How Trump’s Refusal to Demand Political Appointees Resign Could Affect Foreign Policy

WASHINGTON — The White House formally asked for the resignations of its ambassadors and other political appointees on Thursday as a wave of senior officials announced their departure from the government after President Trump incited supporters who had assaulted the Capitol a day earlier.

The storming of the Capitol to disrupt the official Electoral College tally on Wednesday sent shock waves across the United States and around the world, and prompted Mr. Trump to promise early Thursday that he would ensure an “orderly transition” to the administration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Hours after Mr. Trump conceded the reality of Mr. Biden’s victory, the White House issued a demand for the resignations of most of the estimated 4,000 political appointees working in the Trump administration, including cabinet secretaries, ambassadors and other policy advisers. That normally routine step for presidential administrations is usually issued within a few weeks of the election; the latest in recent times was in December 2008, near the end of President George W. Bush’s term.

Mr. Trump, who had disputed the election outcome at a rally on Wednesday, had resisted sending the order until Thursday.

The resignations are effective Jan. 20, the day Mr. Biden is inaugurated, according to the order sent by Chris Liddell, the deputy White House chief of staff, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times. The White House has previously refused to discuss the issue that had raised concerns, in particular that turnover among the government’s most senior officials could be delayed as Mr. Biden assumed office, throwing the federal work force into chaos.

But a steady flow of some of the government’s most senior officials, incensed that Mr. Trump urged his supporters to go to the Capitol, said they would depart within days, if not immediately. They included Elaine Chao, the transportation secretary, who on Thursday became the first cabinet official to resign as a result of the unrest.

“Yesterday, our country experienced a traumatic and entirely avoidable event as supporters of the president stormed the Capitol building following a rally he addressed,” Ms. Chao wrote on Twitter. “As I’m sure is the case with many of you, it has deeply troubled me in a way that I simply cannot set aside.”

The delay in requesting the resignations had irritated some foreign allies who want to plan for Mr. Biden’s policies but were awaiting the departure of Mr. Trump’s ambassadors so that career diplomats at American embassies were not put in the position of being insubordinate to their bosses.

A lack of a clear directive to leave also risked allowing political appointees to burrow into the federal bureaucracy until they could be identified by Mr. Biden. Those concerns were fueled by the Clinton and Bush administrations, when some political appointees remained after the presidents left office, often transferring to permanent Civil Service positions.

As a result, Mr. Trump’s silence on resignations created anxiety and a high level of confusion across the federal work force, officials said.

“There’s been no memo sent to anybody,” Christopher R. Hill, who was an ambassador to four countries under Presidents Bill Clinton, Bush and Barack Obama, said on Wednesday, before the White House order was issued. “And so a number of ambassadors are saying, ‘Hey, I’ll just stay until I’m informed otherwise.’”

Mr. Hill, who also served as an assistant secretary of state to Mr. Bush, predicted that the delay would not significantly undercut national security or foreign policy, or have widespread adverse effects, other than “participating in sort of a scorched-earth” political effort.

Another former ambassador, Eric Rubin, who was the chief envoy to Bulgaria under Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump, and is now the president of the union that represents career diplomats, noted that “the world is watching” the transition process — in part to see if the United States will return to an era of domestic politics ending at the water’s edge. That has been a mantra of American foreign policy for much of the last 75 years.

Since the end of the Reagan administration at least, departing presidents have requested the resignations of political appointees, who account for about 4,000 of the federal government’s 2.1 million employees. Their timely departure helps prevent a personnel bottleneck immediately after the inauguration that would occur if departing employees were still being processed just as new administration appointees were coming in.

Even during friendly transitions of power, it is fairly common for a new presidential administration to take several months or longer to appoint a majority of its senior advisers.

Most politically appointed ambassadors, for example, do not take up their foreign posts until early summer after the transition in January, depending on how quickly they can be confirmed by the Senate.

And Mr. Biden’s top advisers have urged senators to start considering some key political appointees, including cabinet secretaries, even before Jan. 20 to speed up the process.

At the State Department, diplomats and other officials involved in discussions with Mr. Biden’s transition team noted that some foreign governments, particularly in Europe, were eager to start discussing climate policy with American embassies but could not as long as Mr. Trump’s ambassadors were in place.

Others described a sense of bemusement among allies watching American diplomats as they carefully avoid mention of Mr. Trump’s electoral loss — and by extension, Mr. Biden’s win.

A former British Conservative member of Parliament, Alistair Burt, seized on Wednesday’s protests at the Capitol to press the U.S. ambassador to Britain, Robert Wood Johnson IV, for “a clear expression of support for your duly elected new President Biden.”

Several diplomats said they had repeatedly asked for specific guidance from Washington — and had not received it — on whether they were allowed to acknowledge the transition in public documents or statements.

Others have taken the silence as permission to do it anyway, as in an interview last month when Philip Frayne, the American consul general in Dubai, assured a local radio host that Washington’s relationship with the United Arab Emirates was not “going to change much with the new administration, with the Biden administration coming in.”

Although American ambassadors are expected to submit resignation letters at the end of a presidential term, tradition holds that only those from political appointees are accepted. Currently, about 57 percent of ambassadors are career diplomats who have earned the rank, and they generally will be allowed to remain in their posts for the duration of their three-year assignments.

The nation’s senior diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, referred vaguely to his own impending departure in an interview this week. “I think we’re leaving the world safer than when we came in,” he told Bloomberg News.

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