Aside from all the other threats on the immediate horizon from the new Trump presidency, J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at a brewing crisis pitting the president’s spokesman against the country’s career diplomats.
Now the title of this article almost certainly made the neck hairs of many of the Daily Maverick’s observant, sometimes-cynical readers stand up, didn’t it? Be honest. Whenever someone falls back on pseudo-Nazi lingo or allusions to such terminology, the inevitable tendency for some is to assume the worst in the motives department of the writer. Whenever that has happened, it would seem that the writer has surrendered to cheap and easy, faux and misleading comparisons, in addition to suspiciously facile logic. Comparing the new Trump administration to the horrors of the Nazis should be a bulls-eye for that particular criticism, right?
Well, not exactly. What if, instead, we had offered a comparison to the old communist regimes’ “political officers” – those men in leather trench coats designated to enforce ideological discipline in the military, the bureaucracy, and elsewhere, such as those officers who kept popping up (and often getting killed suspiciously) on Russian submarines in films such as K-19: The Widowmaker or The Hunt for Red October? In such case, readers’ suspicions might not have been so quickly aroused. But, instead, we ultimately settled on the term gauleiter, for good reason, beyond simply being a cheap shot across the bow of the Trump administration, just to get the internet trolls all agitated.
The dictionary definition of “gauleiter” is that of a political official governing a district under Nazi rule; or, more generally, an overbearing official. Wikipedia tells us the first use by the Nazis of the term gauleiter came in 1925 after Hitler re-founded the Nazi party following the failed “Beer Hall Putsch”.
The name derives from the German words, gau and leiter. Gau is an ancient term for a region in the German polity, roughly comparable to a British shire, and it actually still lives on in the description of some smaller political divisions in parts of Germany, while leiter simply means leader. In the early days of its modern, opprobrious usage, Gauleiters were heads of electoral districts at the time when the Nazis were first attempting to gain political representation in the Weimar Republic. It came into its own as an increasingly nasty political term in the years that followed the Nazi ascendancy.
The key here is how a similar development is now playing out in the contemporary universe of the Trump White House, shaping and guiding the chief executive via the placement or deployment of officers and officials whose primary task is to enforce ideological consistency and allegiance. Okay, the Trump administration are not the new Nazis, despite what some on the left are already shouting, but there are clearly some very worrisome authoritarian tendencies.
And so, a brief look at the evolving inner circle of the Trump White House is in order. Of course, previous presidents appoint White House staffers who are meant to be extremely loyal to the chief executive, but this kind of ideological coalescing is extremely unusual. Generally a president wants conflicting views as a kind of contemporary version of the slave who had to whisper in the Roman emperor’s ear, “Remember, Caesar is mortal.”
The six closest aides to the president – Stephen K Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, Stephen Miller and Peter Navarro – plus White House spokesman Sean Spicer – form a largely ideologically consistent phalanx ringing the president. While a very conservative vice president Mike Pence clearly represents the ideological core of the hard right, unlike the others, he was elected, not appointed by the new president. Bannon, of course, is the main man from the alt-right, and all its closet white nationalist baggage, who has now inveigled his way on to the National Security Council in place of the very officials actually responsible for that topic, and thus he is increasingly edging out other sources of advice and information that could conceivably reach the president. At this point, Bannon is increasingly becoming the gatekeeper for both the content of what the president says, as well as how and where he says it.
But right behind him are people like Conway with her ability to spin public fiascos into merely alternative facts, and whose substantial attitude survey background is helping her measure the way the messages from the president are being received by his support base. Meanwhile, the president’s national security adviser, retired General Flynn, has come to this circle with his near-monomaniacal fixation on militant Islam as the most important issue facing America that links tightly with Bannon’s messaging about the nature of American society. And Flynn is tasked with shaping the administration-wide advice on national security concerns that is being received by the new president.
Next is Jared Kushner, the highly trusted son-in-law whose own hard right messaging reinforces the others. Given the president’s regard for his abilities, apparently gleaned largely from running his dad’s real estate empire and helping shape Trump’s political message during the presidential campaign, Kushner has – surprisingly – also gained important foreign policy responsibilities, most especially the key role as the go-to guy for the Middle East, apparently based on his own devout religious background rather than any expertise in or experience with the questions.
Next to him stands Stephen Miller, a young speech-writing ideologue who is rather less well known than some of the others, coming as he does from years of largely anonymous toil on various congressional staffs. Or as a Yahoo News report put it,
“But speeches aren’t the only things Miller is writing for Trump. According to a recent Politico report, Miller — now Trump’s senior White House adviser for policy — is also penning the president’s executive orders, including the divisive ban on immigrants and travellers from seven majority-Muslim countries that triggered worldwide chaos over the weekend.
