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Politics & Government

Rebuilding The State Department Under Biden

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're heading to the State Department now, where the Trump years were particularly hard ones. The former president often ridiculed it as the Deep State Department, and diplomats were drawn into Trump's first impeachment over his and his associates' dealings with Ukraine. The new secretary of state is trying to restore the nonpartisan nature of diplomacy. But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, it's no easy task.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to employees during his visit to Ukraine this past week, he alluded to Trump's first impeachment.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: I know that the past couple of years have been particularly difficult, even before COVID. Ukraine and this mission were pulled into matters that should not have been the case.

KELEMEN: Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was trying to dig up dirt about Joe Biden's son, who was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. Giuliani smeared U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was then fired by Trump. And she and other diplomats were summoned to Capitol Hill to testify in the impeachment trial. Blinken is trying to reassure his employees that those days are over.

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BLINKEN: One thing that's very important is that politics stops at the C Street door. And that's very much the case now.

KELEMEN: C Street is the State Department's front entrance. While Blinken was making those remarks in Kyiv, the former U.S. ambassador at the center of the impeachment case, Marie Yovanovitch, was speaking on a panel about public service.

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MARIE YOVANOVITCH: Ideally, nobody in America would know my name. That's not the case anymore.

KELEMEN: Yovanovitch retired from the foreign service and is writing her memoir and working at Georgetown University and the Carnegie Endowment. She says the last few years have been a wakeup call, not just because of the first impeachment trial but also the second one over Trump's role in inciting a mob attack on Capitol Hill. Yovanovitch says the U.S. needs nonpartisan public servants to revitalize democratic institutions. That includes the State Department.

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YOVANOVITCH: We work under the radar. And what we do is what Secretary Shultz used to call tending the garden, you know? Every day, we work on relationships, and we nurture those flowers. And we pull up the nasty weeds that get in there and choke off good relationships and create bad relationships.

KELEMEN: The day-to-day job of diplomats who serve both Democratic and Republican presidents is not particularly glamorous, she told the panel, organized by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization.

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YOVANOVITCH: But it is absolutely critical to keeping America secure and strong and advancing our interests.

KELEMEN: Three other big names from the Ukraine impeachment drama were also on the panel, including former National Security Council officials Fiona Hill and Alexander Vindman as well as Bill Taylor. He's the diplomat who was brought back out of retirement to run the Embassy in Ukraine after Yovanovitch was ousted.

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BILL TAYLOR: Took some extraordinary actions by some people and some bravery, real bravery by some people to stand up and point out the problems.

KELEMEN: Taylor thinks the State Department survived the Trump era, and he's still encouraging young people to serve.

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TAYLOR: So I'm optimistic. I think that institution came through, and I think other institutions will be the same way. But as Ambassador Yovanovitch said, it takes work. We need to work hard.

KELEMEN: He's now back at the U.S. Institute of Peace, writing about Ukraine and Russia and other topics that he dealt with in his decadeslong career in public service.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "ZIONSVILLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.