John Brady Kiesling received a message over the weekend from a diplomat friend seeking advice on the struggle shared by hundreds at the State Department: How to defy President Donald Trump.
Kiesling, who lives in Greece, knows about standing up to the White House. Years ago, he’d been in the same spot, becoming one of a handful of officials who quit the Bush administration to protest the Iraq War. These days, government personnel are seeking his counsel and that of other high-profile dissenters as they struggle to respond to Trump policies they believe are unethical, dangerous and maybe even unconstitutional.
Kiesling’s advice is that it’s too early to quit – he urges anxious bureaucrats to carry on working, even as they close their social media accounts, switch to encrypted messaging and start plotting.
“Only if you stay professional can you get away with being totally Machiavellian about subverting the presidency,” Kiesling said with a laugh, in a phone interview from his home in Athens.
There’s no headcount of dissidents within the government, but the signs of rebellion are there. State Department employees already have issued a rare dissent cable expressing widespread opposition to Trump’s immigration order. That’s one early signal, Kiesling said, that this bureaucratic class will be willing to stand up to the White House in a way that Iraq War-era diplomats did not.
Kiesling has been back in the spotlight since reports emerged last month of government workers crying at their desks in anguish or creating rogue Twitter accounts to thwart Trump administration edicts. He’s been quoted in The New Yorker and on NPR about opposition tactics; his Facebook postings read like a how-to manual for dissidents.
Kiesling’s advice to uneasy government employees is stay put for now, discreetly look for allies and wait for the White House to cross the line into illegal or unethical conduct. President Richard Nixon’s downfall, he noted, was brought about by “the paranoid search for enemies” and subsequent cover-up.
“There is no U.S. policy unless it’s on paper. Anything that’s on paper should be shared with relevant members of Congress at this stage,” Kiesling said. “If it’s an unspoken policy then it’s probably illegal to follow.”
He also advises building alliances across agencies and setting institutional rather than personal red lines. And if an employee simply can’t go on and reaches the decision to resign, Kiesling said, then he or she should stay a bit longer to conduct even bolder acts of opposition because there’s no longer a concern about getting fired.
“If you have reached your personal red line, that is not a license to quit,” Kiesling said. “That is a license to be brave.”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer has made it clear that dissent is not welcome, saying that anxious bureaucrats should “either get with the program or they can go.” That warning sent chills among diplomats, who have long-established channels to voice dissent and protections in place for those who use them.
The American Foreign Service Association, a professional group that gives a prize every year for constructive dissent, has faced criticism from some members for not speaking more forcefully against the Trump administration’s jabs at career diplomats. Last week, the association sent out an advisory that noted legal protections for dissent but also cautioned that even a temporary walkout would be considered a strike, which could result in firings. A spokesman for the association declined to speak on the record.
Kiesling is among a small cadre of former officials whose acts of rebellion are now being studied by a burgeoning resistance movement within the administration. He and his Iraq-era peers are the most recent examples, but diplomats and defense professionals are passing around the lessons learned from earlier cases, too.
There’s Ann Wright, who’s said in interviews that she received more than 400 emails from colleagues who quietly supported her decision to resign from the State Department over the Iraq War and the Patriot Act’s “unnecessary curtailment of civil liberties.” Matthew Hoh, a Marine captain-turned-diplomat, in 2009 became the first U.S. official known to resign over the war in Afghanistan.
Another case study is George Kenney, the first of four State Department officials to resign over U.S. policies during ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in the early 1990s. Even farther back were four resignations of senior officials during the Vietnam War.
As with the other dissidents, Kiesling’s reasons for stepping down are echoed in today’s concerns over Trump.
He warned in his 2003 resignation letter about the perils of “such systematic distortion of intelligence, such systematic manipulation of American opinion.” The line referred to the bogus prewar intelligence on Iraq, but it’s just as apt for the Trump’s record of lies, half-truths and exaggerations on matters large and small.
Another line in the resignation letter sounds timely after a week in which Trump reportedly feuded with the leaders of Australia and Mexico and infuriated Arab allies with the visa bans.
“We have begun to dismantle the largest and most effective web of international relationships the world has ever known. Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security,” Kiesling warned the Bush government.
Kiesling thinks dissidents can prevail in thwarting the policies they find most egregious – an optimism that’s based on the diplomats’ professionalism, he said, as well as the Trump inner circle’s inexperience.
“The difference with the Iraq War is that we all just watched in slow-motion suspense while the administration pretended war wasn’t inevitable. We were in denial up until the last minute, so we were the slowly boiling frogs,” Kiesling said. “This time, a blast of heat has woken everybody up.”