Micromanagement, internal bickering, and middle-of-the-night conference calls are just a few of the complaints coming from inside the halls of the Treasury Department, where staffers say working conditions have prompted an exodus from the department in the last eight months.
Tensions are running particularly high in the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, which combats terrorist financing domestically and internationally. The Daily Beast interviewed eight current and former staffers there, all of whom said department leaders often overlook their professional assessments on key policy-related topics, including sanctions designations. They also said President Trump’s constantly shifting policy focus creates a chaotic and confusing environment.
“It’s like we are hamsters on a wheel,” one staffer said.
Sources who spoke to The Daily Beast said the changing whims of the White House, which come down through the leaders of Treasury, force them to work 20-hour days with no clear indication if what they work on one day will last into the next. And that is what is pushing several out the door.
“Everything felt super-reactionary,” one former staffer said. “One day you’re told to focus on one thing, and then the next day there’s some other news and you’re suddenly on to something else. The direction comes from the top. And if the president decides he’s going to go a different way on Iran or Russia or some other country, then we had to move the goalpost.”
Staffers told The Daily Beast they brought their complaints to leaders in the department but did not see improvements in the day-to-day operations, pushing several to seek jobs elsewhere. The current and former staffers spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity because they either feared retribution from others inside the department or worried that it would impact their ability to find a new job.
The so-called “brain drain,” as current and former staffers described it to The Daily Beast, comes at a time when the department is in the midst of preparing to yet again shift focus as the White House mulls how to to move forward with a new foreign policy strategy in 2019. The Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence is in the midst of building out some of its largest country portfolios with the expectation that the department will announce a slew of new sanctions for Iran and Russia in the next year. The Russia designations are already being discussed internally between Treasury and members of Congress, two sources said.
The departures, sources said, will only make that process more strained.
A Treasury Department spokesperson sought to assuage those concerns, telling The Daily Beast in an email, “The senior leaders at Treasury recognize that TFI employees have very important roles that require great attention to detail… The leadership is extremely proud of TFI’s highly-skilled staff and their dedication to carrying out its important mission, and Treasury continues to recruit top talent to the office.”
Meanwhile, The Beast’s sources say, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is preoccupied with calming the markets amid a partial government shutdown after his comments about U.S. banks’ liquidity late last month that spooked investors.
Current and former staffers of the office told The Daily Beast their time working in the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence was made more difficult by internal disagreements between Sigal Mandelker, under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, and Marshall Billingslea, assistant secretary for terrorist financing. The two often disagree on the pacing of sanctions designations and the intensity of the sanctions packages, three sources told The Daily Beast.
“At one point there was a very public outburst between the two and there was really no resolve to it all,” one source said regarding a conversation between Mandelker and Billingslea about designations for Russia. Another source said Billingslea wanted to implement designations quickly. Mandelker, though, wanted to take time to produce memos and analyses about the designations.
“We were sort of left wondering whose direction to follow and how to move forward. It’s not so much about ego as it is about them having very different ideas about how to run things. That ended up delaying critical announcements.”
Several staffers said Mandelker, who was appointed in March 2017, is known to hold conference calls late at night and force staffers to write dozens of pages on policies that are often discarded later in the day.
“Secretary Mnuchin was also really involved in everything the office did. He wanted to know what was going on and have a hand in it and ask a lot of questions,” one former staffer said. “That’s probably why Sigal wanted a ton of paper. Because she needed to be prepared.”
Mandelker at times “went over the heads” of professional staffers involved with sanctions, making decisions about key designations without including all of those in charge of the portfolio, sources said.
“When that is your job, and you’re constantly not heard, it creates a real problem,” one staffer said. “There’s so much micromanaging that goes on here that you feel like you’re never really having an impact.”
A spokesperson for Treasury pushed back on that assertion.
“Under Secretary Mandelker has made it a top priority to increase collaboration across the office, and she is implementing new programs focused on mentorship, culture, staff development, and talent retention,” a spokesperson said. “ She has conducted listening tours throughout TFI and has successfully advocated to bring additional staff and resources to the office.”
Although there is normally a high turnover rate for individuals working inside Treasury—where government experience can translate into lucrative private sector work—the recent exodus is a result, at least in part, of an administration that has struggled to define a clear process for designating sanctions, sources said.
The frenzied approach was very much in evidence in the spring of 2018, when staffers drew up an analysis of what would happen if the U.S. sanctioned Rusal, one of the world’s largest aluminum companies owned by Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with ties to former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort. Economists and other professional staff inside the department warned leaders it would rattle world markets. But that analysis was overlooked, they said, and the Treasury announced a designation of the Russian company in April.
Other senior staffers who are no longer with the administration told The Daily Beast that the listing of Rusal was intentional because they knew it would create widespread impact and would force Deripaska to divest his interests. Treasury delisted the aluminum company last month after they reached a deal with Deripaska and the oligarch decreased his ownership interests.
Another plot twist in this administration: Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson got rid of the office in the State Department that was in charge of coordinating sanctions across government agencies. That responsibility shifted to one mid-level official in the department and a host of staff in Treasury, two current and former staffers in the Office of Foreign Asset Control in Treasury said.
That’s when the days for staffers at Treasury got even longer.
“We’re constantly losing people,” one source said. “The job is incredibly difficult and hard to keep up with. But what’s even more difficult is feeling like the work you do matters. And if you have an administration that will only listen to the people they want to listen to, then the rest of us are inconsequential.”