Trump's team singles out State Department programs for women for special review

Donald Trump’s transition team has asked the State Department for details on programs aimed at benefiting women around the world, including a list of positions that focused on reducing gender-based violence and promoting women in the workplace.

In a brief request emailed to numerous State Department offices Wednesday, the president-elect’s transition team asked for an urgent response to its inquiries about “gender-related staffing, programming and funding.”

UPDATE: Trump team seeks to ease fears on women's programs at State Department »

The request does not necessarily indicate a pending policy change. But it raised fears among some in the State Department of a possible purge aimed at opponents of the Trump administration agenda, and of plans to roll back one of Hillary Clinton’s signature diplomatic efforts.

“People are freaked out,” said a senior State Department official who was not authorized to speak publicly.

But other officials noted that Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, has expressed interest in women’s issues, including child-care programs, and said that could explain the transition team’s request.

Clinton, who served as secretary of State during President Obama’s first term, started or championed many of the gender-equality programs covered under the transition team’s review. Her successor, John F. Kerry, has maintained the programs.

The unusual request to the State Department follows a similar query to the Department of Energy. There the transition team asked for names of staff members who had worked on efforts to combat climate change or who had attended global climate talks over the last five years.

The Trump team withdrew that request after it was widely criticized.

The latest request asked the State Department to deliver “issue papers from bureaus and offices (one paper max per bureau/office) outlining 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."

Trump’s team said the issue papers should note jobs "whose primary functions are to promote such issues," as well as money allocated for those activities and programs, and asked for a response by 5 p.m. on Wednesday.

State Department spokesman John Kirby sought to downplay concerns about the memo on Thursday.

”In my experience, it is normal, it’s expected, it’s not at all unusual for transition team members to want to have a handle on the way the organization is staffed, it’s manned, and it’s resourced, because this is a big bureaucracy,” Kirby told reporters.

Without commenting on the email, he said that if specific names were being requested, “that would be of concern.”

Asked if he could reassure State Department employees, Kirby said gender equality remained a priority, and “like so many other issues of human rights, [is] paramount to American foreign policy.”

Trump transition officials based at the State Department and in his media office did not respond to inquiries about the motivation behind the request.

While at the State Department, Clinton made women's issues a top priority, especially in countries with highly restrictive gender-based laws, such as Afghanistan. On her international travels she frequently met with women’s groups to offer support.

An office was created to deal exclusively with global women’s issues, and money was allocated for programs that promote education of girls, train women in marketable skills and offer micro-loans.

Clinton also created the position of ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues and changed State Department policies to give equal benefits and protections to same-sex partners of American diplomats.

“I can only hope that the transition team’s interest in this issue is motivated by a desire to continue and build upon the important work done … to promote the rights and opportunities of women and girls around the world,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who has worked on women’s rights in Afghanistan, said in a statement.

“The international community looks to the United States to be a leader on these issues. I can’t imagine that any Administration would want to walk away from this commitment or discontinue this important work,” he added. 

Sarah Margon, head of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch, gave a darker interpretation.

“While the transition team has a right to seek this information, given the misogynist comments and statements that have come from President-elect Trump’s campaign, this request inevitably sends a very worrisome signal about possible intentions to eliminate important programs and policies that have supported women and girls around the world,” she said.

The issue is likely to come up when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds confirmation hearings for Rex Tillerson, the Exxon Mobil chief executive officer whom Trump has picked to be secretary of State.

Incoming presidents often try to mold the State Department to follow their bidding, sometimes with bare-knuckle tactics.

When President Reagan took office in 1981, numerous diplomats who had worked on human rights issues in Latin America under President Carter were sidelined or forced out of the State Department as the new administration pursued hard-line policies in that part of the world.  

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter

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