Two months into the Trump administration, a distraught State Department Iran expert named Sahar Nowrouzzadeh asked her new boss for help.
A conservative website had published an article depicting Nowrouzzadeh as a Barack Obama loyalist who had “burrowed into the government” under Trump and even had ties to the hated Iranian regime itself. Focusing on her role in the negotiation of Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, the article was headlined, “Iran deal architect is running Tehran policy at the State Dept.”
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Nowrouzzadeh emailed Brian Hook, the new chief of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, where she worked on Middle East issues, to insist that the article was “filled with misinformation.” She assured Hook that, since joining the government under George W. Bush in 2005, she had always “adapted” to shifting U.S. policy priorities — as any career government staffer is expected to do. She asked for his help in correcting the record.
Hook was already well aware of the story. The article, which appeared in an obscure online publication called Conservative Review, had caused a stir among conservative activists and incoming Trump officials who were busy trying to establish who Nowrouzzadeh was — and whether she could be purged.
According to emails obtained by POLITICO, the agitators included former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who sent the article to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s chief of staff, and a Trump official who told top Tillerson aides that Nowrouzzadeh “was born in Iran” — she was not — and that she had wept after Trump’s election.
The emails show that State Department and White House officials repeatedly shared such misleading information about Nowrouzzadeh, deriding her as an Obama cheerleader and strong advocate for the nuclear deal with Iran, which Trump had repeatedly denounced. Later, after Nowrouzzadeh was reassigned to another job, some State Department officials tried to mislead a POLITICO reporter about whether she’d completed her full tenure in Hook’s policy shop.
The exchanges provide a window into the intense suspicion — critics call it paranoia — of senior Trump officials toward the career staffers they inherited upon taking over the government, especially in the realms of foreign policy and national security. In one email, a staffer was described as “a leaker and a troublemaker,” while another was branded a “turncoat.”
Although career staffers generally observe an ethos of nonpartisanship, many Trump officials saw them as constituting a “deep state” cabal determined to sabotage the new president’s agenda. The emails also suggest that Nowrouzzadeh may have been targeted in part because of her ethnicity, which would be a violation of federal employment law.
The emails were the subject of a Thursday letter to the White House and State Department from Reps. Elijah Cummings and Eliot Engel, the top Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, respectively. The letter calls the emails, provided to Congress by an unnamed whistleblower, “extremely disturbing” and demands further documents from the Trump administration.
In the early months of Trump’s presidency, conservative media organizations such as Breitbart News and the Conservative Review published several stories singling out career civil and foreign service staffers by name. The reports often called such employees “Obama holdovers” — even though many, like Nowrouzzadeh, joined the government well before Obama took office — and urged their firing. The stories were terrifying to career employees who, in some cases, had spent decades working out of the spotlight. Nowrouzzadeh, who would not comment for this article, told Hook that she feared for her safety.
“Any suggestion that the makeup of the Policy Planning Staff reflects a bias against career civil servants is completely without merit,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told POLITICO. Nauert said that more than half of the office’s current staff members are career professionals from the foreign and civil service and the military. “The details of Policy Planning’s staffing under Director Hook demonstrate that career civil servants continue to play an integral role, as do political appointees,” she added.
There are currently 14 career professionals on the Policy Planning Staff — two from the foreign service, nine from the Civil Service, and three from the military.
A Connecticut-born U.S. citizen of Iranian descent, Nowrouzzadeh, 35, joined the Civil Service in 2005 during Bush’s second term. She went on to join Obama’s National Security Council staff, where she worked on the negotiation and implementation of the Iran nuclear deal. Former Obama officials describe Nowrouzzadeh as a seasoned Iran expert who gave them valuable insights into the country’s dynamics and motivations.
By the time Trump took office in January 2017, Nowrouzzadeh was on a yearlong detail to the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, a kind of in-house think tank for the secretary of state, where she focused on Iran and the Gulf Arab states. Hook, a former George W. Bush administration official generally considered a moderate, had been tapped to run the office by Tillerson.
Nowrouzzadeh attracted the attention of conservative media outlets during the Obama years after her name, which indicated her Iranian ethnicity, appeared on a public White House document. Conservative reports questioned her national loyalties and fixated on the fact that she had interned with the National Iranian American Council, an advocacy group that strongly supported the nuclear deal and generally favors better U.S.-Iranian relations. The Conservative Review article described NIAC as “an alleged Iranian regime lobbying group.” (NIAC denies such ties, and it had regular contact with the Obama White House. Nowrouzzadeh interned for the group as a college student, at a time when it did not take positions on U.S. policy.)
The story about Nowrouzzadeh that ran in the Conservative Review on March 14, 2017, covered much of that same territory, saying she had “burrowed into the government under President Trump” and had helped craft “false narratives on the Iran deal to sell to the American public” while working for Obama.
It touched off a flurry of activity in conservative circles. Barbara Ledeen, a prominent conservative activist, forwarded the story with an “Ugh” in the subject line to a Google Group apparently focused on judicial strategy. David Wurmser, a former Middle East adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, forwarded the Conservative Review story to Gingrich and wrote of the State Department: “A cleaning is in order there.” Gingrich, in turn, flagged the article by email to Tillerson’s chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin.
Some emails suggest the conservative outlets were interested in more than publishing provocative stories. Joel B. Pollak, a top staffer at Breitbart News, emailed Tillerson aide Matt Mowers with an offer to supply “additional background” on “Obama holdovers.”
The same day that the story about Nowrouzzadeh was published, White House and State Department officials were busy exchanging emails about Nowrouzzadeh. In one of them, Julia Haller, whose LinkedIn profile lists her as being a White House liaison to the State Department at the time, incorrectly claimed that Nowrouzzadeh “was born in Iran,” adding: “upon my understanding [she] cried when the President won.”
“This initial info is helpful,” Hook replied after that response, along with background on Nowrouzzadeh’s employment status, was relayed to him. Hook said he had “emailed friends who track the Iran deal for intel on her.”
Hook, whom many State employees have described as highly suspicious of the career diplomats around him, also asked his deputy director of the Policy Planning Staff, Edward Lacey, about Nowrouzzadeh. Himself a career official, Lacey used the opportunity to advocate for a house cleaning, noting that several people on the Policy Planning Staff were appointed by Hook’s Obama-era predecessors.
“Their picks without exception, were Obama/Clinton loyalists not at all supportive of President Trump’s foreign policy agenda,” Lacey wrote, adding that “all of these detailees have tried to stay on” in Policy Planning.
“Ed – This is helpful. Let’s discuss on Monday,” Hook replied.
In a later email, Lacey told Hook that Nowrouzzadeh had “helped promote and defend” the Iran deal – “I would say, with enthusiasm.”
In her March 15 email to Hook, Nowrouzzadeh tried to set the record straight, calling the Conservative Review story “unfortunate” and full of wrong information.
“By way of brief background, I am and have been a career civil servant for nearly 12 years now,” she wrote. “I’ve adapted my work to the policy priorities of every administration I’ve worked for.” She adds that she has “physical and online safety concerns” and asks for Hook’s help in correcting the record.
Hook’s response, if there was one, is not included in the material obtained by POLITICO. In April, Hook pushed Nowrouzzadeh out of his Policy Planning Staff, cutting her yearlong detail short by three months. She was returned to the State Department’s Near East Bureau (NEA), where she was an official permanent employee.
When POLITICO began asking questions about her sudden reassignment that same month, some State Department officials wanted to offer misleading statements about what had happened to Nowrouzzadeh.
In a series of emails on April 17, Lacey urged State Department public affairs officials to tell POLITICO that Nowrouzzadeh had left Policy Planning “on the completion of that assignment.” A public affairs official, Justin Reynolds, tried to counter that, saying his unit “would like to avoid commenting on where she is now and how long details normally last if at all possible.”
But Lacey insisted: “We need to counter the notion that she has been forced out of S/P,” a common term for Policy Planning. “Her return to NEA should be characterized as what it is – the normal return to a parent office of a civil servant at the completion of a detail assignment. A perfectly normal occurrence.”
Nowrouzzadeh, who was copied on the exchange, fought back.
“Ed – My assignment was not ‘completed,’” she wrote. “The 3 month curtailment to the duration of my detail was also not handled in accordance with that which was explicitly stated in my [memorandum of understanding].”
At one point, Nowrouzzadeh asks Reynolds: “Can we try to kill the story?”
U.S. law is generally supposed to protect career government employees from politically motivated firings and other retaliation not linked to their work performance. But political appointees of incoming administrations have a lot of latitude when it comes to assigning people or promoting them. That means it’s possible to shuffle people around without necessarily violating any laws.
Nowrouzzadeh remains a State Department employee, though she is now on a fellowship at Harvard University.
She was just one of many people viewed with suspicion by Trump administration officials. An email Hook sent to himself on April 25 included a list of names with questions about their loyalties, including the charges that one was a “leaker and troublemaker” and another a “turncoat.”
The email’s subject line was “Derek notes.” The reference was to Derek Harvey, who was at the time a senior official at the National Security Council, according to a congressional aide who deals with State Department oversight. Harvey was worried about several career staffers he deemed insufficiently loyal to Trump and was behind efforts to sideline them, the aide said.
In a brief interview, Harvey insisted he’d not removed anyone from their position early and only had concerns about “two or three people” who’d acted in a disruptive manner toward his deputies. “But even those were not removed early,” he said.
POLITICO’s story about Nowrouzzadeh’s ouster from the Policy Planning Staff was published April 21, 2017. Hook emailed the story out to R.C. Hammond, at that time a communications aide to Tillerson.
The story, Hook said, was “ludicrous.”