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Dissent at State

Hundreds of State Department officers are preparing to protest Trump's refugee ban

Hundreds of State Department officers are preparing to protest Trump’s refugee ban

Rex Tillerson has yet to be confirmed as secretary of state, but already hundreds of foreign service officers in the State Department are preparing a public demonstration of opposition to the Trump administration’s executive order temporarily banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries.

The demonstration is expected to come through the State Department’s long-established dissent channel, which is reserved for people within the department to express opposition without reprisal. The officers will criticize the executive order for standing “in opposition to the core American and constitutional values that we, as federal employees, took an oath to uphold,” according to a draft of the memo obtained by LawFare.

The Trump administration dismissed such protests Monday afternoon. “They should either get with the program or they can go,” said White House spokesman Sean Spicer at the daily press briefing.

“Foreign service officers are notoriously risk-averse, and coalescing around a risky demonstration of dissent like this by our standards is notable,” one retired foreign service officer told VICE News.

Usually, dissent cables come from one particular mission or region, but the sheer number of foreign service officers expected to sign the document suggests the cable is attracting support from members of the State Department around the globe.

But the fury among the foreign service was not universal. “Hell, no, I’m not signing it!,” one current foreign service officer posted abroad who has been involved in the service for over seven years told VICE News. “90-120 days (or a few hours at the airport) is worth it to improve our system which has been BROKEN.”

This officer acknowledged that many if not most State Department colleagues did not support the executive order but argued they were deflecting responsibility from their own role in a visa process that is dysfunctional and in need of revamping. 

At least one former high-ranking State Department official thinks a fractured foreign service — which is often seen as full of bleeding-heart liberals — may actually be welcomed by a Trump White House.

“I would guess that ‘fractured’ is an insufficiently descriptive term,” Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, replied via email to VICE News. “‘Dysfunctional’ might be better — and is likely what the Trump team, such as it is, is seeking.”

The divisions among State’s personnel could also make life harder for Tillerson if and when the Senate confirms him later this week. The former Exxon Mobil CEO has spent his career in the private sector for a company that has at times worked at odds with the department he will lead. In 2011, for example, he disrupted diplomatic relations with the Iraqi government by striking a deal with the Kurdistan region which has been trying to establish autonomy against the central government’s wishes.

But Tillerson may very well ignore the dissent as have previous administrations. Just last year, 51 State Department officers signed a dissent cable harshly criticizing Obama’s inaction amid the Syrian civil war, but Obama’s policy went unchanged.

 

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