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Watchdog Report: Trump Official Punished Public Servant Over Her Iranian Heritage

Nov 14, 2019
Originally published on November 16, 2019 9:53 am

President Trump often says members of the "deep state" are bent on sabotaging his agenda.

And some of the career civil servants the president is referring to have said they have been retaliated against following reports in conservative media questioning their loyalty to Trump.

On Thursday, the State Department's internal watchdog affirmed that this happened to one high-ranking foreign policy official who was improperly removed from her post by White House officials in the wake of an online smear campaign on alt-right websites.

The official in question is Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, a 36-year-old national security specialist fluent in Persian and Arabic who helped craft the Iran nuclear deal in the Obama administration.

Back in 2017, conservative websites labeled her a "a trusted Obama aide," and called her "a Muslim spy," among other allegations.

According to the report from the State Department's inspector general, top Trump officials shared some of these articles among White House staff, adding that they believe Nowrouzzadeh wept when Trump was elected.

The report says that raised questions about her loyalty to Trump. Another Trump official noted falsely that Nowrouzzadeh was born in Iran. In fact, she was born in Connecticut. Her parents emigrated to the U.S. from Iran, but that did not stop the wave of disparaging articles.

"Shortly thereafter, my detail ended after senior officials engaged in what the report called significant discussion of my perceived national origin, my perceived political views and perceived affiliations with former administrations," Nowrouzzadeh told NPR.

Trump officials demoted her from her top policy job in the State Department, despite a career in public service that spanned nearly 13 years. She first entered the federal government in 2005 under President George W. Bush.

The IG recommended that those responsible for her reassignment be disciplined and that political appointees in the department be trained on personnel practices.

State Department officials have said in response that they will consider taking action against those involved with Nowrouzzadeh's removal and will supply the new training.

The IG found the remarks circulated among White House staff about Nowrouzzadeh's perceived place of birth to be especially troubling.

"They are wholly inconsistent with Department policies requiring fair and equitable treatment of employees without consideration of national origin," according to the report. "They are also inconsistent with the Department's leadership principles, which require that leaders value diversity in the workplace."

Nowrouzzadeh asked her then-boss, Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, to help her correct misinformation in articles on websites supportive of Trump such as Conservative Review and Breitbart.

She told IG investigators that Hook said "virtually nothing" in response to her concerns. Hook recalled telling her that such stories are "fairly standard" for civil servants in high-profile positions, instructing her to ignore the false stories.

Hook, in his own lengthy response attached to the report, said the decision to reassign Nowrouzzadeh was not made in consideration of her perceived political beliefs or where she was born. Instead, he had another candidate in mind for her role, someone Hook considered "an ideal choice."

"My personnel decision was lawful, proper, and within the administrative standards for the Department of State," Hook wrote.

Nowrouzzadeh, who is now a research fellow on Iran at Harvard University but is still employed by the State Department, said she hopes the findings of the IG's report do not discourage others from wanting to work there.

"I think steps need to be taken to protect against any such misconduct against this or any future administration," Nowrouzzadeh told NPR. "I've always and I'll continue to strongly encourage Americans of all backgrounds, including those of Iranian heritage, like myself, to consider public service and to not be discouraged by these findings."

Four other career State Department employees alleged that they were retaliated against over perceived political bias against Trump, but the IG could not find enough evidence to support those claims.

Norman Ornstein with the Washington-based conservative-leaning think tank American Enterprise Institute fears the attacks on public servants by Trump loyalists and media stories that demonize government workers will have longterm repercussions.

"I think it's going to be a challenge for any president, any administration and any government going forward to be able to assure people who go into government service that they're not going to be the subject of horrific attacks that are completely unwarranted," Ornstein said.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Trump often says a, quote, "deep state" is trying to bring him down, and some career civil servants have said they've been retaliated against after conservative media questioned their loyalty to Trump. Well, today the State Department's inspector general found that this actually happened to one high-ranking foreign policy official. And for more on this, we are joined by NPR's Bobby Allyn here in the studio.

Hi, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What specifically was the inspector general looking into here?

ALLYN: So the IG examined five cases of State Department workers saying they were retaliated against in the Trump administration, and all the attention has really focused on this woman named Sahar Nowrouzzadeh and what happened to her in 2017. And for background, she's a 36-year-old national security specialist. You know, her career spanned nearly 15 years under both Democrats and Republicans. And in the Obama administration, she was really instrumental in helping shape the Iran nuclear deal. And for the most part, she kept a pretty low profile, but then conservative media started saying really unflattering things about her, including calling her a, quote, "Muslim spy." And shortly after that, administration officials joined in.

SHAPIRO: And what did the White House say about her?

ALLYN: So the IG has specific emails that they cite from the White House in which White House officials say, falsely, that she was born in Iran. In fact, she was born in Connecticut. The Trump staffers also said in emails that she cried when Trump was elected, and they wondered if this raised questions about her loyalty to the U.S. And it wasn't long before Nowrouzzadeh was out. Here's how she put it to NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SAHAR NOWROUZZADEH: Shortly thereafter, my detail ended after senior officials engaged in what the report called significant discussion of my perceived national origin, my perceived political views and perceived association with former administrations.

SHAPIRO: So that's one case. You said that there were five in total investigated. What about the others?

ALLYN: So the four other career State Department employees alleged that Trump also punished them over the same kind of thing, over perceived political bias. But the IG didn't find enough evidence to back up those accounts, and one official continued to insist that there was absolutely nothing wrong with Nowrouzzadeh's demotion. The IG did recommend that staff get training on personnel rules and emphasized that disciplinary action should be taken for anyone involved in inappropriate personnel decisions.

SHAPIRO: Of course, overshadowing all of this is that former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, was suddenly ousted in May. President Trump called her bad news, and she is going to tell her side of the story publicly tomorrow in the impeachment hearing. So now there is also this inspector general report. How is this being received at the State Department?

ALLYN: Yeah, well, it's hard to say for sure, Ari, but there are a lot of reports that morale is really low in the State Department right now. And we know that foreign service applications have dropped in the Trump era. Nonetheless, Nowrouzzadeh, who is still with State, says she hopes the IG report doesn't deter people from wanting to work there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NOWROUZZADEH: I've always - and I'll continue to strongly encourage Americans of all backgrounds, including those of Iranian heritage like myself, to consider public service and to not be discouraged by these findings.

SHAPIRO: Bobby, to pull back from the inspector general report a little bit, you've been reporting that attacks against public service (ph) are a thing that has been increasing lately, right?

ALLYN: It really has, but, you know, there's something old about this too, right? Past administrations have demonized the federal bureaucracy, saying the government is the problem. We all know that phrase. But these latest attacks by Trump loyalists and conservative websites really do represent something new. Here's Norm Ornstein at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NORM ORNSTEIN: I think it's going to be a challenge for any president, any administration and any government going forward to be able to assure people who go into government service that they're not going to be the subject of horrific attacks that are completely unwarranted.

ALLYN: So obviously, Ornstein says there could be some long-term repercussions here. And if there are, Ari, we'll be following it.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Bobby Allyn, thank you.

ALLYN: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.