One of President Donald Trump’s highest-ranking foreign policy officials at the State Department forced out a career staffer over her ties to the Obama administration and outside pressure by conservative media outlets who questioned her loyalty.
That’s one of the main findings from a newly released State Department Inspector General report on a months-long investigation into Brian Hook, the Trump administration’s special representative for Iran, and other State Department officials over alleged politically motivated firings and staffing decisions.
The report says Hook and his team removed Iran expert Sahar Nowrouzzadeh — referred to in the report only as “Employee One” — from a senior policy-planning role on the Iran portfolio in 2017 not because of the quality of her work but rather because of perceptions that she hated Trump, had a preference for Democrats, and was loyal to Iran, not the US.
The Inspector General also looked into four other State employees for their alleged bias in personnel handling. However, the report “found no evidence that inappropriate factors played a role in relevant decisions” involving two of the cases, and not enough information to make an informed decision one way or the other on the other two cases.
But the case involving Hook’s actions toward Nowrouzzadeh is by far the most consequential of the bunch, as Hook is the senior official in charge of leading Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign against Iran and is close to top White House officials, including Stephen Miller and Jared Kushner.
The IG report lays out in stark detail how the White House’s paranoia about a “deep state” conspiracy of career government officials secretly working to thwart the president’s agenda — fueled by right-wing media outlets — has impacted the lives of dedicated public servants. As Politico notes, “civil service and foreign service employees” are “supposed to be protected by law from political retaliation.”
The report recommends that Hook and other political appointees receive training on “prohibited personnel practices and related Department policies,” but it leaves the determination of whether Hook should receive any additional disciplinary action up to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Pompeo has said, according to the report, that he will “consider” whether to discipline Hook. But experts say the secretary — who is very close to Hook — is unlikely to do anything.
After the report’s release, Nowrouzzadeh tweeted out a statement: “It is my hope that the Inspector General’s findings pertaining to my case help prompt action that will guard against any further such misconduct by members of this or any future administration.”
Conservative media’s longstanding crusade against Nowrouzzadeh finds its way into the State Department
In early 2017, Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, a longtime civil service employee, was in the middle of a year-long assignment to the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, the agency’s influential internal think tank responsible for crafting “independent policy analysis and advice for the Secretary of State.”
Nowrouzzadeh was given the Iran and Gulf Arab country portfolios. It was an assignment she was well qualified for, having worked for over a decade on Iran issues in both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. During the Obama years, she served on the National Security Council and helped craft the Iran nuclear deal.
Born in Connecticut to parents who emigrated from Iran in the late 1970s, Nowrouzzadeh had been a target of right-wing media ire since her Obama days because of her work on the Iran deal and her brief stint working as an intern for the National Iranian American Council as a college undergraduate. NIAC is a US lobbying group that advocates on behalf of Iranian American interests, but its critics have long accused it of working on behalf of the Iranian government.
Soon after Nowrouzzadeh was brought into the Trump administration by Rex Tillerson in early 2017, the attacks against her started up again in the conservative press. Articles in Breitbart and elsewhere claimed she had cried after Trump won the election, and an article in the Conservative Review in March 2017 accused her of having “burrowed into the government under President Trump.”
That Conservative Review article found its way to the State Department thanks in part to former House speaker and current Trump booster Newt Gingrich, who sent it to multiple officials including then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s chief of staff.
Hook, who was then the director of the Policy Planning Staff (where Nowrouzzadeh worked), also received the article and sent it on to his deputy, Ed Lacey.
When Hook asked Lacey about Nowrouzzadeh during that time, Lacey said that many people working in the policy planning staff were Obama holdovers. “Their picks, without exception, were Obama/Clinton loyalists not at all supportive of President Trump’s foreign policy agenda,” Lacey emailed, adding that “all of these detailees have tried to stay on” in the team. “This is helpful. Let’s discuss on Monday,” Hook replied.
According to the report, Nowrouzzadeh was distressed by the article and reached out to Hook directly in an email asking for his help in countering the smear campaign and insisting that the Conservative Review article was full of “misinformation.”
