State Department’s Top Policy Planner Forced Out

WASHINGTON — Kiron Skinner, the State Department’s director of policy planning and the highest-ranking African-American woman in the department, has been forced out of her job, according to administration officials.

Ms. Skinner took leave last September from serving as a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and as a researcher at the Hoover Institution, to join Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s senior leadership team. Her small unit, one of the most storied inside the State Department, has been trying to develop a long-term strategy for dealing with the rise of China. She has written widely on the foreign policy of the Reagan administration, among other topics.

She joins a long list of officials in the Trump administration who have been removed from their posts or who have resigned. But she is among the first of Mr. Pompeo’s small circle of influential aides.

While her removal was widely talked about in the State Department on Thursday evening, a spokeswoman declined to comment, saying that the department did not discuss personnel matters. Colleagues of Ms. Skinner said she had clashed with the department’s staff members and with diplomats, but gave no details.

Ms. Skinner, 58, did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.

A well-known conservative, Ms. Skinner has spoken infrequently in public since she took office. But three months ago, she discussed the China challenge in terms that provoked considerable criticism, including from Beijing. During a public conference in Washington, she termed the American competition with China as “a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology, and the United States hasn’t had that before.”

The Cold War with Russia, she said, amounted to “a fight within the Western family.” But in the case of China, she said, “it’s also striking that it’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.”

Commentators in Beijing denounced the racial nature of the comparison. At the State Department, her comments did not appear to upset senior officials, at least publicly. Diplomats and staff said conflicts over her management style, rather than ideology, incited her removal.

While the unit she led is a small one, it has at times been enormously powerful. Its purpose is to devise long-term strategy, removed from the day-to-day conflicts and crisis management that consume the department.

The first occupant of the job was George F. Kennan, who devised the American containment policy against the Soviet Union. It was his lengthy essay in Foreign Affairs titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” and signed by “Mr. X,” that formed the basis of American policy toward the Soviet Union during the Truman administration and beyond.

Ms. Skinner’s China study was informally called “Letter X” inside the State Department, a nod to Mr. Kennan, and a recognition that the United States needed an approach that would withstand many years of competition, and many presidential administrations.

She was navigating complex bureaucratic waters: While Mr. Pompeo is a hard-liner who describes the competition with China in zero-sum terms, others in the administration, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, regard the country as one the United States can reach trade deals with, and profit alongside.