The top career U.S. diplomat announced Thursday he will step down, dealing a blow to the State Department as the Trump administration confronts numerous international challenges.
The State Department’s third-ranking official, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon, informed agency staffers that he will retire as soon as a successor for his Senate-confirmed post is chosen and ready to assume the job.
Shannon is a near 35-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, and was the most senior department official to remain in his job after the transition from the Obama to the Trump administrations. He served under six presidents of both political parties since 1984 and was widely seen as a symbol of diplomatic continuity and professionalism during the tumultuous transition last year.
In an interview, Shannon, who holds the rank of “career ambassador” — the highest in the foreign service — said he was retiring for personal and not political reasons. “I decided it was an important moment to take a step back and to determine what next I can do in my life,” Shannon said. He said the death of his mother late last year and his own 60th birthday last week contributed to his decision. But he also said he considered himself the “designated survivor” when former President Barack Obama tapped him for the undersecretary post in February 2016.
“Aside from helping the Obama administration to the finish line, I knew my job was also about helping this institution navigate the political transition, get across the river,” he said. “And, once across that river, help this institution — the foreign service and civil service — be responsive to our elected leadership.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has been criticized for his leadership of the State Department and removing or forcing out senior career officials, said he had asked Shannon to stay on and acknowledged that Shannon’s departure would be a loss. “Thirty-five years of experience is not something you replace overnight,” he said.
Tillerson dropped by during the interview and said Shannon could return if he did not enjoy retirement.
“There will always be a place for Tom Shannon at the State Department,” Tillerson said, adding he would miss Shannon’s “encyclopedic” knowledge of the State Department and U.S. diplomatic history. “He is the senior statesman.”
Shannon said he had “supreme confidence” in the younger generation of foreign service officers, 60 percent of whom have been diplomats for less than 10 years.