State Dept. official reassigned amid conservative media attacks

The Trump administration has moved a second career government employee out of a top advisory role amid pressure from conservative media outlets that have publicly targeted individual staffers, questioning their loyalty to the new administration.

Some State Department officials believe the individual, Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, was shifted because of the media attacks and are alarmed at the message such a move sends to Civil and Foreign Service employees, who are supposed to be protected by law from political retaliation.

“It puts people on edge,” said a State Department official familiar with Nowrouzzadeh’s situation.

Nowrouzzadeh, a Civil Service officer who helped shape the controversial Iran nuclear deal, had been detailed since last July to the secretary of state’s policy planning team, where she handled ongoing issues related to Iran and Gulf Arab countries. Her yearlong assignment was cut short earlier this month, after critical stories about her and others appeared in the Conservative Review and Breitbart News, according to the State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter. Nowrouzzadeh did not want to be reassigned, according to the official.

The State Department said in a statement that Nowrouzzadeh has returned to the Office of Iranian Affairs, but it would not specify her new role or address questions about why she was shifted. The department’s statement noted that Nowrouzzadeh “has an outstanding reputation in thedepartment and we expect her to continue to do valuable work in furtherance of U.S. national security. We’ll decline additional comment on the internal [human resources] matters of career employees.”
Nowrouzzadeh declined to comment for this story.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A second person familiar with the situation confirmed that people in the upper ranks of the Trump administration were alarmed by the conservative media attacks on Nowrouzzadeh.

Nowrouzzadeh is an American-born U.S. citizen of Iranian descent who joined government in 2005, during the George W. Bush administration. Stories published recently on conservative websites have questioned whether she should remain in her position, calling her a loyalist to former President Barack Obama and mentioning her past links to the National Iranian American Council, an advocacy group that has come under criticism from the right.

Nowrouzzadeh is at least the second career staffer to be shifted following conservative media criticism.

Earlier this month, administration officials said Andrew Quinn, who had been appointed to the National Economic Council, was being sent back to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office. No reason for the reassignment was given, but Quinn’s appointment to the NEC had drawn fire from Breitbart News and other conservative corners that noted the career government employee had helped the Obama administration negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal from which President Donald Trump has withdrawn.

Conservative media outlets first wrote about Nowrouzzadeh during the Obama years, when she served on the National Security Council and helped usher through the Iran nuclear deal, which was heavily criticized by many Republicans. Her name, which gives away her Iranian ethnicity, attracted attention from reporters, unusual for a lower-level staffer.

Multiple stories on Breitbart and other conservative sites pointed out that she once worked for the National Iranian American Council, which some critics allege has links to the Iranian government. But Nowrouzzadeh’s defenders note that she was merely an intern at NIAC while still a college undergraduate, and that the advocacy group did not take positions on U.S. policy while she was there. NIAC, which is now more politically active, has denied working on behalf of Iran’s government.

Nowrouzzadeh is “very smart, deeply knowledgeable about Iran,” said Philip Gordon, who served as a top Middle East adviser to Obama and who has publicly defended Nowrouzzadeh in the past. “Like many civil service experts and career foreign service officers, she possesses just the sort of expertise political leaders from either party should have by their side when they make critical and difficult foreign policy decisions.”

Since Trump took office, a fresh round of stories in the Conservative Review, Breitbart and other outlets have raised questions about Nowrouzzadeh, as well as several other career government officials who have dealt with sensitive issues such as Iran, Israel and trade. Some stories have questioned why Trump kept the career staff in their roles, singling them out as “Obama holdovers,” even though some joined government years before Obama became president.

In general, U.S. law is supposed to protect career government employees from politically motivated firings and other retaliation not related to work performance. However, the political appointees of incoming administrations have wide latitude in terms of where to assign people or who gets promotions, so it’s possible to shuffle people around without breaching their legal protections.

The State Department official familiar with the situation said there’s been no announcement about a replacement for Nowrouzzadeh on the policy planning team, which acts as an in-house think tank for the secretary of state.

When asked about the media attacks against her and others several weeks ago, a State spokesman said the stories in the conservative press contained a slew of misleading information. Some of the conservative media reports about Nowrouzzadeh, for instance, relied on Iranian state-run media, which often publishes “propaganda and falsehoods,” the spokesman said at the time.

Gordon said the conservative media attacks on individual government staffers may be roundabout attempts by some on the right to influence Trump’s policy agenda, especially on some sensitive issues that animate the Republican base.

“If people writing these pieces are not happy with the Trump foreign policy that may be because the president and vice president and Cabinet officers decided not to do things that are not in their interest,” Gordon said. “If Donald Trump hasn’t torn up the Iran nuclear deal, it may be because he realized that would be a bad idea. And it’s not because one of his policy planning staffers has a family of Iranian origin.”

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