Day Before Inauguration, State Department Lacks Interim Boss

Rex Tillerson's fate isn't likely to be resolved until next week at the earliest, and officials are unsure about some immediate plans

It's a little more than a day before Donald Trump becomes president and he still has no one ready to run American diplomacy until his nominee is confirmed. And with Russian-sponsored Syrian peace talks scheduled on Trump's first full business day in office, the State Department doesn't know who, if anyone, to send.

Succession and continuity in leadership has been settled at the National Security Council, whose boss doesn't require confirmation, and appears on track for the Pentagon and CIA with Senate votes expected shortly after Trump's inauguration at noon on Friday. But Rex Tillerson's fate isn't likely to be resolved until next week at the earliest, and officials in Foggy Bottom are unsure about some of their most immediate plans. Trump's transition team didn't respond to inquiries from The Associated Press.

Decades after Henry Kissinger supposedly quipped, "Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe," the rest of the world may now be asking the same of the State Department. The situation appears only marginally better at several other federal agencies, according to holdover, nonpolitical officials, many of whom have bemoaned the limited contact they've had with incoming Trump aides, a lack of serious discussion about policy and widespread confusion over who will fill a bewildering assortment of top administration jobs.

Such concerns are only natural in presidential transitions. But the State Department's role as an internationally engaged agency makes it in some ways unique. The rest of the world doesn't pause while Washington determines its diplomatic chain of command.

Up to now, the transition team has largely yielded on matters of national security to retired Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump's national security adviser, and Jared Kushner, the president-elect's son-in-law. But the circle will have to be expanded once the new administration assumes the full responsibility of government.

When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, the Senate confirmed seven Cabinet members on Inauguration Day. Republicans and Democrats are still negotiating over Trump's picks, yet it looks unlikely more than four will make it through Friday: Retired Gen. James Mattis for Defense; Rep. Mike Pompeo for CIA; retired Gen. John Kelly for Homeland Security; and Elaine Chao for Transportation.

With Secretary of State John Kerry and his two politically appointed deputies, Antony Blinken and Heather Higginbottom, leaving, the State Department has proposed that its highest-ranking career diplomat, the undersecretary of State for political affairs, Thomas Shannon, take the helm on an interim basis. But the incoming administration hasn't provided a nod of approval, according to officials, who weren't authorized to speak publicly on internal matters and demanded anonymity.

Also up in the air is the question of U.S. attendance at Monday's Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. Russia and Turkey, the co-organizers, have invited the U.S. to attend. And Trump has made a great point about hoping to cooperate closer with Moscow on counterterrorism and security matters. Obama's special envoy for Syria, Michael Ratney, has indicated he is willing to attend, officials said, but the transition team hasn't responded.

On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer said he wasn't aware whether the transition team had made a decision on participating at the Syria talks and, if so, who to send. If a decision isn't made in time for a Washington-based diplomat to travel to Central Asia, the U.S. could send someone from its local embassy.

As in previous transitions, U.S. embassies and consulates abroad headed by noncareer, presidential appointee ambassadors will transfer to the most senior career diplomat present until the new administration fills the top posts.

At the Pentagon, Robert Work, the current deputy, will likely only guide the department for a matter of hours until Mattis is confirmed. At the Department of Homeland Security, Chip Fulghum, the deputy undersecretary for management, will take control of the department until Kelly's nomination is confirmed.

At the Justice Department, Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates will oversee matters while Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama awaits a likely confirmation, at some point, by the GOP-led Senate.

At the Energy Department, Grace Bochenek, director of the National Energy Technology Laboratory, is expected to lead until former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is confirmed as secretary. A confirmation hearing for Perry is scheduled for next Thursday.

The Education Department will be led by Phil Rosenfelt, an official in the agency's general counsel. The Department of Health and Human Services' acting secretary will be Norris Cochran, a deputy assistant secretary in the budget office.

But the Department of Veterans Affairs said it had no official word on its interim leadership, although current undersecretary David Shulkin is expected to fill in. Shulkin has informed Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee's chairman, that he will be named acting secretary Friday after Trump is sworn in as president, according to Isakson's office. Trump announced last week he wanted Shulkin to be secretary, in a rare nod to a top Obama official.

At Housing and Urban Development, Craig Clemmensen, currently HUD's director of the Departmental Enforcement Center with more than 20 years of service with the agency, will take over as acting secretary on January 20 until nominee Ben Carson is confirmed. A vote on Carson's nomination is scheduled for Tuesday before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. Approval in the GOP-majority Senate is expected.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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