President Donald Trump will embark on what could be the most important diplomatic meeting of his presidency thus far when he meets with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un before May, but he will have to do it with a beleaguered diplomatic corps.
The State Department currently lacks an ambassador to South Korea, and the Trump administration has yet to propose a nominee for Senate confirmation. Additionally, Amb. Joseph Yun, the U.S. special envoy on North Korea who is considered the department's top expert on the country, announced his impromptu retirement last month. In an even more shocking turn of events, Trump removed Tillerson from office on Tuesday and replaced him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
"The president wanted to make sure to have his new team in place in advance of the upcoming talks with North Korea and various ongoing trade negotiations," a senior White House official told the BBC.
These vacancies and shifts have the potential to make the department's transition from a two decade-long focus on the Middle East to east Asia more difficult, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Michael O'Hanlon explained to Circa.
"Well it certainly is true lacking a U.S. ambassador to Korea, lacking now a top Korea hand at the State Department in Washington, and then having a Secretary of State who I think is a reasonable man, but limited experience on this particular subject, that adds up to, you know, a relatively weak back bench if you will for supporting the President," said O'Hanlon, who specialized in national security strategy.
But the Trump administration's issues at the State Department are nothing new. From the start of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's tenure last year, he has made his feelings on the department's spending clear.
"We are going to be undertaking a very comprehensive examination of how programs are executed, a very comprehensive examination of how we are structured, and I’m confident that with the input of the men and women of the State Department, we are going to construct a way forward that allows us to be much more effective, much more efficient and be able to do a lot with fewer dollars," said Tillerson, in response to the administration's proposed cuts to foreign aid last year. An exodus of several high-ranking diplomats has followed, with some claiming they have been effectively forced out.
Tillerson's reorganization effort has been a major point of conflict with some in Congress. Several members of both houses have noted it could harm America's diplomatic efforts. Trump has flipped the blame on to Senate Democrats, who he claims are intentionally delaying the confirmation of his appointees.
"The Democrats continue to Obstruct the confirmation of hundreds of good and talented people who are needed to run our government ... A record in U.S. history," said Trump in a tweet on Sunday. "State Department, Ambassadors and many others are being slow walked. Senate must approve NOW!"
The Democrats continue to Obstruct the confirmation of hundreds of good and talented people who are needed to run our government...A record in U.S. history. State Department, Ambassadors and many others are being slow walked. Senate must approve NOW!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 11, 2018
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, fired back in a statement, noting Trump's team has failed to even propose some nominees.
"Of 163 total Senate-confirmed positions to the State Department and USAID [United States Agency for International Development], the Trump Administration has failed to fulfill its duties to nominate individuals for 65 of those position," said Menendez, who shot back on Twitter with a series of tweets asking Trump who he has nominated for several top spots.
Of 163 Senate-confirmed positions at @StateDept & @USAID the Trump Administration hasn't bothered to nominate ppl for 65 of those positions. For example,— Senator Bob Menendez (@SenatorMenendez) March 12, 2018
Where is the nominee for Ambassador to South Korea?
Where is the nominee for Assistant Secretary for African Affairs?
Political fights aside, the lack of appointed officials in office may not be the diplomatic doomsday scenario Trump's critics make it out to be. It is not unusual for a deputy chief of mission, usually the number two at an embassy, to act in an ambassador's stead. These individuals are often career diplomats with years of experience who are relied on a great deal, even with an ambassador in place.
"I'm probably in the minority here, I don't think it's as big a deal as everybody is making out," The Atlantic Council's Vice President Barry Pavel, a former special assistant to the President on the National Security Council, told Circa's Kellan Howell in an interview. "Although I'm not the one who has to do all the work. There is a very capable set of officials right now."
Powell noted the State Department has capable talent at all levels, from assistant secretaries to desk officers.
O'Hanlon also noted that even with a full staff, the department hasn't exactly been successful with North Korea in administration past. He noted that the most important thing is to have Trump prepared for the scenarios he may face while dealing with the North Koreans.
The administration has thus far been quiet on what it's goals may be at the meeting, nor has an exact date been set.