After what they’ve seen of Donald Trump’s first week as president, thousands of civil servants across the U.S. government are asking themselves one question right now: Should I resign?
Just Wednesday, four senior officials at the State Department reportedly quit, taking with them years of institutional knowledge about how America’s foreign policy machine works. With possibly illegal gag orders going out to various agencies and threats from Trump aides of department-wide purges—not to mention bizarre daily pronouncements from the president—I’d bet they are only the first of a coming wave of departures.
I know what these folks are going through right now. I resigned from the State Department in March of 2007 after an almost 18-year career working for and with our country’s diplomats. By that time, I had worked for six secretaries of state from both political parties, and had seen the world transform from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the post-9/11 environment.
The decision to resign was not an easy one. While some of the issues facing the country today are different, I see many parallels to the world of 2007. At the time I was director of media affairs at the State Department. My job was to promote the administrations policy proposals and keep the American public informed. While I was only a small player in the bureaucracy, it became increasingly impossible for me in good conscience to promote the administration’s stated goals, when their actions spoke so strongly otherwise.
I resigned because of what I called the “say-do” gap. At the time, the George W. Bush administration had taken several decisions that seemed at odds with its stated foreign policy: pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol, refusing to take part in the International Criminal Court and pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Added to that was the fallout from the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and the retention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. At the time, we said we wanted not only to lead the world but also be an example that others would want to emulate – yet our actions spoke otherwise. I couldn’t defend them.
Under President Trump, I see signs of a repeat of this “say-do” gap. The administration has already alienated and confused longtime U.S. allies by pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, giving notice on renegotiating NAFTA and calling into question the U.S. commitment to NATO—not to mention its odd solicitousness toward Russia. President Trump has extolled the virtues of torture and promised to continue the extrajudicial actions in Guantanamo Bay—policies that left a moral stain on this country and which the Bush administration eventually came to disavow.
I never thought I’d be writing this about a U.S. president, but it’s even an open question whether Trump and his team is in touch with reality. Imagine the problems the use of “alternative facts” and falsehoods create for our allies as they seek to work with us to ensure that we can face multiple global challenges, from climate change to terrorism, stagnant economic growth to the rise of authoritarian new powers.
For those civil servants currently serving in government, it’s a trying time. How can they not just serve the incoming administration, but effectively adhere to the oath they took to protect and preserve the Constitution of the United States? It’s easy to do both when they are in alignment, but what happens when they aren’t?
With that in mind, here are nine questions all civil servants should ask themselves—quietly and in private—as they contemplate their futures:
- When policies are being developed, is the process open? Does it allow for me to provide my input and expertise? Does the new leadership seek the insights and experiences of the other career staff?
- Am I cut out of the decision-making process? Do political appointees make decisions without input from career experts?
- Does the department/agency/office I work in act in an ethical manner?
- Does it take actions that, if known by the public/media, would call into question the ethical standards of the leadership?
- Are the public statements by my department/agency/office truthful? Are public statements false or misleading, or do they leave out important facts or otherwise deflect and deny reality?
Some in Washington have urged civil servants who are contemplating resigning to stay in place for the good of the country—to tough it out under Trump, keep their heads down and fight daily battles for the American people. I don’t begrudge anyone who makes that calculation.
And if I am honest with myself, none of the above concerns ultimately led to my resignation. For me, it came down to one simple question: Could I look my three kids in the eye and say with conviction that I was doing the right thing by working 12-hour days to support the actions of an administration I believed was doing the wrong thing? It became apparent to me in March of 2007 that the answer was an emphatic NO! After that decision, it was easy to take action. I resigned. What will you do?