“What’s more, Miller — along with former Breitbart CEO turned chief Trump strategist Steve Bannon — is writing these unilateral decrees without consulting lawyers from the affected agencies or lawmakers on Capitol Hill, ‘stoking fears’, as Politico put it, that ‘the White House is creating the appearance of real momentum with flawed orders that might be unworkable, unenforceable or even illegal.’ Questioned Monday evening on MSNBC about the decision by acting Attorney-General Sally Yates not to defend the entry ban, Miller responded piously: ‘It’s sad that our politics has come so politicised.’ ” Right. Got that. 100% clear.
Meanwhile, the head of the newly established National Trade Council – presumably the sharp point of the Trumpian lance on trade negotiations – has been given to Peter Navarro, a professor whose economics career has, in recent years, been given over to conspiratorial-ish ruminations about nefarious foreign governments. As Business Insider noted the other day,
“Over the past few weeks, Navarro has given a number of interviews that explain the administration’s propensity for victimhood, an obsession with Germany, and a deep-seated desire to change the face of the American economy as we know it. All these factors have contributed to growing fears that this administration will start a trade war with any of the countries it has scapegoated — Mexico, China, or, yes, now Germany.
“ ‘They play the money market, they play the devaluation market, while we sit here like a bunch of dummies,’ Trump said of China and Japan while in a meeting with pharmaceutical industry CEOs on Tuesday. It sounds a lot like an interview with Navarro that the Financial Times published around the same time in which he said that Germany, like China and Japan, was taking advantage of a ‘grossly undervalued’ euro to ‘exploit’ to expand its trade deficit with the U.S. That is to say, Germany sells us more goods than we sell to it.”
Trumpian rants, but just a little more neatly done up in economics terminology. Or perhaps just like it, in fact. Trump had earlier told The Financial Times, “They play the money market, they play the devaluation market, while we sit here like a bunch of dummies.”
But then there is Sean Spicer. And here is where the political officer, the Trump administration’s gauleiter, the resident public ideologue, comes out to play for keeps, right in the public eye. Spicer also has come from hard-edged Republican political staffer positions, but he has now formed a natural bond with the alt-right contingent that is ascendant. And here is where this may be becoming really scary.
The anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee ban executive order issued last Friday night (described as none of those by Spicer in his press conferences, despite easily accessible recorded examples of Bannon and the president both describing the need to do precisely such a ban as soon as they came into power) has been rightly criticised for its brutal sloppiness, in addition to its putative violations of immigration law, possible violations of international treaties, and perversions of usual border control processes.
A growing number of federal judges have put at least temporary stays of execution on elements of it, and it has generated crowds and protests across the nation and around the globe. And, of course, the acting attorney-general, Sally Yates, took one for the team over it as well. She instructed Justice Department attorneys not to carry out this executive order; that is, at least until she read the words, “You’re fired!” on a handwritten note scrawled by you-know-who.
And all of this, of course, has been in addition to the human cost for people who can no longer board the planes they had booked seats on to take up legally arranged residence, study, or refuge in America. Various American permanent residents from the named countries in the executive order were halted in their tracks. And some people were even held in controlled spaces in airports while bewildered customs and immigration agents scrambled to figure out just where these people fitted under that hastily drafted executive order from the president.
Spicer’s task in this was to castigate the media at a press conference for insisting the ban was what it clearly was, and not what the administration’s spinmeisters wanted people to call it instead. And then one reporter asked how the Trump administration felt about reports of a “dissent channel” memorandum being prepared by State Department foreign service officers – otherwise known as the country’s diplomats – disagreeing with this very executive order and arguing it would lessen rather than enhance national security.
Now, the thing is, this dissent channel communication has been a legally protected, very deeply held right for State Department employees since 1971 – first established right in the midst of the Vietnam War. There is even an official departmental award given annually for the best, most thoughtful dissent message. The rationale for a dissent channel, of course, is that foreign policy is an inherently complex process, and it is entirely reasonable to assume thoughtful professionals will disagree over goals, plans and processes, let alone between the professionals and their political masters. As such, this kind of ferment can be useful to the process of making foreign policy decisions.
In response to this question (and Spicer’s retort), the American Foreign Service Association, the chief professional body of US diplomats, issued a memorandum, saying, “The State Department’s internal dissent channel, covered in 2 FAM 070 [the regulations that govern all of the processes and procedures of State Department work], states that the State Department may not punish an employee who uses the dissent channel. It also prohibits raters and reviewers from negatively mentioning an employee’s use of the dissent channel when writing said employee’s EER [the yearly evaluations employees receive]. The Foreign Service promotion precepts explicitly recognise appropriate dissent as a positive factor to be considered when reviewing employees for promotion.”
By contrast, what was Sean Spicer’s response to the reporter’s question? “These career bureaucrats have a problem with it [the immigration executive order]? They should either get with the programme or they can go…. The president has a very clear vision. He’s been clear on it since the campaign, he’s been clear on it since taking office — that he’s going to put the country first. If somebody has a problem with that agenda, that does call into question whether or not they should continue in that post.” The ghost of the loyalty oath, back from the dead.
