Conservative news outlets, including one with links to a top White House official, are singling out individual career government employees for criticism, suggesting in articles that certain staffers will not be sufficiently loyal to President Donald Trump by virtue of their work under former President Barack Obama.
The articles — which have appeared in Breitbart News, the Conservative Review, and other outlets — have alarmed veteran officials in both parties as well as current executive branch staffers. They say the stories are adding to tensions between career staffers and political appointees as they begin to implement Trump’s agenda, and they worry that the stories could inspire Trump to try purging federal agencies of perceived enemies.
The claims posted on the conservative sites include allegations of anti-Israel and pro-Iran bias against staffers at institutions such as the State Department and the National Security Council. Breitbart News, whose former executive chairman Steve Bannon is now Trump’s chief strategist, has even published lists of workers that the president should fire.
Washington veterans say they can’t recall similar targeting of government employees, who are required to stay apolitical and generally shun the spotlight.
“It’s deeply unfair to single people out and question their loyalty,” said William Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former longtime diplomat, “It’s demoralizing for institutions. It’s demoralizing for professionals, and it’s offensive.”
Elliott Abrams, a veteran of the George W. Bush administration who was passed over last month for the role of deputy secretary of state because of his past criticism of Trump, agreed with Burns. Career staffers, he said “are trying to do their jobs and will respond to presidential leadership — including from a new president when an administration changes.”
U.S. civil and foreign service officers have long been seen by Republicans and Democrats as the backbone of government — subject matter experts who help political appointees administer their policy agenda regardless of who serves as commander-in-chief. But many in the Trump administration and its allies on the right are skeptical of career staffers, believing they are part of an American “deep state” that is working in secret to undermine the president.
Several people who have been targeted did not respond to requests for comment. But one said the information being spread was unnerving, in part because even if Trump’s top aides don’t always believe the reports they read in the conservative press, they may still feel pressure to act from voters in the Republican base who do believe the accounts.
“I, of course, worry about the fact that there are people inside the administration and outside it who may believe what they read in these things, who don’t necessarily appreciate what it means to be a career staffer,” said the employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity for job protection reasons. “Most people don’t understand that that does not come with politics attached.”
It’s unclear if the articles are part of a coordinated campaign in the conservative media or whether the reports are the result of leaks from Trump appointees inside the administration.
State Department career officials have faced the most aggressive criticism from conservative news outlets.
Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, a career civil service officer in State’s policy planning office who’s been targeted in the past, has come under renewed fire because of her role shaping the Iran nuclear deal and other Iran policy during the Obama administration. Nowrouzzadeh, an American-born U.S. citizen of Iranian descent, also has been criticized for once working for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), an activist group that some on the right accuse of lobbying on behalf of the Iranian government.
According to Nowrouzzadeh’s LinkedIn profile and NIAC, she was an intern in the organization more than a decade ago. NIAC president Trita Parsi said Nowrouzzadeh worked part-time as a college undergraduate. “At the time our organization was very new, and our focus was primarily on voter registration,” Parsi said. “We had no profile or position on foreign policy matters at that time.”
Parsi also denied suggestions that his organization is tied to the Iranian regime. “The idea we’re an agent for the Iranian regime is preposterous,” he said. “We are the largest Iranian American grassroots organization, sustained by our own community, who overwhelmingly opposes the government in Iran.”
Alan Eyre, the director of the Office of the Middle East and Asia at State’s Bureau of Energy Resources, has also been targeted. Eyre served as State’s first Persian-language spokesman, and he’s been involved in Iran nuclear talks and outreach to Iranians.
Calling him a “leftist State Department official,” the Conservative Review published an article this week reviewing Eyre’s Twitter feed, saying he’s re-tweeting articles that are critical of Trump. But Eyre’s Twitter feed also includes plenty of Trump–friendly re-tweets that the article doesn’t bother to mention.
