The State Department is standing firmly behind a senior Asia-focused diplomat under attack by Steve Bannon.
Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, phoned an American Prospect journalist to boast about his intentions to fire officials he considered insufficiently hardline on China and related regional issues. The only one he mentioned by name is Susan Thornton, a career foreign service officer currently serving as the State Department’s top Asia official.
“I’m changing out people at East Asian Defense; I’m getting hawks in. I’m getting Susan Thornton out at State,” Bannon told Robert Kuttner of the American Prospect in a piece published Wednesday. Axios reported that Bannon has told associates he didn’t know he was giving an interview, though Bannon has since insisted he did so to take political heat off of the president.
Thornton is a widely respected and non-ideological career diplomat who for years has played a large role in regional diplomacy to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. Rex Tillerson’s State Department quickly signaled that it has no intention of jettisoning her.
“The Secretary asked Susan Thornton to lead in a very important role and he continues to rely on her to lead the State Department’s diplomacy in Asia,” a State Department official told The Daily Beast, noting that Thornton “continues in her capacity as acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.”
Tillerson was photographed smiling and shaking hands with Thornton on Thursday morning ahead of a meeting with Japanese officials.
Bannon’s pledge to remove Thornton from State is the latest chapter in a long-running feud between Tillerson and the White House. For months, the Secretary of State has pushed back against efforts to meddle in his affairs and undermine his top aide, even reportedly yelling at White House personnel official over their resistance to making Thornton the permanent assistant secretary.
Last month, BuzzFeed reported that Tillerson heard from the White House that Thornton was considered out of step with the Trump administration’s agenda. But between Trump recently embracing China as a gambit for aiding the U.S. on North Korea and Bannon’s desire to punish China economically, it is unclear whose agenda Thornton is considered an obstacle to implementing.
Unlike many candidates for the senior State position for Asia, Thornton has diplomatic experience on the ground in both China and Russia, giving her a unique background for diplomacy surrounding North Korea, which colleagues say she has been heavily involved in for years. It’s likely that her work contributed to the Trump administration’s 15-0 victory at the United Nations Security Council for imposing new sanctions on North Korea, an achievement it claims is underappreciated by the media.
“I don’t think there’s another person in the United States better qualified. She’s an exceptional diplomat with abundant experience, great instincts and a very practical sense of how to get things done,” said Ryan Hass, the director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia on Barack Obama’s National Security Council. “She’s an important player in the policy process for the development of options on North Korea. She’s very practical, results oriented, and non-ideological. She has been at the center of pretty much every discussion with the Chinese on North Korea for several years now.”
Other former colleagues describe Thornton as a “consummate foreign policy professional,” in the words of Abraham Denmark, who as Thornton’s Pentagon counterpart during the Obama administration, worked with Thornton on a daily basis.
Denmark, now the director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center, traveled with Thornton to Mongolia as one of his first acts in the previous administration. He described her as “clear headed and ready to go” whether standing around a horse farm or seated with her counterparts in a boardroom.
Haas said that the only reason for dumping Thornton was to ensure her position goes to a political loyalist.
“The only rationale I can think of for seeking to get rid of her is fact she’s a foreign service officer,” he said. “As a lapsed foreign service officer myself, I find that deeply disappointing – that anyone would be disqualified on basis having devoted their life, being sent around world, working long hours in high stress, for low pay, for the sole purpose of advancing America’s interest.”
Tillerson has been widely criticized within the State Department for the slow pace of appointing senior officials. And without a permanent assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs nominated, Thornton’s influence remains significant.
According to BuzzFeed’s reporting, Tillerson’s leading fallback candidate for the job is a Treasury official, Olin Wethington. But if recent reports turn out to be true, Thornton may stick around longer in her gig than Bannon in his.