If Mike Pompeo clears his Senate confirmation for secretary of state, he’ll take the reins at Foggy Bottom facing a slew of international exigencies, not least of which is a historic summit with North Korea in May.
Closer to home, his biggest challenge will be to figure out which senior offices at State are occupied by a live body. More than a year into President Donald Trump’s administration, State has more unfilled positions requiring Senate confirmation than any other cabinet department, according to a tracker created by the Partnership for Public Service.
Ninety senior positions at State either had no nominee, were waiting to be submitted to the Senate for consideration, or were pending confirmation as of Tuesday. Many of the jobs are at the critical undersecretary level — political appointees that head up State’s functional and geographic bureaus and implement the president’s foreign policy vision.
State is also short dozens of ambassadors, many to countries with significant influence on U.S. foreign policy. Notably, ambassadors to South Korea and Turkey have not been nominated, despite those countries’ outsize role in negotiations with nuclear-armed North Korea and in the Syrian war, respectively.
More than half of State’s political vacancies never received a nominee under outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. That was partly a result of Tillerson’s department redesign, which slowed down hiring at all levels, and partly due to disagreements between Foggy Bottom and the White House over who should fill the positions.
Along with finding candidates to send to the Senate, Pompeo will have to build an executive staff that can work hand in glove with career diplomats. Tillerson’s closest advisers at State, chief of staff Margaret Peterlin and director of policy planning Brian Hook, were widely criticized as insular and dismissive of the career diplomatic corps. Peterlin submitted her resignation on Tuesday and is expected to leave with Tillerson, while Hook’s fate remains uncertain.
In filling out the ranks of senior staff at Foggy Bottom, Pompeo has one big advantage over Tillerson: a congenial relationship with the president. Unlike Tillerson, Pompeo shares Trump’s hawkish approach to foreign policy, particularly in handling the Iran issue.
“We’re always on the same wavelength,” Trump said of Pompeo, whose confirmation hearing is expected in April. “We have a very similar thought process.”
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