the draft of a State Department letter of dissent made its way through dozens of U.S. embassies abroad, accumulating hundreds of signatures from foreign service officers opposed to Donald Trump’s controversial executive order on immigration, White House press secretary Sean Spicer issued an ominous warning Monday to the nation’s career diplomats: “I think they should get with the program or they can go.”
Since then, however, Foggy Bottom’s small act of resistance has only grown larger. By Tuesday afternoon, the letter condemning President Trump’s temporary ban on migrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries had attracted roughy 1,000 signatures—far more than any dissent cable in recent years. The letter, which was first reported over the weekend, represents the largest organized protest the Trump administration has faced from within the U.S. government. But it is also part of a broader wave of opposition among the legion of federal workers tasked with carrying out the president’s policies.
The State Department isn’t the only federal agency that has been shaken by Trump. An order from the White House to cease all advertising and outreach programs associated with the Affordable Care Act reportedly sent the Department of Health and Human Services into a tailspin, causing the administration to reverse course after less than 24 hours amid protests from H.H.S. and the insurance industry. A temporary gag order was placed on the National Park Service’s social-media accounts after the department shared a side-by-side comparison of Trump and President Barack Obama’s inauguration crowd sizes, spurring an ex-employee at the Badlands National Park to fire off a series of unsanctioned tweets about climate change. A slew of “protest” social-media accounts purportedly run by rogue members of several U.S. agencies—such as @altUSEPA and @ActualEPAFact—have cropped up amid fears that the Environmental Protection Agency will be effectively silenced under the new administration.
Then there was Trump’s high-profile firing on Monday of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, which sent reportedly tremors throughout the bureaucracy. John O’Grady, a career E.P.A. employee who heads a national council of E.P.A. unions, told The Washington Post that the White House’s decision to can Yates after she refused to defend Trump’s immigration directive “sends kind of a chilling effect through the agency. I’m afraid at this point that many federal employees are just fearful for their jobs, and they want to keep their heads down.”
Others, however, view resistance as a part of the job. “Policy dissent is in our culture,” one diplomat in Africa, who signed the letter circulating among foreign diplomats, told The New York Times. “We even have awards for it,” this person added, in reference to the State Department’s “Constructive Dissent” award. One Justice Department employee told the Post, “You’re going to see the bureaucrats using time to their advantage,” and added that “people here will resist and push back against orders they find unconscionable,” by whistle-blowing, leaking to the press, and lodging internal complaints. Others are staying in contact with officials appointed by President Obama to learn more about how they can undermine Trump’s agenda and attending workshops on how to effectively engage in civil disobedience, the Post reports.
While dissent among federal workers isn’t unique to the Trump era—many foreign diplomats also used the State Department dissent cable to share a letter deriding American policy in Syria during the Obama administration—the scope of the resistance, less than a fortnight into the Trump presidency, is unprecedented. When asked how the opposition emerging at this stage compares to past administrations, Tom Malinowski, who served as Obama’s assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, sarcastically told the Post, “Is it unusual? . . . There’s nothing unusual about the entire national security bureaucracy of the United States feeling like their commander in chief is a threat to U.S. national security. That happens all the time. It’s totally usual. Nothing to worry about.”
Still, some have downplayed the resistance among bureaucrats. “There is no evidence we are seeing of a widespread federal bureaucracy revolt,” Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, a nonprofit that advocates for career federal managers, told the Post. And certain departments have been sheltered from sweeping policy changes. “We’ve been, I think, heartened by how things are going here,” one official from the Department of Education said.
Trump, for his part, has never kept his disdain for the bureaucracy a secret. In one of his first acts as president, the real-estate mogul issued a sweeping federal hiring freeze affecting all new and existing positions except those related to the military, public safety, and national security. The Republican House majority recently passed a new rules package, on the eve of Trump’s inauguration, allowing Congress to slash the pay of individual federal workers. Former Speaker of the House and longtime Trump ally Newt Gingrich, too, has made a number of alarming comments about the government workforce, even suggesting that anyone who voted for Hillary Clinton should be fired. “This is essentially the opposition in waiting,” Gingrich said. “He may have to clean out the Justice Department because there are so many left-wingers there. State is even worse.”
The president has already fired one high-profile civil servant for not following orders. Whether Trump will entertain Gingrich’s more aggressive approach remains to be seen.