Several officials I spoke to say they saw Nowrouzzadeh go into Hook’s office personally on March 20, 2017, in an effort to seek his help — which tracks with the report’s findings. Some told me they saw Nowrouzzadeh immediately after that meeting in her office and noticed she had been crying.
Then in April, Lacey wrote an email to Hook in which he said a colleague “asked me to initiate the process of wrapping up [Employee One’s] detail...Unless I hear otherwise from you, I will do so today.” Mr. Hook simply responded, “Yes I agree,” and Lacey then let Nowrouzzadeh go.
According to several people familiar with the situation and the report, Lacey told Nowrouzzadeh she was being removed from her role on the Policy Planning Staff because someone else was coming in to handle Iranian affairs. However, that new person — who didn’t know Hook personally — didn’t arrive until September, indicating that a normal staffing change wasn’t the real reason for her reassignment. Hook, I was told, never said a word to Nowrouzzadeh after her dismissal.
Hook’s defenders have long said he did everything by the book and that he had the absolute right to form the team he wanted. Nowrouzzadeh, as a holdover from the Obama administration, just didn’t gel with Hook, they say.
Based on the IG report, it looks like Hook’s critics had the story right.
What the IG report says
There are a lot of tidbits in the seven-page section of the report on Nowrouzzadeh’s case, but there are four points worth noting.
First, the report says that a staffer named Julia Haller once brought up Nowrouzzadeh’s national origin during a meeting out of concern it could cause a conflict of interest since she worked on Iran. Haller worried that Nowrouzzadeh’s loyalty to the US was questionable, but also that she was a closet Democrats aiming to thwart the Republican agenda. Again, Nowrouzzadeh was born in the US and has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations since 2005.
Second, as already reported by Politico, Haller also sent an email in which she claimed Nowrouzzadeh cried when Trump won and was born in Iran. Hook saw that email and replied to it stating it contained “helpful info.” In the same email, Hook said he would reach out to people who tracked the Iran deal for information on her. It’s worth highlighting, though, that some staffers found Haller’s theories to be “nutty.” Still, Hook found them “helpful.”
Third, Hook said he replaced Nowrouzzadeh because she wasn’t a “go-getter” and had the right to create his own team. But the report states that Hook didn’t know or meet the person who would become the new Iran staffer until April — after Nowrouzzadeh had been reassigned — and that the staffer wasn’t hired until September.
The IG also describes a dramatic scene of the two meeting, which is worth reading in full:
In late March, Employee One [Nowrouzzadeh] met with Mr. Hook and explained to him that she had received threats when her name had previously appeared in the media and she was concerned that similar threats could re-occur. According to Employee One, Mr. Hook said “virtually nothing” in response to these concerns. Mr. Hook told OIG that he recalled telling her that the article was “fairly standard” and to be expected for individuals working on high-profile policies. Mr. Hook told OIG that he told her that he had experienced a similar situation and advised that it was best to ignore the article.
Fourth, as mentioned above, there was clearly a coordinated outside pressure campaign to remove staffers perceived to be disloyal. Nowrouzzadeh bore the brunt of many of those attacks and clearly fell victim to them.
There’s more, but you get the idea: Hook reassigned Nowrouzzadeh not because her work was inadequate or because she worked against Trump, but rather over false fears of her political leanings and loyalty to Iran.
According to the report, “Mr. Hook’s own statements to OIG appear to be a post-hoc justification for terminating the detail early.” However, it does state “OIG acknowledges that it did not identify emails or other documents in which Mr. Hook suggested that he was personally motivated to end the detail because of Employee One’s perceived political opinions, perceived place of birth, or similar issues.” Instead, he let the culture that led to Nowrouzzadeh’s ouster fester.
Most government employees would surely be fired for such a move, but Hook’s close ties to Trump’s inner circle and Pompeo, his boss, makes that highly unlikely. Which means Hook, the person the State Department Inspector General said led a biased personnel process, is likely to continue working on Iran for the foreseeable future.