The entire senior level of management personnel at the U.S. State Department resigned en masse Wednesday, the Washington Post's Josh Rogin reported, describing the latest development as "part of an ongoing mass exodus of senior foreign service officers who don’t want to stick around for the Trump era."
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CNN later quoted State Department officials as denying the report, saying that the officials were asked to leave.
Rex Tillerson, U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of state, was at the State Department on Wednesday as the Trump administration continued its search to find a replacement for the State Department's under-secretary of management, Patrick Kennedy.
At some point Wednesday, according to the Post, Kennedy and three of his top officials resigned unexpectedly, including Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond and Ambassador Gentry O. Smith, director of the Office of Foreign Missions.
All are career foreign service officers who have served under both Republican and Democratic administrations, Rogin reported, adding that it remains unclear whether Kennedy willingly resigned. The report noted, however, that State Department officials were surprised by the abrupt resignation.
David Wade, State Department chief of staff under John Kerry, told the Post that "it's the single biggest simultaneous departure of institutional memory that anyone can remember, and that's incredibly difficult to replicate."
But CNN later quoted two senior officials as saying that the Trump administration had asked the four to leave in an effort "clean house" at the State Department.
According to the CNN report, all four submitted letters of resignation in accordance with tradition at the beginning of a new administration.
"Any implication that these four people quit is wrong," one senior State Department official was quoted as saying. "These people are loyal to the secretary, the president and to the State Department. There is just not any attempt here to dis the president. People are not quitting and running away in disgust. This is the White House cleaning house."
Mark Toner, the State Department's acting spokesman, said in a statement that "These positions are political appointments, and require the president to nominate and the Senate to confirm them in these roles. They are not career appointments but of limited term."
The Washington Post cited comments by former State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, who noted that there is always considerable turnover at the department and that State Department officials typically work with the new administration to determine who would remain in senior posts, but that did not happen this time.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro tweeted that it's "alarming to see so much talent and experience at @statedept depart at once. Will make Tillerson's job much harder," adding that "these departures will hamper everything from major policy initiatives, to management and budget challenges, to security upgrades... especially with no Deputy & few Under and Asst Secretaries in place. Hope the new Sec will lean on talent in the bureaus and embassies."
Kennedy, a diplomat since 1973, was criticized for the department's insufficient security at the diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans were killed in 2012. In testy congressional hearings, Kennedy defended then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's handling of the situation and insisted there was no "stand down" order to the U.S. military during the attack.
Trump has yet to fill many top diplomatic jobs, including the deputy secretary roles. Tillerson is expected to be confirmed by the Senate next week.
Trump is pursuing a starkly different foreign policy from President Barack Obama. The shift had been apparent throughout the presidential election campaign as well, as Trump questioned the value of the NATO alliance, demanded that America's allies contribute more of the Western alliance's defense costs and advocated the building of a wall on America's southern border to keep illegal immigrants from coming into the United States from Mexico.
On Thursday Trump said his Mexican counterpart, Enrique Pena Nieto, should cancel his scheduled visit to Washington if Mexico refuses to pay for a wall he has ordered constructed along the border.
His message could undo a planned summit next week during which the two leaders were expected to address a relationship frayed by the new U.S. president's determination to build a wall along their shared border and to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
With reporting by AP and Reuters.