WASHINGTON >> President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team asked the State Department this week to submit details of programs and jobs aimed at promoting gender equality, raising the prospect that the incoming administration will roll back a cornerstone project of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The one-page memo, a copy of which was provided to The New York Times on Thursday, directed employees to outline “existing programs and activities to promote gender equality, such as ending gender-based violence, promoting women’s participation in economic and political spheres, entrepreneurship, etc.”
It also requested a list of positions “whose primary functions are to promote such issues” — though not the names of people in those positions — as well as how much funding was directed to gender-related programs in fiscal 2016. The U.S. Agency for International Development also received the request, according to a person there.
While the wording of the memo is neutral and does not hint at any policy change, it rattled State Department employees, even those at senior levels. Some took note of the reference to “gender-related staffing,” which they said could also refer to programs focused on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, though the memo did not refer specifically to them.
The memo is reminiscent of one the transition team sent recently to the Energy Department, which asked for the names of people who had worked on climate change or attended global climate talks organized by the United Nations within the past five years. That more detailed questionnaire, on the heels of Trump’s appointment of a climate change denialist to head the Environmental Protection Agency, sowed fears that the Trump administration would purge anyone involved in trying to curb the effects of climate change.
The latest request drew expressions of concern from advocacy groups and some on Capitol Hill.
“The transition team should clarify their intent,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said in a statement. “I can promise that if the next administration intends to roll back programs designed to lift women up, it will very quickly meet stiff opposition in the Senate.”
The Trump transition team declined a request for comment on the latest memo. A person answering the phone in the State Department transition office directed inquiries to the public affairs office, which declined to confirm the existence of the memo or to discuss specific information being sought by Trump’s team.
After a slow start, the transition team is accelerating its work to staff the State Department, sending memos requesting a range of information from the rank and file. Among the issues it asked about is the department’s anti-terrorism initiative, Countering Violent Extremism.
Trump has made the fight against the Islamic State central to his foreign policy and has railed against what he said was President Barack Obama’s refusal to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism.” The transition team’s questions have led some in the department to assume that, at a minimum, the program will be renamed Countering Islamic Extremism.
Transition officials are said to be concerned about how many senior jobs in the department will be vacated by departing political appointees. They asked whether there would be anyone to show the secretary of state-designate, Rex Tillerson, around his office.
On Wednesday, the State Department press secretary, John Kirby, told reporters that in general terms, the information being sought by Trump’s team was not out of the ordinary.
“Having gone through a transition myself a few years ago, without getting into detail, I can tell you that the kinds of things, the kinds of material, the kind of information that they are asking for is very much in keeping with what I’ve seen in at least the one previous presidential transition that I lived through when I was at the Pentagon,” Kirby said.
Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken to Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, in what Kirby said was a “nice chat where the secretary had an opportunity to congratulate him.” On Tuesday, Tillerson met in Washington with Vice President-elect Mike Pence and other senior members of Trump’s national security team.
Kerry has tended to champion efforts to counter climate change during his years at the State Department, but Clinton made gender-related issues a leitmotif of her tenure as the nation’s chief diplomat.
In her first year, she created the position of ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, appointing Melanne Verveer, who had been her chief of staff when she was first lady. Kerry kept the post, which is held by Catherine M. Russell, a former chief of staff to Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden. Some at the department now worry it will be eliminated.
Several of Clinton’s showcase development projects, such as clean stoves for the developing world, had a strong gender component. In travels to El Salvador, India and Pakistan, she gathered female entrepreneurs and other leaders to discuss their challenges. She often drew a link between the treatment of women and the nation’s security.
“If you look at where we are fighting terrorism,” she said in an interview in 2009, “there is a connection to groups that are making a stand against modernity, and that is most evident in their treatment of women.”
Clinton also changed the department’s policies to give equal benefits and protections to same-sex partners of U.S. diplomats. In an internal memo at the time, she wrote, “Like all families, our Foreign Service families come in different configurations; all are part of the common fabric of our post communities abroad.”
Although Trump has a record of derogatory comments about women, it is not clear why he would want to roll back the department’s work in this area. News of the memo came the same day he appointed Kellyanne Conway, who managed his campaign, as counselor to the president, making her the highest-ranking woman in the White House.
One of the people on Trump’s State Department transition team, Erin Walsh, is a former Goldman Sachs executive in Asia who has worked to advance gender issues. At a conference in 2013, she promoted the “10,000 Women Initiative, a five-year program sponsored by Goldman Sachs to provide women with a business and management education.
A senior State Department official said it was possible that the memo was simple fact-finding. But in the current political environment, and given the language Trump used in the campaign, he said, people were reading the most malign implications into it.
“I can’t believe any of this has been shared with the secretary-designate, because Exxon under Tillerson has been extremely supportive of women’s issues,” Verveer said. “It’s just really hard to fathom.”
Moreover, Tillerson was on the Boy Scouts of America’s executive board when the group voted in 2013 to lift the ban on gay scouts.