WASHINGTON ― A formal protest of President Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries will greet his new secretary of state his first day on the job ― from some 900 of his own employees.
That total is 18 times as many as signed onto a “dissent cable” last summer against President Barack Obama’s policy on Syria, which at the time was described as an unusually large number.
The State Department confirmed that it had received the dissent, but would not describe its contents, the total number of signatories or their names. It will be awaiting Rex Tillerson following his Senate confirmation, which likely will take place this week. The department’s rules protect the ability of its employees to criticize policies without fear of retribution.
One source familiar with the document, however, described a total close to 900 signatures ― 150 pages worth ― all coming after Friday’s signing of the executive order created the 90-day ban.
“It will immediately sour relations with these six countries, as well as much of the Muslim world, which sees the ban as religiously-motived,” the five-page dissent reads. Its second section opens with the subhead: “We Are Better Than This Ban.”
The department’s “Dissent Channel” was created during the Vietnam War era as a way to let foreign service officers in the field express concerns to leadership in Washington. It has averaged several dissents a year in the subsequent decades.
Last year’s Syria dissent was signed by 51 department employees who wanted Obama to use military force to stop Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s slaughter of civilians in that country’s civil war. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry responded by inviting the signatories to a meeting so he could hear them out and then offer his explanation of the administration’s Syria policy.
Whether such a dialogue would happen in a Trump administration, though, is unclear. White House spokesman Sean Spicer, while saying Trump appreciated the public service of the diplomatic corps, said that perhaps they should find other employment if they cannot support the new president’s policies.
“These career bureaucrats have a problem with it?” Spicer said at Monday’s press briefing. “I think that they should either get with the program or they can go.”
State Department rules protect employees from retaliation for challenging policies through the dissent process. Kerry’s former chief of staff, Jon Finer, nevertheless called the language worrisome.
“It’s not necessarily a direct threat, but it is being read as an implicit threat,” Finer said. “They’re not seeking to include and persuade. They’re seeking to marginalize, punish or remove.”