The White House has picked a senior diplomat who was the target of some of President Donald Trump’s closest advisers to lead the State Department’s East Asia bureau.
Susan Thornton, a career foreign service officer, was nominated Tuesday for the position of assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, in a nomination that could rankle some China hawks in the administration.
Thornton is currently serving as an acting assistant secretary. She has been criticized by nationalist advisers in the West Wing, most notably former senior adviser Steve Bannon, for holding what they see as insufficiently aggressive positions toward Beijing.
Earlier this year, Bannon told American Prospect magazine that he wanted to oust Thornton and like-minded senior personnel at the Pentagon and at State.
“I’m changing out people at East Asian Defense; I’m getting hawks in,” Bannon said. “I’m getting Susan Thornton [acting head of East Asian and Pacific Affairs] out at State.”
The nomination is a big win for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has been trying for months to get Thornton installed as his top East Asia hand. Thornton, the first career diplomat to be nominated for an assistant secretary post, is one of Tillerson’s few allies among the senior foreign service cadre at Foggy Bottom.
Thornton’s nomination was the source of so much friction that the normally placid Tillerson reportedly exploded at White House personnel director Johnny DeStefano for stonewalling his personnel choices. Now, with Thornton almost certain to be confirmed by the Senate, Tillerson has notched a key victory even amid rumors of his imminent departure from the administration.
Thornton began her career with the State Department in 1991 and has served in China and several former Soviet republics, according to her official biography. She speaks Russian and Mandarin Chinese.
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