It was one of the first moves of the new Trump administration – to implement a temporary hiring freeze across the federal government that would help “drain the swamp” by assessing payrolls and cutting back where necessary.
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But at the State Department, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson never lifted the freeze, even expanding it to include eligible family members who are often hired for necessary but hard to fill jobs at embassies and consulates around the world.
It was a move that infuriated and frustrated many of his employees but was finally ended Tuesday by his successor, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has promised to bring the department’s “swagger” back.
In an email sent to staff Tuesday morning and obtained by ABC News, Pompeo announced he was lifting the freeze for all foreign service and civil service positions – and authorizing the department to hire at “current funding levels.” In other words, he is disregarding the administration’s own budget proposal, which once again called for slashing the department’s funding by nearly one-third.
“We need our men and women on the ground, executing American diplomacy with great vigor and energy, and representing our great nation,” Pompeo wrote. “By resuming hiring of the most gifted and qualified individuals, we will ensure that we have the right people with the right skills working to advance our U.S. national interests and executing the Department’s mission in an increasingly complicated and challenging world.”
Earlier in May, Pompeo also officially lifted the freeze on eligible family members, so that they “would be treated fairly in seeking to use their skills to deliver our mission,” he wrote in the email Tuesday. Tillerson had announced the freeze would end during a town hall in December — and his aides often countered criticism by saying he signed more than 2,400 exemptions and only denied a dozen or two.
There was no mention of Pompeo’s predecessor or why the freeze was in place so long.
But President Trump has swatted down criticism of the department’s “hollowing out,” as some critics have framed it. In November he told Fox News, “I’m the only one that matters because, when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.”
In part, that’s why there is a long list of other personnel issues ahead for Pompeo, in particular filling many key senior roles that are still vacant or filled by officials in an acting capacity.
Among those key positions are about three dozen ambassadorships, now vacant and awaiting nominations by the Trump administration, with the embassy’s number two – the charge d’affaires – running the place. Those include key posts like the European Union, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea.
In Washington, there are nearly a fourteen Under Secretary and Assistant Secretary roles that are either vacant or filled by someone in an acting capacity. Less than half have a nominee from the Trump administration.
Many of those vacancies languished because Tillerson and the White House battled over personnel. The former ExxonMobil CEO wanted to pick his own personnel, while the White House often vetoed individuals it said were not loyal or favorable enough to President Trump.
A senior State Department official said during Pompeo’s first week that he was already conducting interviews for nominees.