With his policy-lite campaign in near ruins a mere two-weeks until election day, presidential candidate Donald Trump gave a speech on October 22 which laid out what substantive actions he would enact in his first 100 days as the nation’s chief executive. To achieve these goals, President Trump would require an able and committed federal work force to carry out his populist policies, many of which go against establishment Republican thinking, particularly in the foreign policy realm.
A key question is just how much he could rely on federal employees to do so. I decided to ask some foreign affairs practitioners currently working in the federal bureaucracy what they would do should Donald Trump defy the odds and be elected president. All chose to remain anonymous.
A D.C.-based senior U.S. diplomat with over 30 years of service told me recently, “If Trump is elected president in November, I will retire before the end of January. All of my friends and colleagues who have the ability to do so have told me they will do the same.” Another veteran State Department official whose focus is NATO echoed this sentiment: “I cannot imagine working for a Putin stooge like Trump. The deal in the government foreign policy world is that you either publicly support the policy of the president, or you resign.” Trump’s policies “would cause grievous international harm to the U.S. Thus, there is nothing left but the resign option for me.”
So, would a President Trump face mass resignations right after taking the oath on January 20, 2017?
A survey by the Government Business Council earlier this year revealed that a quarter of federal workers would consider quitting their jobs if Trump became president. Of these, 14 percent said they would definitely consider quitting if Trump won the White House, while 11 percent reported that they might do so. Most of those who indicated a preference for leaving were mid-level (beginning at GS-13/FS-02) and senior in grade – in other words, workers most likely to possess enough years and age to be able to retire with a pension and benefits. Junior officials with many more years of mortgage and car payments and childrearing and college expenses are less inclined to leave their government careers. “Sure, those who can will retire,” said one Pentagon official who also served in Afghanistan. “But the rest of the bureaucrats making decent money and enjoying the federal benefits will stay and suffer through it, just like any other administration.”
Revulsion against Trump among many federal workers, especially those in national security, is sparked not only by his lack of coherent policies but by his random pronouncements which many government policy practitioners find not only contrary to American ideals, but dangerous if executed. Veterans groups have slammed his call for using interrogation techniques that are “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Leading foreign policy experts find disturbing his cozying up to Vladimir Putin, praising the Russian president as “a strong leader,” one he would “get along very well with” as well as Trump’s dismissing the NATO alliance as “obsolete.” Establishment policymakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, are appalled by Trump’s cavalier willingness to scrap nuclear nonproliferation, encouraging Japan and South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons. His proposal to build a multi-billion dollar wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and insist that Mexico pay for it is viewed by many career government foreign affairs specialists as folly; and his idea of banning Muslims from entering the country as madness if not unconstitutional. And the list goes on.
“If Trump gets elected, it will make my career very hard because most of the world thinks he is a joke,” the Afghanistan veteran told me. “Under Trump, the practice of American diplomacy will become far more difficult, thankless, and dangerous than it is now. The mere fact that Trump has made it so far has made it harder for American diplomats,” added the senior Washington official. This is not only in the policy sphere, but also regarding physical safety.
This official pointed out that “American diplomats overseas face physical security threats from a handful of rogue entities that target us specifically, and mostly face the inherent risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As Trump’s actions and rhetoric continue to goad, taunt, anger and infuriate our new and existing enemies, their willingness to attack diplomats and diplomatic facilities will grow exponentially. Not only will our job become increasingly thankless and useless, but increasingly dangerous as well.”
Of course, not everyone is threatening to quit. The Afghanistan veteran said he will soldier on and serve whomever is elected. “This is a democracy I believe in and one in which, yes even Donald J. Trump can possibly become President.” Another, Europe-based, senior diplomat told me, “My guess is that, as far as the Foreign Service goes, it’s mostly bluster. Of course, as these things go and based on our past experience, if even one or two Foreign Service officers should resign it would get top billing in the New York Times and Washington Post.” This official, a reluctant Trump supporter, added, “He would not have been my choice for GOP nominee. I think he’s a wild card and that could mean both good and bad.”
Two labor unions representing federal employees who work in immigration enforcement have also publicly endorsed Trump for president. For the first time in its history, the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council announced on September 26 its support for Donald Trump, and earlier in the year, the National Border Patrol Council endorsed Trump as well. How these unions specifically view Trump’s notions of building the Great Wall of America and rounding up over ten million undocumented immigrants for deportation is not clear.
The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), representing State Department employees, and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), however, have chosen to remain nonpartisan in this election. Both declined to discuss the prospect of protest resignations with me.
Such resignations, if they were to occur, are not new. A handful of diplomats resigned over the Bush II’s intervention in Iraq. A raft of mainly junior diplomats quit the Foreign Service rather than defend U.S. policy during the Vietnam War. In 1968, 266 FSOs, four-fifths of them junior officers, resigned from the Foreign Service, while only 103 joined. Not all left because of Vietnam, but the war was the key catalyst for many quitting. Among these were Richard Holbrooke and Anthony Lake, later to return as top foreign policy officials in the Clinton and Obama administrations.
While the potential for mass resignations in the wake of a potential Trump presidency would be bad enough, what might follow could be even worse.
Many career diplomats fear that Donald Trump, a foreign affairs novice with the shallowest grasp of diplomacy and those who carry it out, will flood the ranks of the State Department with cronies and dilettantes. The selling of ambassadorships and senior Department positions to fat cat campaign contributors is a time-honored American tradition. Under President Obama, some 30 percent of ambassadorships have been given to Democratic Party cronies, while the number of top jobs at Foggy Bottom occupied by career Foreign Service officers has gone from 60 percent down to 30 percent over the years, according to AFSA. Career employees particularly worry about the caliber of people a President Trump would place throughout the bureaucracy.
Most of his foreign affairs advisors are little known and with little stature. Joseph Schmitz and Walid Phares have written about a supposed sharia threat to America. Schmitz, son of a former head of the John Birch Society, resigned as DoD’s inspector general during the George W. Bush administration in face of reports of ethics violations. Middle East expert Phares reportedly was involved with a Christian militia responsible for massacres during the Lebanese civil war. Only Phares appears to have a body of published works which give a window into his thinking. Carter Page, forced to step down from the campaign in the wake of reports he had close relationships with members of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, compared Obama’s National Security Strategy document to an 1850 one on how to manage slaves. Key foreign affairs advisor retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn has asserted he was drummed out of his position as Defense Intelligence Agency director after little more than a year for having used the politically incorrect term “Islamic jihadists” rather than for creating turmoil and demoralization in that agency, as reported by administration officials. In emails recently released by Wikileaks, Colin Powell referred to Flynn as “right-wing nutty” and a poor leader.
Career diplomats fear underqualified advisors serving a fact-free, iconoclastic president will plunge the United States into chaotic situations abroad and that a notoriously vindictive Trump will take his failures out on “disloyal” government workers. That 75 retired senior diplomats recently signed an open letter attacking Trump as “entirely unqualified to serve as President and Commander-in-Chief” might only stoke his distrust.
There are plenty of reasons already not to elect Donald Trump. But the damage that a Trump presidency could cause not only to America’s relationship with the rest of the world but to the reputation and safety of America’s professional diplomatic service is incalculable. As a senior Washington-based diplomat said, “when our country starts following Trump’s ‘charge them, cheat them and leave them’ business model, no one will trust our word, our alliances or our loyalty. The American diplomat will go the way of the Edsel salesman, with one small exception. No Edsel salesman ever stood in front of a war crimes commission, whereas, under some scenarios, some of my colleagues who stay in the Foreign Service might someday do so.”
The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the United States government.