It started out in Washington. Then it went to Jakarta. Then across Africa. One version even showed up on Facebook.Within hours, a State Department dissent cable, asserting that President Trump's executive order to temporarily bar citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries would not make the nation safer, traveled like a chain letter — or a viral video.The cable wended its way through dozens of American embassies around the world, quickly emerging as one of the broadest protests by American officials against their president's policies. And it is not over yet.
It's not at all common for hundreds of officials in the executive branch to take a public stand in opposition to a White House policy, but as the New York Times reported, that's exactly what happened this week at the State Department.
As of yesterday, roughly 1,000 officials at the State Department had put their names on a "dissent cable," which is the mechanism made available to civil servants to express their disagreement. There's no reason to believe the total number of signatures won't grow further.And make no mistake, it took some courage for these folks to associate themselves with such a document. While retaliation and reprisals against dissenters is technically illegal, officials nevertheless worry about political consequences: the Times' report added, "When it comes to ambassadorships, the selection process is highly competitive -- and highly subjective -- and the diplomats said it would be impossible to prove why someone had been blocked from a coveted post. Previous dissent could easily be used against the person. Some State Department officials said on Tuesday that they would not sign the letter because of those risks."This is especially true in this administration. Asked about criticisms of Trump's Muslim ban from within the administration, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters this week, "These career bureaucrats have a problem with it? They should either get with the program or they can go."It wasn't long ago that some of Trump's cabinet nominees disagreed with the president's positions during their confirmation hearings, and Trump said he didn't mind. Evidently, the sentiment was fleeting -- because there was the president's press secretary, effectively saying career officials who disagree with the White House might need to find different employment.This is obviously an unhealthy approach towards dissent, but it makes the 1,000 signatures from State Department officials that much more notable.It also speaks to more systemic concerns about the tensions between the White House and the State Department itself. The dissent cable, for example, comes on the heels of the West Wing firing many of the department's senior management team.What's more. according to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), State Department staff were also ordered this week not to speak to congressional offices about Trump's controversial executive order.It's against this backdrop that Trump has nominated Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO, to lead the State Department, despite having literally no experience in official diplomacy or foreign policy, and despite being Russian President Vladimir Putin's closest American ally.Watch this space.