The surge of signatures sows early tension between Trump and Foggy Bottom, while the White House tells them to "get with the program" or "go.”
- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
The number of State Department officials signing memos protesting President Donald Trump’s immigration and refugee ban quickly surpassed 200, department officials told Foreign Policy on Monday. The exact number of signatures is unknown as several different draft versions are in circulation, but the number far outstrips the 51 signatories who spoke out against former President Barack Obama’s Syria policy last summer, a number viewed at the time as “extremely large, if not unprecedented.”
The surge in opposition to Trump’s executive order sows immediate tension between Foggy Bottom and the White House, and creates a headache for Rex Tillerson, the president’s nominee for secretary of state who’s expected to receive Senate approval on Wednesday.
“This ban … will not achieve its stated aim to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States,” warned one version of the memo. Rather, it will inflame anti-American sentiment and “immediately sour relations” with counterterrorism partners in the Muslim world, the memo stated.
The president’s order indefinitely bars Syrian refugees from coming to the United States and temporarily bans refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations: Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Iran, Libya, and Sudan.
Various versions of the memo are expected to be consolidated and sent to the director of policy planning at the State Department through the “dissent channel,” a means for diplomats to air their grievances without fear of retaliation. The channel was setup in 1971 during the Vietnam War to give rank-and-file diplomats a pipeline to senior leadership.
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer pushed back against the dissenting State Department officials, saying they “should either get with the program or they can go.”
“The president has a very clear vision.… He’s going to put the safety of this country first,” he said. “If somebody has a problem with that agenda, that does call into question whether they should continue in that post or not,” Spicer said.
The diplomats argued that “given the near absence of terror attacks committed in recent years” by visa holders from the seven countries, “this ban will have little practical effect in improving public safety.”
The new administration appears to be at pains to scrub information at odds with its policies from public websites. An April 2016 State Department fact sheet on myths and realities of U.S refugee programs was taken off the department’s website the day Trump signed the executive order. Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs committee now house it (as do some overseas embassy pages).
The signatories include a mix of younger and older officials, and many are career foreign service officers. A State Department official told FP on Monday that the letter would soon be closed because organizers were satisfied that a comprehensive subsection of the State Department was represented.
In a statement, acting spokesman Mark Toner said: “We are aware of a dissent channel message regarding the executive order.”
“The Dissent Channel is a long-standing official vehicle for State Department employees to convey alternative views and perspectives on policy issues,” he added. “This is an important process that the acting secretary, and the department as a whole, value, and respect. It allows State employees to express divergent policy views candidly and privately to senior leadership.”
After the memo is submitted, it is distributed to the senior leadership of the State Department and prompts a response from the secretary of state. At times, that can put the nation’s top diplomat in an exceedingly awkward position. Last summer, diplomats wrote a dissent memo imploring the Obama administration to launch missile strikes against the Syrian government, a policy Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly supported in private. However, choosing not to break with the president publicly, Kerry said through his spokesman that he was “very committed” to the administration’s policy.
It’s unclear how Tillerson will respond to widespread dissent among his new subordinates even before he takes office. But a State Department official on Monday expressed doubts that the memo would ultimately succeed in changing White House policy.
“I doubt you’re going to get Trump to change his mind because of this cable,” said the official.
“You guys will make a big deal of it,” he said, referring to the press, “and leadership here will have to respond. But like the Syrian dissent memo, nothing usually comes out of it.”
Regardless of what comes of the backlash, Tillerson is likely to have a lot of frustrated and dispirited employees on his hands. Sebastian Gregg, a former foreign service officer, said his erstwhile colleagues in consular services are particularly concerned because they will be the ones rejecting or approving applications.
They’re making “life-altering decisions on a daily basis,” he said, and some are “abjectly horrified.”
Another State Department official said the White House executive order is “creating an enormous amount of confusion and disarray” because it didn’t go through the normal process for clearing.
Spicer said Monday that criticisms of the rollout of the policy are “overblown.”
“Remember, there are 329,000 people who came into this country in a 24-hour period. There were 109 stopped over a 24-hour period,” Spicer said, referring to all international arrivals, rather than those from the seven countries targeted in the order.
Spontaneous demonstrations broke out in dozens of cities and airports across the country, including in Washington, over the weekend, while several courts put a stay on the order.
“When you actually look at the perspective of what’s going on, a majority of Americans agree with the president,” he asserted.
Robbie Gramer and Jessica Holzer contributed to this report.
Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images