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A viral Washington Post story about State Department resignations is very misleading

Donald Trump
Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images
Donald Trump

On Thursday morning, the Washington Post published a piece with an explosive headline: "The State Department's entire senior management team just resigned." The piece alleged that Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy, one of the top officials the department, and three of his deputies had left their jobs because they didn't want to serve in the Trump administration.

"The entire senior level of management officials resigned Wednesday, part of an ongoing mass exodus of senior foreign service officers who don't want to stick around for the Trump era," Josh Rogin, the story's author, wrote.

There was certainly an element of truth to the report: Kennedy and those three deputies had indeed left the department. And the story went viral almost immediately. According to Ishaan Tharoor, a foreign affairs writer for the Post, the story was "breaking" Chartbeat, a tool used by news websites to take stock of traffic. "I've never seen anything like it," he said on Twitter.

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But as the day went on, key elements of the article came into question.

For one, the initial headline was misleading — the word "management" strongly implied that all of America's top diplomats were resigning, which was not the case. For another, Kennedy's "entire" team hadn't left when the story was posted, a point that became clear after simply taking a look at State's organizational chart.

"I don't think the sky is falling. Rotations and retirements are facts of life in the Foreign Service—they're how we refresh the ranks and steadily produce a deep bench ready to step in and lead." -Barbara Stephenson, president of AFSA

Critics inside and outside of the State Department also pushed back hard against the story's most explosive suggestion — that Kennedy and his deputies were choosing to leave as part of a "mass exodus" of officials opposed to Trump.

The State Department said that the four officials had submitted their resignations at the start of the new administration, as is standard practice with all political appointees throughout the executive branch of the government. Reporters who have covered the State Department for years said the Post report was overstating a normal feature of a transition. The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), a sort of union for foreign service officers, also stepped into the fray, releasing an unusual public statement that said the entire thing was overblown.

"I don't think the sky is falling," Barbara Stephenson, the president of AFSA, told me in a subsequent email. "Rotations and retirements are facts of life in the Foreign Service—they're how we refresh the ranks and steadily produce a deep bench ready to step in and lead."

By the end of the day, the Washington Post had changed its headline to "the State Department's entire senior administrative team just resigned," though it included no editor's note explaining the new language. Rogin, the piece's author, told me he stands by his reporting.

The bottom line, though, is that the story as written — and as described by its initial headline — gives a misleading impression of what happened at the State Department and why.

Some senior officials did leave, but it was a relatively small slice of the department's top brass. They did resign, but as part of the standard routine when new administrations take office. The Trump team did let the four officials know that their resignations were going to be accepted, but that's the normal prerogative of any incoming White House.

It's also important to note that the most prominent of the departing officials, Kennedy, was a deeply controversial figure tied to both Benghazi and the lingering scandal over Hillary Clinton's email server. This was not necessarily a white knight shoved out the door by dastardly Trump administration officials.

Taken together, it's reminder that Trump's chaotic approach to governance means we need to be more, and not less, careful about understanding what's actually a nefarious move by a vengeful and unpredictable new administration — and what's actually just business as usual for a new White House.

What we actually know about the State Department departures

The undersecretary of state for management, Kennedy's former post, is tasked with handling the nuts and bolts of the department — personnel, facilities, and the like. Most people, reasonably, don't know that. So when the Washington Post publishes a piece that says that State's "entire senior management team resigns," it makes it sound like that everyone who helps run the State Department's far-flung diplomatic apparatus had resigned — not just four officials tasked with high-level administrative work.

The pushback began almost immediately. Mark Toner, the State Department's spokesperson, released an official statement saying the offers of resignations were "standard with every transition." AFSA's line was similar: "While there appears to be a large turnover in a short period of time, a change in administration always brings personnel changes."

Matt Lee of the Associated Press, a veteran State Department reporter, sent out a number of tweets challenging key parts of the story. "Entire leadership not leaving on same day," Lee wrote. "And those leaving have competent deputies to step in the interim."

According to Lee, large staff turnover is fairly normal at State. "Do you know how many under secretaries of state stayed after Bill Clinton to George W Bush transition? Answer is 1," he tweeted.

Then, two reports — one from Foreign Policy's John Hudson, and another from CNN's Elise Labott — disputed Rogin's implication that they resigned in protest. "Characterizing these as protest resignations is totally inaccurate," one State Department official told Hudson.

This is, in a way, unsurprising. Kennedy's administrative duties included both embassy security and IT — which meant that he was the top official, other than Secretary Hillary Clinton herself, who could be blamed for what Republicans see as two of the biggest scandals of the Obama years (Benghazi and Clinton's private email server). "Worth remembering that Republicans were never going to let Pat Kennedy (i.e. Mr. Benghazi & Mr. Emailgate) stay on," Hudson, who had profiled Kennedy last year, tweeted.

Given Trump's emphasis on Clinton's emails during the campaign, then, it's easy to see why Kennedy (and some of his deputies) would have had their resignations accepted by the new White House once they offered to leave their posts.

In messages we exchanged on Thursday evening, Rogin said he stood by his story. In the hours since the story first posted, Rogin said he had learned that six more of Kennedy's deputies had their resignations accepted. That would bring the total number of departing officials up to 12, or nearly all of the department's management team. That, in turn, would justify using the word "entire" in the article and in the initial headline.

"To be fair, it is certainly possible that Kennedy and the other departing officials didn't want to serve in a Trump administration and secretly hoped that their resignations would be accepted. It's also possible that more officials will leave in coming days and make clear, publicly, that they left because of Trump."

Even assuming that's correct, however, the word wouldn't have been justified when the piece was first published. At the time, only less than half the team were known to be leaving.

His response on the issue of protest resignations was a bit more confusing. "As for Pat Kennedy, if you read my story you will see that I clearly wrote whether he left on his own or was fired was in dispute inside the department," he wrote to me.

That's true, to a point. Rogin's initial piece included the line "Whether Kennedy left on his own volition or was pushed out by the incoming Trump team is a matter of dispute inside the department."

Still, that line comes fairly low down in the piece. The opening paragraph, which is all the many readers typically see, begins by saying that the resignations were "part of an ongoing mass exodus of senior foreign service officers who don't want to stick around for the Trump era." The clear implication is that they resigned by choice and in protest.

To be fair, it is certainly possible that Kennedy and the other departing officials didn't want to serve in a Trump administration and secretly hoped that their resignations would be accepted. It's also possible that more officials will leave in coming days and make clear, publicly, that they left because of Trump.

That's speculative, however. Based on what we know at the moment, the Post accurately reported that four top State Department officials had resigned, but used language in the article and in the initial headline that left a misleading impression as to how many had left, how important they were to the department, and, most importantly, why they'd departed.