Talk about your not so nicely veiled threat: Either get with the programme or be gone from the government. At least Spicer didn’t threaten 3am arrests, then being frogmarched off to a gulag or concentration camp. But, watching his annoyance on television, one has to wonder if Spicer didn’t think more extreme measures than the loss of livelihood were warranted in the event one of those experienced diplomats dared put his or her doubts about a hastily drafted presidential decision memo into a formal message for his/her colleagues.
In describing this dissent message, The New York Times reported,
“Within hours, a State Department dissent cable [short for official telegram], asserting that President Trump’s executive order to temporarily bar citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries would not make the nation safer, travelled 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. By 4 p.m. on Tuesday, the letter had attracted around 1,000 signatures, State Department officials said, far more than any dissent cable in recent years. It was being delivered to management, and department officials said more diplomats wanted to add their names to it.”
The paper went on to note,
“The visa ban, he [one diplomat interviewed] said, ‘was such obviously bad policy’ that he was trying to find a way to sign the dissent letter. He also said that many diplomats were using the letter as a vehicle to express broader concerns about the way the Trump administration has appeared to sideline the State Department. The diplomat spoke in defence of refugees, saying that the tiny percentage from, say, Somalia who had been approved for resettlement in the United States had been scrutinised by several agencies and were among the most vulnerable of very vulnerable people. Now, many are stuck in limbo in transit centres. The diplomat also criticised Mr. Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, who said on Monday that State Department officials who did not agree with Mr. Trump’s agenda ‘should either get with the programme or they can go.’ He [the diplomat] called that ‘bullying at the highest levels’.”
The introductory summary of the actual dissent memorandum read,
“We are writing to register our dissent to the State Department’s implementation of President Trump’s Friday, January 27, 2017 Executive Order on “Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States,” which, among other things, blocks the Department of State from issuing immigrant and nonimmigrant visas to citizens of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen for a minimum 90-day period with an unclear timeline for when issuance would resume. As consular professionals, Foreign Service Officers, and members of the Civil Service, we see every day the value that “Secure Borders and Open Doors” brings to our nation. A policy which closes our doors to over 200-million legitimate travellers in the hopes of preventing a small number of travellers who intend to harm Americans from using the visa system to enter the United States will not achieve its aim of making our country safer. Moreover, such a policy runs counter to core American values of nondiscrimination, fair play, and extending a warm welcome to foreign visitors and immigrants. Alternative solutions are available to address the risk of terror attacks which are both more effective and in line with Department of State and American values.”
And it concluded,
“Continuous vetting programme for visa holders — which looks at all visa holders, not just those of specific nationalities — allows our law enforcement and intelligence bodies to act on new information and to focus on individuals that may become radicalised. This vetting should be expanded and made more comprehensive. Likewise, the Visa Viper Programme, which allows posts overseas to report on potential threats, should be strengthened to become a more reliable source of intelligence.
“The Department of State and the U.S. government already has numerous tools already at its disposal to secure its visa process: access to law enforcement databases, biometric screening, Security Advisory Opinions, continuous vetting. If we haven’t accomplished our goals so far, then let’s strengthen and improve these tools. And let’s develop new tools: cutting-edge data analytics, social media tracking, data mining, aggressive outreach.
“We do not need to place a blanket ban that keeps 220-million people – men, women, and children – from entering the United States to protect our homeland. We do not need to alienate entire societies to stay safe. And we do not need to sacrifice our reputation as a nation which is open and welcoming to protect our families. It is well within our reach to create a visa process which is more secure, which reflects our American values, and which would make the Department proud.”
This is pretty strong stuff for a normal State Department-style memorandum; but that is precisely the point of the dissent channel – it is supposed to allow people to present alternative views, forcibly and cogently, against policies in place or so they can deconstruct the conventional wisdom surrounding a policy. In an unprecedented development for America’s diplomats, in just a few days, approximately a thousand active duty diplomats had already put their respective names forward in support of this message, and in opposition to the slapdash executive order and the chaos and global ill will it has generated – in spite of Spicer’s threat. As a result, a clear battle line has now been drawn between the ideological Praetorian Guard formed around the president – and against many of the government’s most experienced career employees. The latter must now be hoping their newly appointed political masters at State (and perhaps elsewhere) will be prepared to support them when the bullies come looking for them to blame them for the administration’s failures abroad. DM
US President Donald J. Trump signs the first of three Executive Orders in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 23 January 2017. Standing behind the President, from left to right: US Vice President Mike Pence; White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus; Peter Navarro, Director of the National Trade Council; Jared Kushner, Senior Advisor to the President; Steven Miller, Senior Advisor to the President; unknown; and Steve Bannon, White House Chief Strategist. EPA/Ron Sachs / POOL
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