Officials inside the State Department say they are disturbed at the way Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other senior administration officials have handled the building’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Over the last two weeks, officials inside the department’s headquarters in Washington and in at least two embassies overseas have voiced their frustrations to superiors about the absence of information on how the department planned to prevent community spread; the scant guidance on how to handle travel and meetings with foreign officials from hotspot regions; and the lack of transparency on internal coronavirus case numbers.
That’s according to five State Department officials, all of whom spoke to The Daily Beast over the last week on the condition of anonymity because they fear retribution from the secretary’s office. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment but Pompeo was set to brief reporters Tuesday afternoon.
“When the cases started to jump in the U.S., there was almost zero communication on whether we should continue on with our work like normal or whether we should curtail interactions with people from countries in Asia and Europe where the virus was already killing hundreds of people,” one official said. “We knew there were conversations ongoing in the secretary’s office, but there was no transparency about how they were handling all of it.”
The increasing frustration among officials at State comes as the Trump administration tries to play catch up with the rest of the rest of the world—to not only contain the virus but to treat COVID-19 patients with limited amounts of key medical supplies and equipment. The internal calls for more clarity from Pompeo’s office underscore the degree to which the department has struggled to maintain a foothold on the evolving crisis and to restore calm among its own people. Two officials who spoke to The Daily Beast did say that communication from the secretary’s office had improved over the last several days.
“Pompeo and his team need to be transparent and forthcoming with their employees who are smack in the middle of an unprecedented global crisis,” a congressional aide told The Daily Beast. “But the component functions under the secretary are doing their level best and have our support.”
The department attempted to answer questions from its employees last week in a series of conference calls. But officials who spoke to The Daily Beast said it was too little too late, some pointing to the chaos that ensued following the president’s Oval Office speech in which he announced European travel restrictions. Two officials based overseas said they were not given a heads up about the plan to limit travel and spent the next day fielding calls from their international counterparts asking for clarification on the White House’s announcement. One official said they did not receive guidance on how to handle visa requests and other consular duties until the morning of March 13–almost two days after the president’s address.
Back in Washington, as state governments began to close schools and asked the public to work from home, officials in the department sought answers on whether they, too, should decrease their time in the building. Some overseas posts had already issued guidance internally within their offices about teleworking, but officials in Washington working out of the headquarters building were not told to go home. Instead, senior officials told their teams that they could work from home if they felt they needed to. The conflicting guidance caused internal confusion and resentment among officials who said they had to learn from their colleagues about how each office was handling the situation. There was no clear message from Pompeo himself, the officials said.
“There’s been a severe lack of information on what we should be handling ourselves amid this crisis,” one official said, adding that no one had put out hand sanitizing bottles in the building. “People could be coming in sick and they might not even know it.”
Over the last week, rumors swirled that there were a number of individuals in the building and overseas who had tested positive for the virus—but the secretary’s office had failed to communicate that data point, one official said. The lack of communication caused officials to panic, wondering if they had come into contact with those individuals.
Throughout the last two weeks, officials inside the department building in Washington have continued to hold meetings with foreign individuals, some from Asian and European countries, in rooms that do not allow for proper social distancing, one official told The Daily Beast.
In a press conference Tuesday, Pompeo said that a “handful” of department employees had tested positive for coronavirus but did not specify how many or where they were located across the globe. When asked how his office was handling the outbreak, Pompeo said he had limited travel and issued 15 new guidelines. It was unclear if the secretary was referring to the same guidelines the White House coronavirus task force announced Monday in a briefing with reporters.
“The work our medical team has done… the work we did to get Americans out of Wuhan is in the finest tradition of American diplomacy,” Pompeo said. “We have an obligation to take care of… all of our team and we will continue to do that.”
The calls for increased transparency and action reached Capitol Hill in the last few days, where lawmakers are calling on the department for briefings on how Pompeo is handling the coronavirus response. Senior officials from the State Department briefed House staffers Tuesday morning. Officials told staffers that the department had made strides in the last several days to draft clear policies and to boost communication from Washington to foreign posts, one Democratic aide told The Daily Beast. Another aide said State told staffers that it is focusing its efforts on ensuring that employees based overseas who are sick can receive a coronavirus test. The department is relying on host governments when they can, but is also in the process of trying to partner with a commercial vendor to use at posts.
Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) on Monday sent a letter to Pompeo asking for the secretary to “to immediately rectify the State Department’s slow and deficient response to the coronavirus pandemic.” “I fear the Department’s lack of a robust response has put the health of its own employees, including those stationed abroad, at further risk, and further jeopardized the health and well-being of the American people,” Menendez wrote.
Menendez called for the department to clarify its contingency plans and asked for copies of its response plan for any suspected or confirmed cases.