaning house” at the State Department.

On Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert denied that any career officials had been targeted for their views.

“Those on staff who have been here for many years, I have found them almost blind to politics,” Nauert said. “They may not always like the policy that they are asked to advance on behalf of this administration and the American people, but my personal experience has been that people have done that and handled it in a very professional manner.”

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