High-profile State Department exit comes amid mounting tension with White House

The department is suffering from dismal staff numbers and public conflicts with President Trump.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks about North Korea during the daily press briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, in Washington, Monday, Nov. 20, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks about North Korea during the daily press briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, in Washington, Monday, Nov. 20, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Rex Tillerson’s State Department slipped further into disarray this week, following the departure of a figure brought in to overhaul the department amid growing tensions within the Trump administration.

Maliz Beams, who was brought on as Counselor to the Department of State in August, resigned her position after only three months, according to officials. The department confirmed Beams’ departure on Monday.

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“Beams is stepping away from her role here at the Department of State and is returning to her home in Boston,” a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “Effective immediately, [Tillerson’s deputy chief of staff] Christine Ciccone will step in to lead the redesign effort and manage its daily activities.”

Beams’ departure is more bad news for the department, which has suffered a number of exits in recent months. Beams, who has an extensive private sector background in business and finance and previously served as CEO of Voya Financial (formerly ING US), was brought in to lead a massive redesign effort championed by Tillerson. Trump’s budget calls for a $10.1 billion reduction in State Department spending, a controversial move that could cost 2,300 people their jobs. Beams reportedly clashed with Tillerson over the effort.

The budget overhaul will now be supervised by Ciccone, who has significantly less experience than her predecessor.

Beams’ exit comes at a tense time for Tillerson. First daughter Ivanka Trump, who also serves as a presidential adviser, is currently on an official visit to India without Tillerson. Senior officials are typically included on trips like these, but Tillerson reportedly declined to aide the younger Trump in her international branding efforts.

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That conspicuous absence is only bolstering rumors of Tillerson’s eventual exit, whose tense relationship with the White House has been well publicized.

Trump has repeatedly undermined Tillerson on a number of international diplomatic efforts, including a feud in June between the Gulf state of Qatar and Saudi Arabia (along with its regional allies). Tillerson’s efforts to cool tensions were mitigated after Trump accused Qatar of funding “terrorism” and threw support behind U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.

Disagreements over the Iran nuclear deal, the war in Afghanistan, and tensions with North Korea have also soured Tillerson’s relationship with the White House and served to divide the diplomat from the president. Last month, things seemed to come to a head after Trump reportedly expressed a desire to dramatically expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal.  Tillerson came under fire for allegedly calling Trump a “moron” following the incident, a comment he never denied making despite holding a press conference to deliver a statement reasserting his commitment to both the State Department and the president.

High-profile exits within the State Department have only deepened that rift. In addition to Beams, Acting Chief Information Officer Frontis Wiggins — who has been in his current position since last year — is set to depart before the end of this year. The State Department has also lost 60 percent of its career ambassadors since January, an alarming number that American Foreign Service Association President Barbara Stephenson highlighted in a recent letter to the Foreign Service Journal.

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“There is no denying that our leadership ranks are being depleted at a dizzying speed, due in part to the decision to slash promotion numbers by more than half,” Stephenson wrote. “The Foreign Service officer corps at State has lost 60 percent of its Career Ambassadors since January. Ranks of Career Ministers, our three-star equivalents, are down from 33 to 19. The ranks of our two-star Minister Counselors have fallen from 431 right after Labor Day to 369 today — and are still falling.”

She added, “Were the U.S. military to face such a decapitation of its leadership ranks, I would expect a public outcry.”

Those exits and unfilled positions have alarmed lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“I don’t think they’re anywhere close to having a plan to present relative to the reforms that they want to make there,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), senior ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said earlier this month, referring to Tillerson’s overhaul effort.

“Tillerson has not been an effective voice to represent the State Department through reorganization,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) told reporters a day later.

In a letter to Tillerson on November 15, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) also expressed alarm at the “disturbing picture” emerging following numerous cuts and the exodus of top career officials.

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“These factors lead us to conclude that America’s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex, global crises are growing externally,” they wrote. “These decisions ultimately will not only degrade the United States’ leadership in the world, but will also impact our constituents who have come to rely on the Foreign Service to keep them safe while traveling overseas.”

The concerns of lawmakers and veteran diplomats have done little to sway Tillerson, who has repeatedly defended his leadership approach. During remarks delivered at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, Tillerson indicated that much of the downsizing detailed in his overhaul effort assumes an end to various major global conflicts.

“Part of this bringing the budget numbers back down is reflective of the expectation that we are going to have success in some of these conflict areas, of getting these conflicts resolved and moving to a different place in terms of the kind of support we have to give them,” he said.

Those hoping for an intervention from a more powerful figure won’t have much luck with Trump. When asked about unfilled State Department positions earlier this month during an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, the president dismissed the question altogether while further undermining Tillerson’s authority.

“Let me tell you, the one that matters is me,” said Trump. “I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.”