Since the beginning of the Trump administration, rumors about “deep state” Obama loyalists hiding out in federal agencies have swept through conservative circles. Mostly, it seemed like a harmless, if unpleasant, partisan parlor game.
But emails obtained by VICE News show that Trump appointees at the State Department did more than just traffic in rumors. They seemed to take steps to sideline at least one senior career professional they suspected might disagree with the new administration’s agenda—based in part on an incorrect, and possibly illegal, assumption about her nationality.
The 24 pages of emails were turned over last Wednesday to Democratic staff in the House Oversight Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee by a whistleblower.
The State Department has not confirmed the authenticity of the emails, but VICE News has reason to believe they are authentic.
The most troubling correspondence revolves around a career civil servant named Sahar Nowrouzzadeh. In March of 2017 Nowrouzzadeh was named in a Conservative Review article by Jordan Schachtel as “a trusted Obama aide” that “has burrowed into the government under President Trump.”
“Filled with misinformation”
Emails show Nowrouzzadeh, who started her government career at the Defense Department during the George W. Bush administration, was immediately concerned about the article’s impact on her relations with Trump appointees and believed it was “filled with misinformation.”
She sought assistance from her then-boss Brian Hook, the senior policy advisor and the director of policy planning at the State Department. Nowrouzzadeh was hoping Hook could help her correct the record and emailed him that she had concerns about “her own physical and online safety.”
On the same day the Conservative Review article posted, messages began arriving in the inboxes of Trump political appointees referencing the story and Nowrouzzadeh. In an email dated March 16, 2017, Joel Pollak, the senior editor-at-large for Breitbart News, wrote to Matthew Mowers, a senior adviser at the State Department:
On March 14, 2017, the article was forwarded to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich by David Wurmser, an aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Under Secretary of State John Bolton.
Gingrich forwarded the email to then–Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s Chief of Staff Margaret Peterlin. She forwarded it to Tillerson’s then-Deputy Chief of Staff Christine Ciccone and Mowers. Mowers replied that he was already working with Hook “on how best to organize his team and have discussed where Sahar, a career employee detailed to that office previously, may be of best use to the agency.”
Presumably, what neither Gingrich nor Polak, the Breitbart journalist, knew was that the White House was already on the case. On March 14, 2017, Deputy Assistant to the President Sean Doocey reached out to members of Tillerson’s senior staff asking, “Is Sahar Nowrouzzadeh on the policy planning staff at DOS, and if so, what is her appointment authority?”
Julia Haller, a State Department White House liaison, responded:
Nowrouzzadeh, who was born in the United States, is of Iranian descent. The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 prohibits employees from being subjected to prejudice based on “political affiliation, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, or handicapping condition.”
Max Stier, president for the Partnership for Public Service, said, “The idea that someone would have an adverse personnel action taken against them, and that could be a transfer…that was based on political affiliation or on an affiliation with a prior administration, would be a prohibited personnel practice.”
The law lists consequences for such actions like reprimand, removal, a monetary penalty or a combination of these punishments. However, Stier warns, “In terms of some sort of penalty to those that have actually violated the law in this regard, there may not be much. That’s maybe not how it ought to be, but you really have to expect that the leadership will take this seriously, because they should.”
At least two more email exchanges referenced rooting out former Clinton and Obama appointees.
In one, Edward Lacey, the deputy director of Policy Planning at the State Department, references the Conservative Review article while telling Brian Hook that he’s rooted out five Obama/Clinton loyalists. Lacey continues: "Two remain — Sahar, whose detail expires on June 5, and Roop Rangaswamy.” Hook agrees to discuss the issue and later sent an email to himself containing a list of names, some of whom he refers to as “troublemakers.”
In April of 2017, Nowrouzzadeh was removed early from her position at the Office of Policy Planning and back to her previous position in the Office of Iranian Affairs. The circumstances surrounding Nowrouzzadeh’s employment were originally reported by Politico and confirmed by VICE News. Her detail to the powerful policy planning office was scheduled to go until July. Because of that, she filed a equal employment opportunity complaint that claimed the change in position was due to racial discrimination but did not address the possible political discrimination issue that the emails highlight. The complaint was settled last year.
She is now on unpaid leave from the State Department while participating in a fellowship at Harvard University.
Based on these emails as well as other complaints, the ranking Democratic members of both the House Oversight Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee sent a letter to the White House and the State Department last Thursday asking for more information and transcribed interviews with officials who were a part of the email exchanges by March 29.
In the letter, Democratic Representatives Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Eliot Engel of New York write, ”Over the past year, we have heard many reports of political attacks on career employees at the State Department, but we had not seen evidence of how extensive, blunt, and inappropriate these attacks were until now.”
Engel’s office said that as of Monday morning, they’d received no official response to their letter. The State Department would not respond directly to whether they have communicated with the offices of the congressmen. “We always work closely and cooperatively with Congress and seek to be as timely and responsive as possible to their requests for information. As a general matter, we don’t comment publicly on oversight matters,” a State Department statement read.
When asked during a briefing to address the letter, spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “I can tell you that we received that letter from Congress. The State Department regards those types of communications very seriously. We always get back in touch with those members of Congress who ask questions of us. We don’t have any additional information to share on that at this time.”
Jesse Seidman contributed to this report
Cover image: U.S. President Donald J. Trump meets with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar of Ireland at The White House on March 15, 2018, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images)