Gary Lee, who served as an assistant staff secretary under former President Barack Obama, has shared how President Donald Trump’s reported comments to a Korean-American intelligence analyst embodied the antithesis of his experience with his one-time boss.
Posting publicly on Twitter Saturday for the first time, Lee gave a moving account of his last day working for the Obama administration, contrasting it with Trump’s conversation with the analyst. During the recent exchange, Trump allegedly inquired why the “pretty Korean lady” isn’t negotiating with North Korea for the U.S. He asked the woman, “Where are you from?” and was described as “unsatisfied” when she said that, like him, she’s from New York.
Lee characterized the “where are you from” question, which is often directed at Asian-Americans and spotlights their perceived “otherness,” as “upsetting.” But the son of immigrants also said the incident “struck a chord” with him. He followed with a series of tweets about how Obama, on Lee’s last day at his White House job in 2011, had greeted him in Korean. The story has since gone viral with thousands of retweets.
Lee, who said he’d long dreamed of a career in public service, provided some background on the path that led him to work for the Obama administration. He said that before he graduated from college in 2007, he sent his resume and cover letter to the Obama presidential campaign headquarters in Chicago.
Lee also recounted that after Obama surprised him in the Oval Office with the Korean greeting, he ran into actor Kal Penn, who at the time served as the White House associate director of public engagement. Lee said he told him about his interaction with Obama, and that Penn got emotional.
Penn’s reaction and his words, in turn, prompted Lee to begin crying. And in his tweets Lee reflected on his immigrant parents’ own story of sacrifice, and how “they could have never imagined that their eldest son would work in the White House.”
He continued: “In what other country is that even possible? In what other country are you allowed to dream, and despite all odds, pursue and achieve your dreams? ... What a beautiful, incredible nation of immigrants we are.”
Lee appeared on CNN Monday to discuss his tweets, explaining that he felt compelled to share his personal experience. In the Obama White House, he said, “we really celebrated diversity” ― a strong contrast from the message he believes Trump is sending through his stance on immigration.
“We all came together because President Obama inspired this generation of people for this common good and we can celebrate our diversities and that made us so much stronger,” Lee said, tearing up.
He noted that at the White House, he worked with others whose immigrant parents were from a variety of countries. His and his friends’ journeys into public service are “living proof that the American Dream is possible,” Lee said.