Exclusive

Group of State Department Officials Call for Consultations on Trump’s Removal

Second dissent cable directed at Pompeo also rebukes the secretary of state for not forcefully condemning the president.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
U.S. President Donald Trump listens as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks
U.S. President Donald Trump listens as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus at the White House on March 20, 2020. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Career officials at the State Department filed a second unprecedented dissent cable condemning President Donald Trump for inciting the violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and urging top administration officials to consider invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him from office.

The dissent cable is the second such cable sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week, reflecting widespread shock and anger in the diplomatic corps at Trump’s actions and Pompeo’s own response to the political crisis. The protest against the sitting U.S. president by American diplomats is largely unparalleled in the department’s nearly 232-year-long history. 

The cable rebuked Pompeo for his “failure to issue a statement unequivocally acknowledging that President-Elect Biden won the 2020 election” and protested the “President’s incitement of insurrectionist violence against the United States.” Foreign Policy could not independently corroborate the number of officials who signed the cable, but one of the officials who signed it, speaking on condition of anonymity, said around 175 State Department officials, primarily lawyers, had signed on. 

The second cable goes further than the first cable in laying out extensive arguments for how the president’s actions undermined U.S. foreign policy and democratic institutions. It also explicitly called on Pompeo to support consultations with other cabinet officials on possibly invoking the 25th Amendment to remove the president from office.

“To protect our Constitution from the threat posed by this President, we urge Secretary Pompeo to … publicly condemn in the strongest possible terms the role of the President in the assault on democratic values and American democracy” and “support all lawful mechanisms to mitigate ongoing threats to American democracy, including by consulting with Vice President Pence and the other principal officers of the Executive Departments regarding the possible implementation of the procedures provided for in Section 4 of the 25th Amendment,” the cable reads.

The use of the agency’s private dissent channel twice in a week to condemn Trump’s conduct also appears to be without historic precedent. Past dissent cables have focused on U.S. policies or State Department management practices, and no prior dissent cable among those publicly available has come close to characterizing the president as a threat to democracy. 

A copy of the full text of the cable obtained by Foreign Policy can be found below. 

Pompeo condemned the violence at the U.S. Capitol as “unacceptable” in a series of tweets but did not mention Trump. Pompeo met with President-elect Joe Biden’s planned secretary of state nominee, Antony Blinken, on Friday to “facilitate an orderly transition, and to ensure American interests are protected abroad,” a senior State Department official said, describing the meeting as “very productive.” The meeting came one day after Trump said in a statement he would agree to a peaceful transition of power, though he refrained from backtracking on his baseless claims that the election was stolen from him. 

The top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Gregory Meeks, also rebuked Pompeo for not criticizing Trump and reiterated the growing support among Democratic lawmakers for impeachment.

“Our allies are looking on in horror at Wednesday’s events while autocrats are celebrating the perceived failure of American democracy. Meanwhile, Secretary Pompeo has barely said a word—unsurprising, given his own long-standing role as a Trump enabler. The House is moving toward impeachment because the threat President Trump poses to peace and security—here and abroad—can’t persist one day longer,” Meeks said in a statement to Foreign Policy

“Secretary Pompeo should listen for once to the lawyers and experts in his own Department and take action himself to curb this threat—anything less is cowardice and complicity.”

Neither the State Department nor the office of the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, responded to a request for comment. 

Some Republican lawmakers have come out against impeachment proceedings in the final days of Trump’s presidency, arguing it would only further divide the country. Others said it is unfair to lay full blame for the violent mob that ransacked the Capitol at Trump’s feet. 

The State Department’s dissent channel, first established during the Vietnam War, allows employees anywhere in the world to bypass layers of bureaucracy and send formal dissent cables directly to the secretary of state’s office. A cherished institution, it has traditionally been used to criticize the direction of U.S. foreign policy or call out policymakers for refraining to intervene when innocents are killed around the world. One famous cable protested American support for a Pakistani dictator during a 1971 genocide in modern-day Bangladesh, while another criticized Washington’s failure to act during the Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslims in 1995. 

While dissent cables are not classified, the dissent channel is designed to be for internal use only, and the protests are not publicly released upon being sent. Proponents of the system say the channel encourages constructive dissent and can nudge policymakers in Washington toward better policies.

The use of the dissent channel to respond to Trump’s refusal to concede defeat and his incitement of a mob that violently ransacked the U.S. Capitol has drawn both support and anger from officials within the State Department. Some see it as important that State Department officials put on record their opposition to the president’s conduct. Others believe their colleagues are misusing the dissent cable channel in a way that will further draw the diplomatic corps into politics at a precarious moment for the country’s political system. 

Diplomats are supposed to be protected against retaliation when using the channel, which is codified in the State Department’s regulations manual. The watchdog group Project on Government Oversight said that since the State Department dissent channel came into existence in the 1970s, there has been an average of just five to 10 dissent cables sent per year.

The cables condemning Trump this week likely mark the broadest dissent from the diplomatic corps since 2017, when at least 1,000 diplomats protested Trump’s executive order to bar citizens from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. That cable drew more signers than any in the half-century history of the department’s dissent channel. 

The storming of the Capitol resulted in five deaths, including one police officer, and 56 police officers injured. It sparked an international uproar and deepened rifts within the Republican Party. 

A day after the siege on the Capitol, Trump posted a short video on Twitter indicating he would allow the transition to a Biden administration to go forward. Twitter has since barred Trump from the social media platform and cancelled his @realdonaldtrump account for his role in inciting the violence.

Democrats have called on Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment and initiate the removal of Trump from office—but Pence has shown no such inclination. Instead, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said Democrats would try again to impeach Trump next week. They plan to charge him with inciting the U.S. Capitol insurrection and hope to vote on the issue by Wednesday. The drive is likely to stall in the Republican-controlled Senate, which will not come back into session until the day before inauguration.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch