The State Department does not have a reputation for producing heroes. On the contrary, the department is commonly maligned in both elite and popular stereotypes as the stomping ground of drab, cautious bureaucrats. American presidents frequently celebrate the brave service of our soldiers deployed abroad, and for good reason, but rarely do our diplomats receive similar recognition. And as presidents go, so goes popular culture. When Cole Swindell sang, in his country classic “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey,” “And yeah, I’m raisin’ my glass to those savin’ our ass overseas,” he was most likely not referring to diplomats.
As a former diplomat—I served as US ambassador to the Russia Federation from 2012 to 2014—I am obviously an interested party. But I have spent most of my career as a professor at Stanford University, and my impression from teaching at this elite campus a quarter-century is that most students do not see the State Department as a means of changing the world or even as a viable professional path. Next to the colorful campuses, beach volleyball courts, and free food of Silicon Valley’s companies, the endless white-walled hallways and windowless cubicles of Foggy Bottom can’t compete. This undervaluation of our Foreign Service is reflected in the State Department’s meager budget—a shortsightedness that, ironically, it takes a general to understand: in 2017, Secretary of Defense James Mattis told members of Congress, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”
This unfortunate perspective on American diplomacy is not new. But President Donald Trump and his inner circle have taken disregard for our career diplomats to a new level, one of outright trashing. From the first, he moved more slowly than any previous president in appointing senior State Department officials and new ambassadors. We went two years without an ambassador in Turkey; three years into this administration, we still don’t have an ambassador in South Africa, even though the US is by far that country’s largest trading partner. Last year, Trump explained his indifference to these vacancies by saying, “I’m the only one that matters…” He planned to do the entire job of diplomacy around the world himself—with maybe an assist from his son-in-law Jared Kushner.
And throughout his time in office, Trump has berated the “deep state”—the longtime staffers supposedly ensconced in the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA, and even his own National Security Council—for thwarting his entrepreneurial statesmanship and conspiring to destroy him. His White House press secretary recently referred to Ambassador William Taylor, currently serving as our top diplomat in Ukraine, as a “radical unelected bureaucrat.” More than any previous modern president, Trump has relied instead on a small groups of advisers—some inside the government, some outside the government—to develop and execute his foreign policy, leaving the career professionals out of the loop.
Well before this summer, the dangers of conducting US foreign policy as a personal, freelance enterprise was already apparent in several arenas. But the damage inflicted by Trump’s privatized diplomacy has become more starkly apparent than ever over Ukraine during the last several months in which the evidence of Trump’s use of public office for personal gain has piled up. What was documented in the readout of the July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been corroborated not only by the whistleblower complaint but also now by published text messages between US diplomats and Ukrainian officials, and the written statements of several crucial witnesses before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Committee on Oversight and Reform: that President Trump orchestrated an elaborate scheme to cajole the Ukrainian government to open two investigations, one into the purported inappropriate business activities of Hunter Biden, the son of a potential leading electoral opponent, former Vice-President Joe Biden, and a second into alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Trump froze already appropriated military assistance to Ukraine and offered a meeting in the Oval office in order to compel Zelensky’s cooperation in delivering these “favors.” His July call to Zelensky was only one in a series of conversations, meetings, and actions designed to effect this transaction.
Trump and his inner circle knew that this quid pro quo—described contemporaneously by Trump’s own national security adviser as a “drug deal”—was wrong. That’s why they initially made such efforts to hide the reconstructed transcript of the Zelensky call on a highly classified server in the Directorate of Intelligence at the National Security Council; and that’s why Trump deputized a strange posse of “action officers,” a State Department term of art, for its implementation. Trump enlisted Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, the hotel-tycoon-turned-ambassador Gordon Sondland, and unpaid Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker—the self-styled “three amigos”—to carry out this scheme within the government. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, with his now-indicted associates Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas, was drafted to help close the deal. (There is more to learn about the participation of Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General William Barr, and Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.)
Trump deliberately avoided the standard channels of US foreign policy, creating a kind of shadow State Department in the process. He had no use for the department’s career diplomats, aware that they would be unlikely to go along with his scheme. Trump chose instead Perry, Sondland, and Volker—all political appointees—as more reliable instruments. In trying to execute this transaction, however, Trump, Giuliani and his lieutenants, as well as the three amigos, failed to keep their operation secret. Eventually, the professionals at the State Department discovered this parallel, privatized diplomatic effort, and tried to shut it down. These career officials took an oath of office to serve the United States of America—as, of course, had Perry, Sondland, and Volker. But unlike the three amigos, and perhaps others among the president’s men, when faced with the choice of serving country or advancing the personal interests of the president, the State Department professionals put country first.
But here, I have my own confession to make. Before joining the Obama administration in January 2009 as a senior adviser, I too held some unfair misconceptions about State Department employees. Especially as a young, know-it-all assistant professor specializing in Russian politics and US–Russian relations, I used to believe that the “bureaucrats” working in our embassy in Moscow or in Washington, D.C., did not really understand Russia the way I did, and were incapable of pursuing the obviously better policy prescriptions that I spelled out in op-eds.
I was quickly and thoroughly disabused of these misperceptions about Foreign Service officers during my three years at the National Security Council and my two years at the US Embassy in Moscow. In fact, I discovered just the opposite: how exceptionally talented, creative, dedicated, and patriotic most State Department officials are—and how naïve some of my op-ed suggestions had been.
It was the beginning of a new presidency, but the team of staff I met on my first day were not new appointees but “detailees” who were “seconded” (two expressions I learned that day) from the State Department; in other words, they were on loan from their home agencies to work, for a finite period, at the National Security Council. Most people at the NSC come from other agencies and departments; the largest group when I worked there came from the State Department. The day before I started, everyone on my team had worked for the President George W. Bush. That puzzled me: Why couldn’t I hire my own team from wherever I wanted? After all, I knew a lot of Russian experts in academia and the think-tank world, not to speak of the dozens of Obama campaign volunteers I knew who had served on our working group for Russian and Eurasian affairs. We had many talented and experienced people there—many of them former ambassadors, former assistant secretaries, and professors—and these people, we knew, were committed to President Obama’s success. Could these State Department detailees be similarly trusted?
I soon learned, however, that I had no chance of succeeding in my new job without these new colleagues. It was not only acceptable, but necessary, to have career State Department detailees on my NSC staff. First, they were true experts in their fields. No one at Stanford or Harvard knew the details of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, human rights abuses in Russia, or the Northern Distribution Network (a vital supply route through Russia and Central Asia for our soldiers in Afghanistan that I myself had barely heard of before joining the government) as well as my State Department detailees did. All of them were fluent in Russian. Most had served at our Moscow mission or at another post in Central Asia, for which our NSC directorate was also responsible. Second, they were creative: while respecting that the new president and his political appointees should now shape national security policy, they also contributed their own ideas through the proper channels of inter-agency policy committees.
Third, above all else, I had a sense that they were profound patriots, dedicated to advancing the national security interests of the country they had served for most of their professional lives. I had my fancy commission as a Special Assistant to the President, signed by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, framed on my wall, but these “bureaucrats” worked twelve-to-fourteen-hour days, under intense pressure and with far less recognition, for the actual good of the country.
My admiration for State Department officials only deepened in my years as an ambassador when I got to know hundreds of Foreign Service Officers and their families. The lifestyle is not easy. Foreign Service Officers commit to moving every two to three years, sometimes to extremely difficult posts. During my time in government, all Foreign Service Officers had to do at least one tour of duty in Afghanistan or Iraq. Imagine the challenges for a Foreign Service family of managing two people’s careers, let alone raising children, when obliged to move every couple of years and sometimes live apart for a year while a partner or spouse does a stint in a country at war. These career diplomats also have to undergo a relentless process of competition for the top jobs of ambassadors, deputy assistant secretaries, or assistant secretaries. And when they eventually qualify for these posts, usually after decades of service, political appointees like me swoop in from nowhere to take the prized positions. When I moved to Moscow, for example, I was replacing a much-admired and beloved career ambassador, John Beyrle, and taking a plum job that might otherwise have gone to some other esteemed State Department official.
It is an unfortunate tradition—one that is insulting to career diplomats—that presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike, in effect sell ambassadorial posts to favored campaign donors. Aside from this obviously problematic intrusion of money into politics, the practice underscores a public misperception that there are no particular professional skills needed to conduct diplomacy. (Presidents should continue to select their own ambassadors, including outsiders, but do so based on their qualifications and expertise, not the size of their campaign checks.) Yet the professionals soldier on, remembering that their oath of office was to our country, not to any one president.
By the time I left Moscow, in 2014, it was with a much deeper appreciation of the work and dedicated service that career State Department officials put in for our national interest. As I returned to the academy, I vowed to try to recruit more of my students to take the Foreign Service exam.
Some of what I learned during five years in government all Americans are now learning, as the impeachment inquiry unfolds. I am certain we’ll discover many more as yet unnamed State Department officials who also chose their country first, along with public servants at the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, the CIA, and other parts of the US government involved with national security and foreign policy. Already, two State Department figures stand out: Ambassadors Marie Yovanovitch and William Taylor.
Both are accidental heroes, to be sure. I’ve known Masha and Bill for decades, and neither is likely to seek the limelight. They are extremely well-trained, competent, and highly-regarded professionals. Ambassador Yovanovitch graduated from Princeton, speaks fluent Russian, and has given over three decades of service to our country, including the rare achievement of three ambassadorial posts, in Kyrgyzstan (2005–2008), Armenia (2008–2011), and Ukraine (2016–2019). For his part, Ambassador Taylor has racked up fifty years of public service. After graduating from the top 1 percent of his class at West Point and serving in the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam, he held a series of posts in the US government, including at the Department of Energy, as a US Senate staffer, and with NATO. At the State Department, Taylor served in Washington, but also Kabul, Baghdad, and Jerusalem, before being chosen to be US Ambassador to Ukraine (2006–2009) by President Bush.
I began to cross paths with both Masha and Bill in the 1990s, and sometimes worked with them directly. When Bill was coordinating American assistance to Russia in the 1990s, and I was working with various nongovernmental organizations in Russia, we shared the same vision and purpose based on a belief that free-market reform and democratic consolidation in Russia would be good both for Russians and Americans. Bill knew it was a tough assignment—ultimately, it was not one in which we succeeded—but he always pressed forward with a realistic optimism.
My last encounter with Masha as a US government official was when she accompanied Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow in the spring of 2013. Stuck at the airport because of road closures for a parade practice downtown, Masha immediately took charge, proposing that we should brief Secretary Kerry on his plane instead of at the embassy. Kerry, too, would undoubtedly attest that he needed his career foreign service officers to get anything done.
At different times, I have visited both Bill and Masha at the ambassador’s office in Kyiv, where they were both beloved by their staffs as energetic, engaged, effective COMs (Chief of Missions, in the parlance) in one of America’s most important diplomatic assignments in the world. Both always have struck me as first-rate government servants, singularly focused on advancing American national interests. Both have served Republican and Democratic presidents, and even after decades of interacting with them both, I could not guess how either of them votes. State Department officials, who doubtless have their own ideas about foreign policy, are trained to respect the outcomes of the democratic process. Given their loyalty to this ethic, it could not have been easy for either Yovanovitch or Taylor to push back on a White House initiative.
But that loyalty is ultimately to their oath of office and the republic, and not to any particular incumbent of the White House. To their great credit, Yovanovitch and Taylor both recognized when private electoral interests were being pursued at the expense of American national interests, and tried to stop that abuse of power.
As her opening statement before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence clearly laid out, Ambassador Yovanovitch learned of Giuliani’s personal lobbying efforts to persuade Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko to open a criminal investigation into Hunter Biden for his work as a board member for the Ukrainian gas company Burisma. Giuliani’s mission was clear: to seek or help fabricate dirt on one of Trump’s potential political opponents in the 2020 presidential election. When Ambassador Yovanovitch tried to disrupt the Giuliani–Lutsenko scheme, Giuliani pressed for her removal. As she testified, “I do not know Mr. Giuliani’s motives for attacking me. But individuals who have been named in the press as contacts of Mr. Giuliani may well have believed that their personal financial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine.” Shockingly, Giuliani succeeded: Secretary of State Pompeo did nothing to defend his employee, and in May 2019, Yovanovitch was recalled from Kyiv. On his call with Zelensky, Trump called Yovanovitch “the woman [who] was bad news” and strangely claimed that “she’s going to go through some things.”
Pompeo asked Ambassador Taylor to replace Yovanovitch temporarily, a highly unusual arrangement. Often when an ambassador prematurely leaves an embassy, the deputy chief of mission already at post serves as the acting ambassador, or as a chargé d’affaires, until a new ambassador is confirmed and installed. After fifty years of service, Taylor had no burning ambition to return to government, especially to do a job that he’d already done a decade earlier. But Bill has that call-to-duty bug. Still, he was genuinely concerned about the drift in US–Ukraine relations, and decided to join the government again to help end it. As he wrote in his opening statement, he was well aware of the “web of political machinations both in Kyiv and in Washington” that had entangled and eventually brought down Yovanovitch. When he sought assurances that the Trump administration would recommit to supporting Ukraine’s fight for sovereignty and democracy, Pompeo gave them.