Other targets for conservative news outlets have included: Chris Backemeyer, State’s deputy assistant secretary for Iran; Michael Ratney, who deals with Syria and Israeli-Palestinian issues at State; and Anne Patterson, a recently retired former ambassador to Egypt and Pakistan.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis wanted to tap Patterson as his undersecretary of defense for policy, but he ultimately withdrew her name from consideration after encountering resistance from the White House, another chilling signal to career officials. In a statement to POLITICO, Patterson said: “I believe that it is important for our elected officials, their appointees, and career civil service and foreign service personnel to know and respect the boundaries between their different roles.”
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the agency had tried without luck to get the publications to correct mistakes in the articles.
“We are concerned that much of the information in these articles is not factual,” Toner said. “For example, parts of the article about Ms. Nowrouzzadeh are in fact sourced to Iranian state-run media, which often publishes Iranian state propaganda and falsehoods. We did reach out in this case to correct the record and they did not do so.”
Asked whether the employees’ jobs were in danger, Toner said, “The department does not base any of its personnel decisions on allegations made in the press.”
Yael Lempert, a National Security Council official who deals with Israeli-Palestinian issues and has nearly 20 years of government experience, also has been targeted by reports casting her to be anti-Israel. People from across the political spectrum have risen to her defense, noting that she’s well-liked by Israeli officials and served as a top negotiator for a recent $38 billion security assistance package for Israel. Lempert also served in the George W. Bush administration and was asked by the Trump team to stay on at the National Security Council.
In a statement to POLITICO, Jason Greenblatt, a Trump special envoy for international negotiations, described Lempert as “extremely hard-working” and one of several people across various agencies who are “enthusiastically working to advance the president’s agenda.”
“She’s not an Obama lackey. She has served all presidents because she’s valued,” added another U.S. official who has worked with Lempert.
A February article in Breitbart News called the Department of Homeland Security and its U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services a “hotbed of career open borders ideologues, many of whom intend to directly and indirectly subvert President Trump’s agenda.” Citing “DHS sources,” the article listed eight department staffers that Trump should “fire or remove now in order to remove potential obstacles to his agenda.”
Andrew Quinn, a longtime career staffer at multiple agencies who was appointed last month to serve as an international trade adviser to Trump, also has been cast as an “enemy within” by Breitbart for his role in negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump opposes.
“Generally, the new White House has been wary of staffing itself with people who oppose the ideology that got Donald Trump elected,” Breitbart reported earlier this month, adding later, “There is no public record of Andrew Quinn changing his ardent public support for the multilateral, globalist Trans-Pacific Partnership.”
Spokespeople for Breitbart and the Conservative Review, run by radio host Mark Levin, did not respond to requests for comment.
Conservative Review reporter Jordan Schachtel, a former Breitbart writer who’s written many of the stories criticizing career foreign policy officials, told POLITICO, “What’s driving our coverage is that the American people are very much alarmed that there are individuals in government who have a track record of supporting dangerous and destructive policies related to our foreign engagements.”
He added, “No one in or connected to the administration has tipped me off about any of the investigative reporting we have completed concerning these stories.”
A White House official, speaking on background, said: “We don’t control the stories that any of these outlets write any more than we control the stories at POLITICO.”
The stories come amid growing frustration among career employees, many of whom say they feel increasingly marginalized by Trump’s political appointees. One civil servant said Trump’s appointees sometimes neglect career policy experts who they fear are loyal to Obama administration officials.
“Key staff are being kept out of the loop on major decisions,” said the civil servant, who requested anonymity to speak freely about internal agency deliberations.
Union officials stressed that Trump can’t fire career workers because of their personal opinions.
“They didn’t work for Obama and they don’t work for Trump. They work for federal agencies and the agencies carry out the laws,” said Jacqueline Simon, policy director at the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union. “This is a completely apolitical civil service. Their employer is the American people.”
Gerald Feierstein, a former ambassador to Yemen who spent more than 40 years in the Foreign Service, warned that going after career staffers could set a bad precedent the Trump administration would be wise to avoid.
“If you go down this road, people are going to be less willing to follow through with the policy of the administration in power if it means that further down the road they’re going to be criticized or their careers will be jeopardized because of that,” Feierstein said. “What goes around comes around.”