The State Department punished a career diplomat in 2017 after she was targeted by a racist post on a pro-Trump site — sourced largely to Kremlin propaganda — that reached the highest levels of the agency.
In a report released Thursday, the State Department’s Office of Inspector General argued that the administration’s point man on Iran retaliated against the subordinate at least partly because of her perceived political views and family heritage.
The long-awaited report came in response to House Democrats’ concerns that Trump appointees were purging civil service employees deemed insufficiently loyal to the president. It lays out how “deep state” conspiracies are affecting the upper echelons of U.S. policymaking, and it comes as Trump and his defenders in the GOP openly clash with career diplomats in the impeachment inquiry.
The most damning evidence centers on how Brian Hook, the administration’s special representative for Iran, reassigned a longtime staffer who helped shape the Iran nuclear deal, Sahar Nowrouzzadeh.
Hook told investigators that his decision-making did not take an internal pressure campaign by Trump political appointees into account. But the IG report described his explanation as a “post-hoc justification” and recommended that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo consider disciplinary action.
Nowrouzzadeh, who worked in the Bush and Obama administrations, said in a statement to VICE News that she hoped the IG report will “prompt action that will guard against any further such misconduct.”
“I continue to strongly encourage Americans of all backgrounds, including those of Iranian heritage, to consider public service to our nation and to not be discouraged by these findings,” she said.
The pro-Trump site Conservative Review allegedly planted the seed for her reassignment with a March 2017 article, which paints her as an Obama lackey and Iranian lobbyist “burrowed” into the administration. Noting her Persian-language skills, the piece appears to be sourced largely from an op-ed by Trump defender Alan Dershowitz and a post in the Russian-backed outlet Sputnik.
That latter article, based on remarks by the editor of a state-run newspaper in Iran, incorrectly reports that Nowrouzzadeh was born in Iran and similarly implies that she could lobby on behalf of the regime. The low-budget misinformation quickly reached the upper ranks of the State Department.
The watchdog report says that an unnamed advisor to former Vice President Dick Cheney quickly shared the Conservative Review piece with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who forwarded it to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s chief of staff.
At least two White House officials similarly sent the piece to political appointees at the State Department. Julia Haller, a Trump campaign staffer who became a liaison between the agency and White House, responded that they could possibly end Nowrouzzadeh’s detail.
“As background,” Haller wrote in an email at the time, “she worked on the Iran Deal, specifically works on Iran within [the department’s Policy Planning Staff], was born in Iran, and upon my understanding cried when the President won.” (Nowrouzzadeh was born and raised in Connecticut. The IG reports that Haller attributed her statement on Nowrouzzadeh’s reaction to Trump’s election as “office gossip.”)
Nowrouzzadeh wasn’t silent as whispers that she “did not belong” and was “not supportive” of Trump’s agenda spread among top officials. She reached out to Hook to express fear for her reputation and personal safety. “Mr. Hook did not respond to her email or to a subsequent follow-up email,” the report said, adding that he likewise shrugged off her concerns during an in-person meeting.
Hook did, however, continue conversations about ending her detail early, which is within his mandate. “Again,” the report said, “OIG found no evidence that any of these individuals attempted to ascertain whether [Nowrouzzadeh] was unwilling or incapable of implementing the Department’s new policy priorities or that they expressed such sentiments to Mr. Hook.” She was reassigned within three weeks.
In response to the allegations, Hook wrote in an email to the watchdog that suggestions of dual loyalty “were not the factors I used to make my personnel decision. I made my personnel decision prior to the date that any non-merit factors were discussed internally and for professional and lawful reasons.”
Cover: Screenshot from Sputnik's Sept. 2016 piece on Nowrouzzadeh.