Two top House Democrats allege that high-level political appointees in the State Department and senior White House officials have worked with conservative activists to purge from the agency career officials deemed insufficiently loyal to President Trump.
A letter sent Thursday to White House chief of staff John Kelly and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan alleges that political appointees at the State Department have characterized career officials in “derogatory terms.”
Among the descriptors used for certain career officials were “a leaker and a troublemaker” and a “turncoat,” the letter from Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) reads, citing documents obtained from a whistleblower.
Those documents also contain communications with high-profile conservative activists, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and David Wurmser, a former adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney.
In one email forwarded by Gingrich to Trump-appointed officials at the State Department, Wurmser wrote that “a cleaning is in order here,” apparently referring to removing career employees believed to be disloyal to Trump.
“I hear [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson actually has been reasonably good on stuff like this and cleaning house, but there are so many that it boggles the mind,” Wurmser wrote.
The allegations highlight what critics have said is Trump and his aides’ intense concern about loyalty within the government, particularly in the State Department. The president and his allies have in the past suggested the existence of a “deep state” bent on undermining his agenda.
The State Department has seen a particularly significant exodus of career officials since Trump took office last year. While some of those departures were attributed to planned retirements, others have reportedly left amid dwindling morale.
The letter from Cummings and Engel points to one case, in particular — that of Sahar Nowrouzzadeh.
Nowrouzzadeh, an Iran expert and civil servant, raised concerns to her boss, Brian Hook, the State Department’s director of policy planning, last year after she was targeted by an article in a conservative news outlet.
“I am and have been a career civil servant for nearly 12 years now,” she wrote in an email to Hook, noting that she began her government career under the Bush administration. “I’ve adapted my work to the policy priorities of every administration I’ve worked for.”
In the email, she asked Hook for advice on how to “correct the record.”
But Hook, according to the lawmakers’ letter, instead forwarded Nowrouzzadeh’s email to White House officials, and it later served as the basis for an internal discussion about her loyalty to the Trump administration that touched on her work on the Iran nuclear deal.
One email from Julia Haller, a White House liaison to the State Department at the time, falsely claimed that Nowrouzzadeh was born in Iran and alleges that she “cried when the President won” the 2016 election.
Nowrouzzadeh was eventually removed from her detail on the State Department’s policy planning staff three months early, Cummings and Engel said.
The letter requests a trove of documents and communications about the actual or proposed reassignments of career employees at the State Department related to “alleged personal political beliefs, prior service with previous Administrations, or work on prior Administrations’ foreign policy priorities.”
The lawmakers have asked for those materials to be turned over by March 29.
Heather Nauert, the acting undersecretary of State for public diplomacy, said on Thursday that the State Department would comply with the lawmakers’ requests, but noted that she had never witnessed any kind of disloyalty on the part of career officials at the agency.
“I have found my colleagues to be extremely professional,” Nauert said at a department press briefing. “Those on staff who have been here for many years, I have found them almost blind to politics.”