In a sign of continued disarray in the White House’s national security team, the Trump administration has rescinded its job offer to the National Security Council’s senior director for Africa, ejecting a highly-regarded retired lieutenant colonel who had been given the job this spring.
The decision to dismiss Rudolph Atallah, who served for 20 years in the Air Force, leaves a key position open as questions persist about US policy on major crises facing the continent from instability in Libya to civil war in South Sudan to ongoing counterterrorism operations against al-Shabab in Somalia.
“The NSC is considering several candidates for Senior Director for Africa,” a White House official told BuzzFeed News in response to an inquiry about Atallah’s status.
Atallah was offered the job in March, BuzzFeed News reported first at the time. A source familiar with the White House decision said he was introduced at a large “all hands” gathering of the NSC in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on March 21. In the days after, he had been actively working on Africa issues, including during visits to the NSC.
Two individuals familiar with the matter say Atallah and a bloc of other White House appointees faced delays in getting their security clearances approved. The clearance holdup, however, was not the primary reason the offer was rescinded, said four individuals familiar with the matter. Ultimately, the administration tried to bring in another candidate late in the process.
"It seems that some sort of administrative hiccup delayed Rudy's onboarding, prompting the NSC to look at individuals already in government (i.e. civil servants),” said Matthew Page, a former Africa analyst at the State Department.
The identity of the new leading candidate wasn’t immediately clear.
Atallah did not return a phone call requesting comment.
This isn’t the first time the administration has stumbled in filling the post.
In February, the White House’s first candidate, Robin Townley, was informed that the CIA rejected his request for the necessary security clearance, which effectively ended his tenure on the NSC. Townley now works at the lobbying and consulting firm Sonoran Policy Group.
Townley’s inability to get a clearance was initially reported as an expression of the CIA’s opposition to him, a close ally of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and a critic of the intelligence community’s techniques.
Since Flynn’s ouster, relations between the NSC and the intelligence community have improved, said one person familiar with the internal dynamics, but some Trump officials continue to believe the CIA has used the clearance process as a tool to exert leverage over the White House.
The CIA declined to comment.
From the outside, Africa experts worry that the reversal of Atallah’s offer signals a lack of urgency in filling key roles related to Africa. “It doesn't appear that filling this role is a priority for the administration — I wouldn't be surprised if it stays vacant through the summer and into the fall,” Page said.