President Donald Trump has yet to nominate the State Department official who oversees diplomatic security abroad — despite having made the 2012 Benghazi attacks a centerpiece of his campaign against Hillary Clinton.
Congressional Democrats say it’s a striking omission that shows Trump’s campaign rhetoric was just that. And even some Republicans are urging Trump to move faster to fill this and other key State Department posts.
"The State Department has security professionals who are up to the job, but we do need all hands on deck given the many evolving threats we face,” said Rep. Ed Royce of California, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “I hope a nominee for assistant secretary will be put forward soon.”
Royce’s Democratic counterpart on the Foreign Affairs panel, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, said Trump’s failure to nominate an assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security shows the Republican focus on Benghazi was “a bunch of political cheap talk” designed to tarnish Clinton’s reputation.
Democrats attributed the lack of a nominee to two factors: the administration’s overall slow pace of making appointments for senior jobs at federal agencies, especially the State Department, and Trump’s decision to prioritize hiring at the Defense Department over State.
“Unfortunately,” Engel said, “I think it’s indicative of the low priority that Trump and the administration are placing on diplomacy or anything to do with the State Department.”
Trump has made just two nominations for senior management posts at the State Department, not including ambassadorships. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was confirmed by the Senate in February, and Trump tapped John Sullivan to be Tillerson’s deputy last week.
More than three dozen State Department leadership jobs remain unfilled, according to a tracker maintained by The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service — with hundreds of jobs requiring Senate confirmation sitting vacant across the federal government.
A White House spokesman said career professionals are fulfilling positions as needed on an acting basis, and cited "a deep bench" at the State Department.
"We are working closely with Secretary Tillerson to finalize additional State Department appointments, which are being filled in order of seniority," the spokesman added. "That process is ongoing and subjects candidates to rigorous and lengthy vetting procedures."
During the campaign, Trump repeatedly seized on the attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya to skewer the former secretary of state, often while referring to Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya who was killed.
Clinton’s “decisions spread death, destruction and terrorism everywhere she touched,” Trump said in a speech in New York City last summer. “Among the victims is our late Ambassador, Chris Stevens. He was left helpless to die as Hillary Clinton soundly slept in her bed — that’s right, when the phone rang at 3 o’clock in the morning, she was sleeping.”
“Ambassador Stevens and his staff in Libya made hundreds of requests for security,” Trump continued. “Hillary Clinton’s State Department refused them all."
Trump also invited the mother of one of the Americans killed in the attacks to be his guest at his third debate against Clinton.
Congressional Republicans also seized on the Benghazi attacks as a way to damage Clinton, launching multiple investigations, including one conducted by a House select committee chaired by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.). Gowdy’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
The select committee’s final report, released last July, recommended among other things that “diplomatic security personnel and or security protection specialists should maintain a state of readiness to counter potential attacks at all times in high threat environments.”
In 11 hours of testimony before Gowdy’s panel in 2015, Clinton dismissed allegations that her actions had led to Stevens’ death, even as they remained “personally painful.”
“It has been rejected and disproven by non-partisan, dispassionate investigators but nevertheless, having it continued to be bandied around is deeply distressing to me,” she said. “I would imagine I’ve thought more about what happened than all of you put together. I’ve lost more sleep than all of you put together."
The department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security is tasked with protecting U.S. embassies and other diplomatic facilities in more than 160 foreign countries to provide "a safe and secure environment for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy," according to the bureau’s website.
In 2015, there were 22 “significant attacks” against U.S. diplomatic facilities around the world, according to the latest data released by the State Department, including when then-ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert was attacked by a knife-wielding pro-North Korean activist.
Trump has proposed slashing the State Department’s budget, but embassy security would be spared.
The White House spokesman said the president’s budget blueprint for next year is consistent with the Benghazi Accountability Review Board’s recommendation and would provide $2.2 billion toward new embassy construction and maintenance in 2018.
President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, Gregory Starr, stepped down when Trump became president on Jan. 20. The Bureau of Diplomatic Security has since been run on an acting basis by Bill Miller, a career diplomat who has been part of the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service since 1987.
Having the bureau run by an acting official, rather than someone nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, could create “unacceptable risks,” according to a senior Democratic Senate aide.
"An acting official, no matter how capable and talented, lacks the bureaucratic and policy throw-weight necessary to elevate an issue, generate new options, or drive a decision,” said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said “the safety and security of U.S. personnel overseas remains our highest priority,” while encouraging Trump to move quickly to name someone to oversee the bureau.
“We expect a number of nominations for the department in the coming days, and we hope the administration will prioritize naming a permanent head of the bureau as soon as possible,” Corker said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said it was “inappropriate” that Trump had not nominated someone to run the bureau, given his focus on Benghazi during the campaign.
“I guess we should all be immune to hypocrisy in politics at some point,” Warner said. “But I just continue to worry, not only in terms of this position, but most of the agencies are just empty at this point because they’ve not put people up.”