Soon after Taylor settled back into his former office and home in Kyiv, he discovered the elaborate contours of the “drug deal” already in motion. As he testified, “When I first arrived in Kyiv, in June and July, the actions of both the regular and the irregular channels of foreign policy served the same goal—a strong US–Ukraine partnership—but it became clear to me by August that the channels had diverged in their objectives. As this occurred, I became increasingly concerned.” Taylor explained further to the House Intelligence Committee: “By mid-July it was becoming clear to me that the meeting President Zelenskyy [an alternate spelling of Zelensky] wanted was conditioned on the investigations of Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US elections. It was also clear that this condition was driven by the irregular policy channel I had come to understand was guided by Mr. Giuliani.”
Taylor also testified that a staffer from the Office of Management and Budget had, during an NSC-hosted secure video-conference call, made clear that the White House had ordered suspension of military assistance until Zelensky delivered on his end of the deal. Text messages released on the day that Volker testified demonstrated that Taylor wanted no part in this quid pro quo, calling the deal “crazy” then and there (rather than with hindsight).
Taylor is well-connected in Ukraine. He already knew everyone in Kyiv before even taking on the assignment as our chief diplomat again. I’ve witnessed how much respect Ukrainians show him, which was why they were willing to confide in him—precisely what any administration should want from its top diplomats. So when Taylor conveyed that the new Ukrainian president and his administration wanted no part of this deal, he could do so with authority. As Taylor testified, “on July 20, I had a phone conversation with Mr. Danyliuk [a close Zelensky advisor], during which he conveyed to me that President Zelenskyy did not want to be used as a pawn in a US re-election campaign.”
Taylor rightly assessed that this politicization of bilateral relations for Trump’s 2020 prospects would damage the bipartisan support Ukraine had enjoyed for years from successive American presidents and from Congress. He, too, started to resist the pressure. In a text exchange with Sondland and Volker, Taylor conveyed the Ukrainians’ fear of a “nightmare” bait-and-switch, by which “they give the interview and don’t get the security assistance. The Russians love it.” And then Taylor added in parentheses in his text message, “(And I quit.).” According to his subsequent testimony, “As I had told Secretary Pompeo in May, if the policy of strong support for Ukraine were to change, I would have to resign… I was preparing to do so.”
Taylor did not resign. Thankfully, in September and for reasons that still remain unclear, the White House lifted the freeze on military assistance without securing a CNN appearance from Zelensky in which he’d announce the start of new investigations of Burisma, Biden, or Ukrainian’s alleged interference in the US 2016 presidential election. Zelensky didn’t get an Oval office meeting; he had to settle for a “bilat” (State Department-speak for a bilateral meeting) on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
The resumption of military assistance to Ukraine is an important diplomatic win since it advances the common American and Ukrainian security objectives of deterring Russia. Under normal circumstances, we would have never learned of the heroic behind-the-scenes efforts of Ambassador Taylor and other career diplomats to secure this “deliverable” (more State Department speak for a US foreign policy aim). The successful work of career diplomats almost always goes unnoticed in public.
The disruption of the “drug deal” is another crucial victory not only for diplomacy and American national interests, but also for American democracy. Ambassadors Yovanovitch and Taylor have both championed the fight against corruption and strengthening of the rule of law in Ukraine. Ironically, their courageous actions have now helped thwart corruption and reinforce the rule of law in their homeland.
There is no deep state in the United States of America. Instead, what I’ve seen is a deeply dedicated state. After joining the government in 2009, I discovered these heroic, but usually invisible, public servants who have dedicated their careers to advancing the interests of the United States. One silver lining of this tragic Trump–Ukraine scandal is that all Americans now have had the chance to witness what I learned a decade ago. The food at the Google campus may still be better than at Foggy Bottom, but perhaps others may now be inspired by these ambassadors to sign up for the “The mission of a US diplomat in the Foreign Service… to promote peace, support prosperity, and protect American citizens while advancing the interests of the US abroad.” What nobler purpose?