Around the time President Trump fired his first secretary of state, Susan Thornton, the United States’ top diplomat in East Asia, gave her husband the go-ahead. He could put their house in Washington, D.C., on the market.
The couple would act on their retirement dream of buying a farm in Maine, albeit earlier than they had planned.
“I kind of had the feeling that maybe things weren’t going to go smoothly and swimmingly with my confirmation process,” said Thornton, whom former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had picked to negotiate with China, North and South Korea, and a host of other countries in Asia.
Between Tillerson’s public firing — via Twitter on March 12 — and the hostility she had faced from both former presidential chief strategist Steve Bannon and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Thornton decided it was time to leave.
“I did my duty for as long as I could,” Thornton said. “They are still working on someone to replace me permanently.”
She and her husband, Joe Daley, closed on Lisbon’s 480-acre Packard-Littlefield farm June 29, within days of learning that the White House would not continue to pursue her nomination.
Thornton announced her resignation from the State Department on June 30. The youngest of her three children had just graduated from high school, severing the last obligation they had to stay in Washington. They’ve now moved into their new home, and are “just sorting out internet and lawnmowers,” she said.
The Thornton-Daley family is also sorting out their relationship with the former owners’ tenant, Cultivating Community, a nonprofit that has turned 30 acres on Packard-Littlefield farm into a powerful incubator for immigrant and refugee farmers, many of them Somali-Bantu.
According to Cultivating Community’s website, the farm is hosting 18 farmers growing for markets and over 30 community gardeners at the site. Fresh Start Farms, a packing and distribution service for the new-American farmers, is also based at the farm. Cultivating Community’s lease is due to run out soon.
“We’re planning on continuing the relationship,” Thornton said. “We have had discussions about renewing the lease. They are trying to figure out their plans for the next five years, and we’re talking about how we can both work side by side there.”
“We are excited,” said Lesley Heiser, Cultivating Community’s development and communications director, in an email. “We have enjoyed our meetings with the family.”
FIELD OF DREAMS
Technically, Thornton is a government employee until Sept. 30 and still traveling back and forth to Washington. After that, she’s officially a farmer, even if a fledgling one.
“It helps us to feel like we’ve got a partner there that already knows how to do this,” she said of Cultivating Community. “Because we are obviously kind of neophytes.”
Thornton, 54, is a graduate of Bowdoin College, where she majored in economics and Russian, traveling to Russia with a group of students and Professor Jane Knox as a senior. She later got a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Although she has been in the Foreign Service for 28 years — 18 of them spent overseas — she and her family have spent time in Maine regularly in the summer since 2004, when they rented a house in Harpswell. They later bought an “old broken-down Cape” in New Harbor.
“I love Maine,” Thornton said. “And I feel like it is my place.”
She said she and Daley had always wanted to own a farm here but had added incentive once their son, Ben, a recent graduate of Wesleyan University, decided he wanted to be a farmer. (More incentive: Their daughter Kate is a freshman at Bowdoin.) He’s worked on vegetable farms in North Carolina and in Maine, has experience with livestock and has worked on horsepower farms. “I think he is thinking of horsepower,” Thornton said. “He likes the slow pace.”
The Packard-Littlefield farm went on the market in the spring of 2017 with an asking price of $2.7 million. (It sold for $760,000, according to the listing agent’s office). The longtime owners, Ella Mae Littlefield Packard and Robert Packard, had farmed the land but were in their 70s and ready to retire.
The Packards, part of only the second family to own the 18th century farm, which dates to the late 18th century, had taken steps to preserve the land for agricultural use. It has been designated a “Forever Farm,” meaning most of it is covered by an agricultural conservation easement. In 2004, Androscoggin Land Trust and the Packard family, working with the Maine Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, used funding from the Land for Maine’s Future and Farmland Ranch Protection Program to put 195 acres into protected status. Then the Packard family donated conservation easements on two additional parcels in 2007 and 2010, bringing the total conserved acreage to about 400 acres.
GOODBYE TO ALL THAT
When Thornton announced her retirement in June, an article in Politico said that the news “could be a blow to morale as Foggy Bottom continues to lose seasoned diplomats.”
She had been the acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs for a year, picked for the job by Tillerson – although she said she had no prior affiliation with the former chief executive officer of ExxonMobil, who left that position to join the Trump administration.
Despite her nearly three decades of experience in the Foreign Service, Thornton was opposed by Bannon on the grounds that she was not hawkish enough on trade with China.
In August 2017, Bannon told American Prospect magazine America needed to be “maniacally focused” on the economic war with China. He boasted that he was getting rid of Thornton.
Instead, Bannon reportedly was fired by the president within hours of that interview, although White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it was a mutually agreed on departure.
“I am definitely not soft on China,” Thornton said of Bannon’s claims. “I am not a panda hugger.”
She said she does not believe any of her personal views or her record had anything to do with his antipathy toward her. It was that she was a diplomat.
“I think all of that is a reflection of a kind of disdain for diplomacy and people who advocate negotiations over more kind of sledgehammer tactics,” she said.
She’s proud of the work she did in China, which included agreements to stop cyber-hacking.
“We got a lot of really good stuff done,” she said.
The White House moved ahead with Tillerson’s nomination of Thornton in December.
But at her confirmation hearings in February, she encountered fierce opposition from Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. In May, Rubio tweeted about Thornton’s work in nuclear weapons negotiations with North Korea, accusing her of “undermining @POTUS.”
Linking to an article in The Wall Street Journal, Rubio wrote, “This is why I will do all I can to prevent Susan Thornton from ever being confirmed as Asst Secretary of State for E. Asian & Pacific Affairs.”
“In late June,” Thornton said, “I got the word they weren’t going to continue with my nomination.”
She said she does not think being Tillerson’s pick had anything to do with the opposition to her nomination. Again, it was about being a diplomat, she said, which has drawn scrutiny in this partisan political climate.
“People don’t really understand diplomacy,” she said. “Compromise should not be a dirty word. Even with people we don’t like, we should try to make progress where we can. Hopefully, people will see the wisdom of that.”
As for being a retired State Department official living in Maine, she sees opportunities beyond farming. “I think I’m going to keep my hand in some foreign policy,” she said.
One of the beauties of Maine is how real it is, she said. Maybe, in between talking about yields and weather, she will talk about trade policies with China.
“One of the things that I have been thinking about in the last couple of years is how important it is to get to know local communities,” Thornton said. “Maybe the only way to really fix the politics in Washington is to get out there and explain to people the reality of what is going on and what diplomatic relations look like when you are actually in them.”
Either way, Maine’s newest farmer is happy.
“It feels like it is all kind of working out the way it was supposed to work out,” Thornton said.
In this file photo, Seynab Ali plants Brussels sprouts at Packard-Littlefield Cultivating Communities’ incubator farm in May 2017. The United States’ former top diplomat in East Asia and her husband have bought the farm in Lisbon. (Portland Press Herald file photo)
Susan Thornton, formerly the United States’ top diplomat in East Asia, stands at the Packard-Littlefield farm in Lisbon, which she and her husband bought recently. (Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald)