U.S. Diplomats Draft Dissent Cable Following Storming of Capitol by Pro-Trump Mob
State Department officials expressed anger at the department’s gag order on messaging as violence wracked Washington, saying the incident has caused untold damage to U.S. efforts to promote democratic values abroad.
A group of dozens of State Department officials are filing a formal dissent cable directed at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for the department’s lack of forceful public messaging about the violent breach of the U.S. Capitol building by a pro-Trump mob this week, according to three officials familiar with the matter.
The dissent cable, which one person said has been signed by over 70 officials, reflects mounting anger within the department over the administration’s response to the mob that ransacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 with lawmakers still trapped inside. The mob, following a rally in which President Donald Trump doubled down on baseless claims the election was stolen from him, temporarily interrupted President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral certification. Trump later committed to a peaceful transition of power but refused to explicitly concede defeat.
Diplomats who advocate for fair elections and democracy abroad privately said the events that Trump helped instigate this week did untold damage to U.S. stature and prestige on the world stage. They pointed to U.S. adversaries and autocratic rulers, from those in Russia to Zimbabwe, who were trying to use the scenes of violence in Washington to undermine U.S. calls for democratic reforms in their own countries.
As U.S. allies abroad watched with shock and horror as the mob breached the Capitol, the State Department ordered its embassies not to issue any new statements, social media posts, or public messaging on the development, as Foreign Policy first reported. Critics within the department said that order left U.S. public diplomacy abroad temporarily marooned during what some American leaders have referred to as one of the darkest chapters in modern American democracy.
But others said it was simply meant to prevent embassies from issuing pre-prepared posts on other issues given the gravity of the situation in Washington—and stressed it was only a temporary pause. Since then, Pompeo as well as various U.S. ambassadors around the world have issued their own statements condemning the violence and addressing the implications for America’s image on the global stage.
“Out of respect for the unacceptable events that occurred on January 6th at the Capitol, the Department took the prudent measure to temporarily pause planned social media activity,” a State Department spokesperson said in response. The spokesperson did not address questions on the dissent cable.
The State Department lifted the halt on social media messaging on Thursday, officials said, after the violence at the Capitol had ended and allowing diplomatic outposts to cite Pompeo’s tweets condemning the violence.
Pompeo, one of Trump’s closest and most loyal cabinet officials, did not go as far as many Democratic and Republican lawmakers in blaming the president specifically for the violence in his message.
“The storming of the U.S. Capitol today is unacceptable. Lawlessness and rioting — here or around the world — is always unacceptable. I have travelled to many countries and always support the right of every human being to protest peacefully for their beliefs and their causes,” Pompeo tweeted from his official secretary of state Twitter account.
“But violence, putting at risk the safety of others including those tasked with providing security for all of us, is intolerable both at home and abroad. Let us swiftly bring justice to the criminals who engaged in this rioting,” he added. “America is better than what we saw today at a place where I served as a member of Congress and saw firsthand democracy at its best.”
From his personal account on Thursday, Pompeo reserved some of his sharpest criticism for journalists and politicians who he said are likening the United States to a “banana republic.”
“The slander reveals a faulty understanding of banana republics and of democracy in America,” he wrote. “Congress’s completing its certification of electors — with our law enforcement heroes having restored order in the Capitol — at 3:40 AM today shows the strength of American political institutions and represents a victory for the rule of law & constitutional government in America.”
The department also issued guidance to embassies to affirm Biden’s victory and address questions of whether the violence at the Capitol harmed America’s moral standing abroad, as CNN reported.
State Department dissent cables are typically sent in only the most extraordinary circumstances, giving rank-and-file diplomats abroad at any level an avenue to bypass layers of bureaucracy and address dissent on policy or management issues directly to the secretary of state’s office and his top aides.
Internally, there has been little messaging from the top leaders of the department—including Pompeo, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, and Undersecretary of Management Brian Bulatao—on the matter, officials said.
“It’s been infuriating to me that there’s been no message from Pompeo/Biegun/Bulatao about the storming of the Capitol,” one official told Foreign Policy in a text message. “What happened was sad, despicable. I think employees are shaken by what happened and yet we’ve heard absolutely nothing.”
Some U.S. ambassadors have since gone further, issuing lengthy statements condemning the violence and extolling the virtues of American democracy. “While our work begins at home, we will continue to share the lessons we have learned from our own experience as we look outward toward the world around us,” said Natalie Brown, the U.S. ambassador to Uganda, in one of the most in-depth public responses issued by a senior diplomat so far.
In the absence of lengthy public statements from top department leaders, other rank-and-file diplomats appear to be trying to pick up the slack, circulating their own thoughts among their colleagues that reflects how shocked and appalled many U.S. diplomats were by the events of the week.
“The violence at the U.S. Capitol last night has shaken us to the core,” Shirlene Yee, the president of the Asian American Foreign Affairs Association, an organization that represents Asian American foreign service and civil service employees, wrote Thursday in an email to members obtained by Foreign Policy that also quoted the oath of office.
“As public servants of this country we love, we understand many of [us] are feeling a whole range of emotions, particularly as many of our parents come to the United States because it is a democracy with rule of law and free speech,” she added.
The violence in Washington, Yee noted, comes against a background of police violence against African Americans, citing the killing of George Floyd, and “a wave of discrimination against Asian-Americans that acompanied the pandemic,” providing a painful reminder that the “fight for equality and justice for people of color in the United States is ongoing.”
“But these events do not define who we are as Americans nor do they weaken our resolve to continue to build a stronger, more inclusive union,” Yee added. “This is who we are. This is the America we represent at home and abroad.”
Some senior Trump appointees in the department issued internal messages to their bureaus but stopped short of making the same pronouncements publicly.
“All of us are shaken by the violence that occurred Wednesday on Capitol Hill. The assault on Congress was particularly disturbing,” Robert Destro, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, wrote in an email to his employees also obtained by Foreign Policy. “The good news is that in the end our institutions worked exactly as they were designed. Congress was able to complete its work. The election is over.”
The violence at the Capitol fueled a new campaign by Democratic lawmakers to impeach Trump, with less than two weeks left on his term in office, if Vice President Mike Pence and other members of Trump’s cabinet do not invoke the 25th Amendment and remove him from office. Reports suggest Pence is not entertaining the idea of invoking the 25th Amendment.
Two cabinet secretaries—Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—resigned in response to the violence with just days left in their term, along with several top National Security Council officials. One State Department appointee, Gabriel Noronha, was fired by the White House for tweeting out a sharp criticism of how Trump fomented the violence and calling on the president to resign.
Trump on Thursday said he will leave office and agree to a smooth transition of power, but he stopped short of conceding defeat or publicly recognizing the insurrection at the Capitol.
“Even though I totally disagree with the outcome of the election, and the facts bear me out, nevertheless there will be an orderly transition on Jan. 20,” he said. “While this represents the end of the greatest first term in presidential history, it’s only the beginning of our fight to make America great again.”
Update, Jan. 8, 2021: This article was updated to include additional statements from State Department officials.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer