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State Department Veteran Says Rank And File Are Relieved By Leadership Change


This change in leadership at the State Department is being watched with interest by Ambassador Victoria Nuland. She served for 32 years in the diplomatic corps, including a stint as an assistant secretary of state. She is hopeful that Rex Tillerson's exit marks the end of a challenging period for the department's rank and file.

VICTORIA NULAND: Because they really felt alienated from this secretary. They felt like he was not using the best talent and that most importantly he wasn't leading out there in the world or having any influence on President Trump.

MCCAMMON: It became pretty clear from things that President Trump has said that he and Secretary Tillerson didn't see eye to eye on some issues, never really hit it off. Do you expect a better relationship with Mike Pompeo?

NULAND: Well, this is an absolutely essential aspect of success as a secretary of state. So I think this is a hopeful aspect in the naming of Mike Pompeo that he clearly has forged a relationship of trust with President Trump that on some of these more difficult issues I am hopeful that he'll be able to roll up his sleeves, come forward with some political diplomatic coalition answers to some of these problems and influence President Trump to consider them and work with him so that the United States has more than military answers to the problems out there in the world.

MCCAMMON: I want to ask you about how you expect Pompeo to lead on some of these most volatile issues, some of these turbulent relationships. Let's start with Russia. When the Kremlin spokesman was asked about the implications of this leadership change at the State Department, he said - and this is a direct quote - "it's hardly possible to get worse." Is that your assessment, too? Is it only up from here for Mike Pompeo when it comes to Russia?

NULAND: I think it's really important to be very rigorous in the way we deal with the Russian federation, everything from meddling in democratic governance to violation of arms control treaties to Ukraine to dealing in Syria. And, you know, I was pleased to see that Mike Pompeo, along with every other member of the Trump administration security Cabinet, has been very tough in saying, yes, Russia meddled in the 2016 elections. Yes, they will do it again. We now need to get past the president's concern that somehow this affects his legitimacy and to a rigorous set of policies to deter and harden our systems against that kind of manipulation and make it clear to the Russians that it will cost rather than just ignoring the problem this seems to be where we've been for the last year.

MCCAMMON: I want to move on to North Korea. Pompeo has taken a hard line in the past on North Korea. He's talked about the need for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to go. How do you foresee see that stance affecting this historic meeting that's being planned for May between President Trump and Kim Jong Un?

NULAND: Well, embarking on negotiations with North Korea is a very important step to test whether they really are prepared for denuclearization, and doing it at the presidential level so early in the cycle is also a high-risk gambit. So what it means is you need really careful preparation ahead of time. So Mike Pompeo, if confirmed, will jump right into the deep end of the pool, but at least he'll have the trust of the president rather than having the president just show up at the DMZ and start talking with no prep.

MCCAMMON: There's a lot going on here. It seems like a tall order for someone stepping in at this juncture. Whatever Tillerson's shortcomings, is there a danger that his departure from the State Department at this moment could destabilize the department and its diplomatic efforts? And how hard will it be for Pompeo to step in now?

NULAND: Look, from where I'm sitting as a 32-year veteran of the State Department, the building had become a hollow shell, and American diplomacy had shriveled to barely perceptible presence on the planet. So I want to hope that somebody who's got the president's ear, somebody who understands that his diplomats are his greatest strengths, will put U.S. diplomacy back in the center and ensure that we have more options than simply a military option in all these difficult parts of the world. And those of us who believe in diplomacy and believe in using the great power of our core around the world hope that that's how he approaches this job.

MCCAMMON: That's Victoria Nuland, a former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs and now the CEO of the Center for a New American Security. Thank you so much.

NULAND: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARABMUZIK'S "WANTED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.