US officials who resigned on principle to protest Trump

One of the biggest disappointments in the Trump era has been that the overwhelming majority of government officials cared more about their careers than about speaking up for and protecting our democratic ideals.

One option that all had, but that very few exercised, was to sacrifice their positions as a matter of principle.

I know of three who did so:

  • John Feeley, US ambassador to Panama
    Resigned to protest US abandonment of moral leadership in Latin America.

  • James Melville, US ambassador to Estonia
    Resigned to protest Trump’s attacks on NATO and the EU.

  • Elizabeth Shackelford, part of US mission to Somalia
    Resigned because human rights no longer figured in US policy.

Who would you add to this list?

More generally, which other officials endured personal sacrifice to defend American ideals against Trump’s abuses? (e.g., Alexander Vindman).

General Mattis was probably the most high profile example, resigning as secretary of defense after trump’s sudden, reckless troop withdrawal from Syria.

Hijack not intended, but participants in this thread might find Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk of interest. Discusses the high caliber of many federal bureaucrats, and the challenges they faced WRT Trump’s “transition.” A very quick read.

Will be interesting to see what changes are evident after 1/20. Will also be interesting to see the pace of Senate confirmations…

They didn’t “endure personal sacrifice to defend American ideals against Trump’s abuses?”-They just stepped aside and let Trump make things worse.

It is odd to me that there’s a culture of resigning in protest to unethical requests. Why not refuse publicly and make them fire you?

If you’re taking an ethical stand, take an ethical stand and force your superiors to take one too. There’s at least some possibility that they’ll decide it’s not worth it and then you get to keep your job and you stopped the unethical thing from happening!

Probably doesn’t apply to members of the military who are required by law to obey lawful orders (even distasteful ones).

Is it lawful for a bureaucrat to refuse a (somewhat) legal request from the president? If a president tells a government lawyer to write up an executive order can they refuse?

They wouldn’t face criminal charges for refusing, unlike members of the military. But, they can certainly be disciplined, demoted, or fired for refusing a lawful order. Executive power is vested in the President. Period.

There is a corner case with the “independent agencies”, like the Federal Reserve, that are part of the Executive Branch, but exercise powers specifically delegated by Congress. The members of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors specifically don’t have to follow the President’s orders, and exercise independent authority.

But random IRS agent #1324309? As long as the order is lawful, they have to follow it or face disciplinary action up to and including termination and loss of pension and benefits.

I agree that resigning on principle usually is a total weak-sauce response. Jews at Auschwitz probably wouldn’t have felt any better about a Nazi official resigning in protest knowing full well that he would simply be replaced by a new official who would carry out their gassing all the same.

(OK, Auschwitz may not have been the best example since almost nothing could have saved their lives, but you get the point. Resigning just means letting the bad administration proceed with its bad business.)

And yet, had they done so (resigned on principle), they might have at least had a defense beyond “just following orders.” Which, by the way, they weren’t just: by remaining in positions of power that they need not have filled so faithfully, they not only followed orders, they issued them.

So… weak sauce? Sure, IDK, maybe. But at least it’s something to cook with.

Thanks gdave. Now that we’ve gone down this path…

What is an official order? Trump tweeted numerous times that the DOJ should arrest Biden. Obviously that didn’t happen. Could Barr have been disciplined for that?

If for nothing else, the party who does the firing gets to control the narrative of what actually happened.

There may be other consequences such as loss of pension or benefits, or maybe even some sort of fines or penalties for refusals. I’m guessing on that, I don’t know.

Barr, as Attorney General, doesn’t have Civil Service protections. Trump can fire him whenever he wants for whatever reason he wants.

For a career Justice Department employee, there’s no clear answer to that. An Executive Order is clear-cut. An direct oral order from the President is also pretty clear-cut. A tweet that contains a clear order to a specific subordinate would be clear-cut. But the vague sort of tweets he usually engages in? There’s rarely anything concrete enough to actually act on. Policy proposals given in speeches have never historically been considered orders.

Not sure I understand what you’re saying here. These people issue public notices of resignation that generally make no particular statement. If instead, they issued a public letter that said “I have been asked by my superiors at $GOV_AGENCY to do $UNETHICAL THING. I consider this a major breach of ethics and will continue to do the ethical parts of my job until I am terminated from my position”, how would that give them less control of the narrative than they have now?

I don’t believe this is generally true, but I also don’t really know. There is for military, which is why I exempted them from my suggestion.

As far as I can tell there’s just a norm of deference and mealy-mouthedness, which (at the risk of more norm-demolishing) may have outlived its usefulness.

If management decides to fire you, they have an opportunity to contrive circumstances to make you look like a disgruntled bad employee. (I know the current admin would never do anything like that, but work with me here).

But if the employee resigns first, their version of the story carries more weight, and there’s less opportunity for management to cook any evidence to undermine you.

What if the employee publishes a principled objection first? Seems like that would also make their version of the story fairly strong.

I mean, they do it anyway, right? In a normal administration, I can understand the norm for a quiet resignation, but right now, you’re just taking the first quick step toward the underside of a bus.

Sure they could do that, if they saw the axe coming and made their statement in time, but people on the chopping block tend to be kept out of the loop on that kind of information.

Anyway, I don’t think there’s a norm of running to the press with a principled objection and then expecting to stay on and keep your job. That’s nearly the same as resigning.

You don’t need to run to the press. You can write a letter to your boss, etc. up the chain and to Congress. The point is that there are political costs to firing people for objecting to clearly unethical behavior because it brings the unethical behavior more press. If you’re willing to quit out of principle, why not actually accomplish something towards your principle by making the party you’re standing up to bear some costs.

At some point in the last four years didn’t the Department of Defense issue as statement saying tweets weren’t orders on account of them not following the chain of command?

There seems to be a common feeling that civil service and military authorities have some kind of responsibility to remain in place and countermand or otherwise work against the President’s agenda if it is objectionable. Not only is this wholly legally incorrect—and in some cases, even refusing to carry out a legal order can be a criminal act, and in the military cause for formal disciplinary action up to and including courts martial—but this is the very thing the ‘Deep State’ conspiranoiasts are looking for, so providing that justification actually feeds into their angst and gives their otherwise absurd claims some patina of merit.

In any case, I do not want to live in a country where the “Rule of Law” is that government officials can do as they please and ignore the tenets of transparency and lawful governance. Trump has been an awful leader and has laid the blame of his failures on everyone but himself, but anyone who does not have MAGA-tinted glasses on can recognize him for what he is. If his advisors and civil servants were regularly undermining his orders, then it would be unclear who is genuinely at fault, and would even potentially give credence to claims that the election was rigged against him. There is a legal way for Congress to have removed Trump as soon as he demonstrated his lack of fitness to hold any public office whatsoever, and that nearly every Republican senator got in line to enable him instead tells you everything about their agenda. That they are only now trying to distance themselves from him shows the deep lack of character they have, and their contradictions should be referenced when they are up for reelection.

Let’s not turn this nation into a permanent autocracy run by unelected officials who control the reigns of power behind curtains just to cover up the fact that the public at large has collectively made the poor decision to elect a would-be despot to the presidency. The officials who are resigning and speaking up in protest are doing their civic duty, often at great personal cost. Those who would seek to operate in the shadows to undermine legal if objectionable orders are only trading a short term resistance for continued erosion of democratic norms, and we’ve had enough of that even under good presidents.