clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

“We are better than this ban”: 1,000 State Department employees criticize Trump’s immigration order

Senior State Department Management Officials Forced To Resign Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s controversial immigration order — which bars entry to the United States for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries — is receiving a tremendous amount of pushback from within the State Department, according to several recent reports.

On Tuesday, Mike Levine of ABC News first reported that dozens of foreign service officers and diplomats were circulating a memo internally, warning that Trump’s “knee jerk” order would sour relations with key allies and do nothing to protect the US from terrorist attacks. The plan was to send it through the formal “dissent channel” to the agency’s highest levels.

The memo has since become surprisingly popular. According to Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times, it has been circulating fast through informal networks among career diplomats and had collected roughly 1,000 signatures by 4 pm on Tuesday afternoon. (There are more than 7,600 foreign service officers and 11,000 civil servants in the department in all, though many employees have not even seen the memo.) Some diplomats offered changes and edits to the draft memo above, though the thrust of it remains the same.

Ben Wittes, Susan Hennessey, and Quinta Jurecic of the Lawfare blog have obtained and posted a draft of the memo, which makes a number of key points:

  • The order would do little to protect America from terrorist attacks, since “the overwhelming majority of attacks have been committed by native-born or naturalized U.S. citizens.” And: "In the isolated incidents of foreign nationals entering the US on a visa to commit acts of terror, the nationals have come from a range of countries, including many (such as Pakistan or Saudi Arabia) which are not covered by the Executive Order."
  • “It will immediately sour relations with” the countries covered — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — "as well as much of the Muslim world, which sees the ban as religiously motivated." By alienating these governments, the draft memo noted, "we lose access the intelligence and resources needed to fight the root causes of terror abroad, before an attack occurs within our borders."
  • "It will increase anti-American sentiment. When the 220 million citizens of these countries lose the opportunity to travel to the US overnight, hostility towards the United States will grow. Instead of building bridges to these societies through formal outreach and exchanges … we send the message that we consider all nationals of these countries to be an unacceptable security risk."
  • "Looking beyond its effectiveness, this ban stands in opposition to the core American and constitutional values that we, as federal employees, took an oath to uphold."
  • "Banning travelers from these seven countries calls back to some of the worst times in our history. … The decision to restrict the freedom of Japanese-Americans in the US and foreign citizens who wanted to travel to or settle in the US during the 1940s has been a source of lasting shame for many in our country. … Decades from now, we will look back and realize we made the same mistakes as our predecessors.
  • The memo also suggests some “alternative ways forward,” noting, “We Are Better Than This Ban” and suggests strengthening the screening process for those entering the country and “continuous vetting” for visa holders.

The State Department’s official “dissent channel” was created in 1971, during the Vietnam War, so career employees could “express dissenting or alternative views on substantive issues of policy.” Anyone who uses the channel is immune from punishment or reprisal, and are in some cases even celebrated. In 2002, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell gave an award for “constructive dissent” to a Voice of America journalist who broadcast comments from a top Taliban leader despite being pressured not to.

Once the memo is sent, it moves up the department’s bureaucracy until it reaches the secretary of state his or herself. Since Trump’s pick, Rex Tillerson, has yet to be confirmed, that means this memo would land on the desk of acting Secretary of State Tom Shannon, an Obama appointee.

Of course, just because Shannon and other top State Department officials will receive the memo doesn’t mean President Trump has to heed it. On Tuesday, his press secretary Sean Spicer dismissed the memo altogether, saying that officials who don’t support the policy should quit if they don’t like it. “These career bureaucrats have a problem with it?” Spicer said. “They should either get with the program or they can go.”

Trump is already spurring resistance from career federal workers

Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump Face Off In First Presidential Debate At Hofstra University Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The State Department’s dissent memo is hardly the only pushback Trump is receiving from career staff at various federal agencies, who tend to stay in their jobs even as new presidents come and go. (The vast majority of the 2.6 million civilian federal workers are career civil servants; only a couple thousand at the very top are appointed by the president.)

A story in the Washington Post Wednesday has plenty of other examples, such as “180 federal employees have signed up for a workshop next weekend, where experts will offer advice on workers’ rights and how they can express civil disobedience.” And employees in a Department of Justice division that oversees grants to nonprofits dealing with domestic violence plan to file complaints with the inspector general if political appointees force them to shift their work.

This is all potentially significant for the Trump administration. It will be extremely difficult for Trump’s political appointees to get very much done through the executive branch if thousands of career civil servants beneath him are fighting him every step of the way. For instance, at the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump’s team has talked about rolling back many Obama-era regulations. But many of the people who will be tasked with revamping (and weakening) those regulations are the exact same people who wrote them in the first place. Asking someone to undo years of work — and to do it in a careful, legally defensible way — requires a deft management touch, not constant confrontation and enmity.

This is all complicated by the fact that it’s extremely difficult for Trump’s appointees to lay off career civil servants, thanks to longstanding protections meant to prevent politically motivated firings. Indeed, it’s often hard enough for agencies to remove employees who are flagrantly misbehaving — back in 2015, EPA officials struggled to fire one worker who had been watching porn for hours each day at work. Firing perfectly capable employees for political reasons is vastly harder.

Back during the campaign, some of Trump’s advisers talked about getting Congress to pass a law that would make it easier to fire federal employees. "One of the things I have suggested to Donald is that we have to immediately ask the Republican Congress to change the civil service laws,” Chris Christie said back in July. That would no doubt be a huge fight in the Senate. But it’s certainly something to watch — especially if resistance to Trump within the federal bureaucracy keeps growing.

Further reading