John Sullivan, the new deputy secretary of state, is quickly winning over State Department employees by taking otherwise ordinary steps in what seem like extraordinary times.
The 57-year-old has repeatedly stated his admiration for the Foreign Service, even as President Donald Trump has proposed gutting it. He talks to career officers–and says he wants to meet all of them, even as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson grows increasingly isolated from his staff. Sullivan has also pushed the boundaries of the Trump administration’s ethos by reaching out to Democrats as well as Republicans to help him prepare for his new job.
“He’s obviously taking it very, very seriously,” said Strobe Talbott, who served as deputy secretary of state during the Clinton administration and is among those who met with Sullivan. “I found his questions to be on point.
On Wednesday, Tillerson announced that Sullivan would oversee a steering team focused on ways to restructure the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, the most contentious issue facing the agency as Trump pushes to shrink its budget and 75,000-person workforce.
Although he’s been a Supreme Court law clerk, held a top legal position at the Pentagon, and served as the deputy secretary of commerce, Sullivan had no direct State Department experience when nominated to be deputy to Tillerson, who is widely viewed within his department as isolated from and dismissive of career staff.
Sullivan’s late uncle was a prominent foreign service officer who was the last U.S. ambassador to Iran, and so far Sullivan has shown a fluency with diplomacy that has delighted his new colleagues.
In June, less than a month after the Senate confirmed him, Sullivan subbed in at the last minute for Tillerson at a gathering of the Organization for American States. The meeting focused heavily on America’s tense relationship with the increasingly autocratic Venezuelan government. The Venezuelan foreign minister, Delcy Rodriguez, insulted Sullivan by calling him “el jefe” — the boss — of an imperialist alliance and claiming the U.S. wants Venezuela’s oil.
But Sullivan gave as good as he got. Rodriguez’s claims “can be summarized in three words,” he shot back in one session. “Distractions, distortions and irrelevancies.”
“He’s terrific, just terrific,” gushed one senior State employee who has otherwise despaired over the department’s hollowing out and marginalization under Trump.
People who have worked with Sullivan in government and at the Mayer Brown law firm, where he’s been a partner, describe him as even-tempered and a bit of a perfectionist. Sullivan would use a blow-dryer to make sure there were no extra bits of paper stuck on freshly bound documents being sent to the Supreme Court, said Mike Lackey, a friend and the global head of litigation for Mayer Brown.
In preparation for his confirmation hearings, Sullivan consumed copious amounts of information. “I’ve never seen someone study more,” Lackey said. “He had these massive briefing books. Not only the briefing books the administration had — he would ask for additional information.”
Sullivan’s outreach to past deputy secretaries of state, including those who served in Democratic administrations, has especially impressed observers, given how partisan U.S. foreign policy has become since Trump took office.
Aside from Talbott, Sullivan’s schedule has included sessions with Antony Blinken, who served as deputy secretary of state during the Barack Obama administration, and John Negroponte, who held the position during the George W. Bush administration. Negroponte said Sullivan may prove a useful ally for career staffers at State, whose grumbling he warned could backfire in the long run by merely angering top Trump administration officials.
“Maybe what John Sullivan can do is to be a good cheerleader for these people and say now look let’s put our shoulder to the wheel and show people our stuff,” Negroponte said.
Sullivan, a Columbia Law School graduate, spoke about his family extensively during his confirmation hearing in May. He and his wife, Grace Rodriguez, have three children. His father served in the Navy during World War II and his mother was a USO volunteer. His ambassador uncle, William Sullivan, was briefly taken captive by a group of Iranians who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for several hours on Feb. 14, 1979; that incident pre-dated the much longer Iran hostage crisis that began in November 1979, after William Sullivan left.
John Sullivan said his uncle’s experience in Tehran left a “huge impression” on him. “I have remained in awe of our Foreign Service officers who venture into such dangerous places on our behalf,” Sullivan told senators. The Senate confirmed him 94-6.
Sullivan, who helped Tillerson prepare for his confirmation hearings in January, was not the former ExxonMobil chief’s first choice for a deputy. Tillerson wanted to appoint Elliott Abrams, a conservative foreign policy expert who served in the George W. Bush administration. But Trump nixed that idea after learning that Abrams had criticized him in the past.
Tillerson and Sullivan are believed to have a good relationship, but their reputations within the department couldn’t be more different.
Tillerson is considered unapproachable and largely isolated except for a few political appointees who tightly restrict access to him. He has yet to fill numerous leadership positions in the department and has put down strict new rules about hiring and promotions that officials fear will cripple the organization. He’s also appeared unwilling to defend State against a Trump budget proposal that would cut the department’s funding by a third. Tillerson has blamed the White House for slowing down hiring, but many State officials have lost faith in the secretary.
That unhappiness was made clear to Tillerson in a survey of State Department employees whose results were released in-house on Wednesday. A source who looked at the 110-page report told POLITICO that many State staffers expressed concern that the Trump administration neither understood nor cared about the role of the department and diplomacy more broadly.
Sullivan has made it a point to meet as many career State Department employees as possible. On June 26, he sent an email to the whole department in which he praised their work. “The women and men of this department are as talented and dedicated a group of professionals as one could imagine. I’m honored to serve with you and look forward to meeting all of you,” he wrote, according to a copy of the email seen by POLITICO.
“People, when they got the email, were like, ‘This is terrific,’” said one U.S. diplomat. “It was a real morale booster.”
One move State employees are watching is whether Sullivan will appoint a career foreign service officer as his chief of staff, instead of turning to a political appointee from outside. If he were to go with a career staffer, that would be a huge vote of confidence in the diplomatic corps, sources at State said.
It was not clear whether Sullivan had yet appointed anyone to the chief of staff’s role — under the Trump administration, such hires are not always widely announced. State Department spokespeople could not answer whether Sullivan had picked anyone following multiple inquiries.
How long Sullivan will stay in the diplomatic corps’ good graces is anyone’s guess, especially if frustrations keep boiling over the lack of hiring and tightening of budgets. After all, some of the State officials now high on Sullivan were high on Tillerson, too, when he first took office in February.
But for now, State Department officials are hopeful. "We feel like we have an ally," one staffer said.