The woman who Secretary of State Rex Tillerson chose to help him streamline the State Department just quit after only three months on the job. It’s the latest in a string of high-profile resignations that highlights growing chaos and declining morale at the top agency in charge of carrying out US foreign policy.
Tillerson recruited Maliz Beams, a former CEO of a major retirement services firm, back in August to lead the effort to dramatically reduce the personnel and spending of what Tillerson — and his boss, President Donald Trump — believe is an overly bloated government agency. Tillerson said in September that making the State Department more efficient is “the most important thing” he can do during his time in office, and has proposed cutting thousands of jobs to achieve that end.
But it appears that Beams did not share Tillerson’s vision for the agency’s future. Their relationship was “strained by strong differences over the redesign plan itself and the parameters for implementing it,” according to BuzzFeed News, which first broke the news of Beams’s resignation.
According to a State Department official, Beams isn’t taking on a new job or moving to another agency but simply “returning to her home in Boston.” Beams is at least the third person Tillerson named to this position who has dropped the responsibility before finishing the job.
It’s a particularly troubling sign for Tillerson given that his power as a diplomat has been waning for months. President Trump has undermined Tillerson’s remarks on negotiating with North Korea and sidelined him in discussions on how to unravel the Iran deal. Tillerson’s credibility as a messenger on behalf of the president is shot.
The redesign is one of the few things that he can still take pride in as the head of the State Department — and he’s failing at it.
The State Department has a huge staffing problem
Tillerson’s vision of austerity for the State Department has alarmed not just the diplomatic community, but some members of Congress as well.
Democratic members of the House Foreign Relations Committee sent a letter to Tillerson earlier in November expressing concern over “the intentional hollowing-out of our senior diplomatic ranks and the entire State Department with no clear goal.” Since January, the letter states, more than 100 senior foreign service officers have left the agency and the number of career ambassadors has decreased by 60 percent.
Tillerson pushed back against the statistics cited in the letter during a speech in Washington on Tuesday, claiming that they’re misleading because of their sample size or don’t accurately reflect the exceptions he’s made to his department-wide hiring freeze.
Tillerson is offering $25,000 buyouts to encourage around 2,000 diplomats to leave the department by October of next year.
Tillerson has also made other changes that have also irked employees. Consider what happened with Bill Miller, Tillerson’s former security chief at the State Department.
Following the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans and accusations that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had not taken the security of American diplomats seriously enough, Congress passed a law requiring that the security chief have unrestricted access to the secretary of state in order to brief the secretary on the security of diplomatic personnel worldwide.
But according to a New York Times report, Tillerson repeatedly turned down urgent State Department security staff requests to brief him. Only after Miller invoked that law was he finally given face-time with Tillerson — and even then it was just a meager five minutes. Miller’s insistence on seeing Tillerson is what led to his ouster in July, administration sources told the Times. (The State Department said at the time that he was not forced out.)
Tillerson’s floundering at State has led to some rather humiliating scenarios for him. Reporters have asked him point blank if he thinks he will soon be fired and replaced by Nikki Haley, who currently serves as the US ambassador to the United Nations. And the White House apparently even briefly considered the idea of moving Ivanka Trump to the UN position based on the assumption that Haley could take over Tillerson’s job.
During his Tuesday speech, Tillerson said his personnel cuts are justified in part "based on expectation of getting these [global] conflicts resolved." In other words, the State Department should be able to make do with a leaner staff because they plan to sort out the country’s big foreign policy challenges fairly soon.
But most experts believe the opposite is true: that Tillerson’s hollowing out of the State Department has weakened the agency’s ability to address America’s big foreign policy challenges. And they worry that a major foreign policy crisis, such as a war with North Korea or conflict with Iran over its nuclear program, could overwhelm the existing staff.
Elizabeth Saunders, a professor at George Washington University who studies US foreign policy, has compared the US under Tillerson’s emaciated State Department to a person who doesn’t have health insurance. “Your life is probably fine — up until the point you get sick,” she says.