Friday, February 03, 2017

Welcome, Mr. Secretary

Newly confirmed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had his first day in the office yesterday and was greeting by a crowd of the Department's Foreign and Civil Service employees. I admit that much has given me angst about the way things have been going for the last couple weeks, but he isn't one of those things. I am actually cautiously optimistic.

The speech was a good one. And I was touched that he paid his respects at our Memorial Wall, inscribed with the names of all of our number who have given their lives in the line of duty. It touched me when he reached up and touched Ambassador Stevens' name.

I have only one complaint however. Praising the New England Patriots is not the way to unite your team. (Steelers forever!)

Here is the text of his speech if you don't have time to watch the video.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, good morning, all. We apologize for being late. It seemed that this year’s prayer breakfast, people felt the need to pray a little longer. (Laughter.) But I certainly welcomed them all, so – thank you for such a warm reception. And it’s a pleasure to be here, obviously. I’ve been anxious to be here, and I’m so pleased to have my wife, Renda, of more than 30 years. And she has been just steadfast through this process, encouraging me on and reminding me what this is really all about. And so thank you. (Applause.)

I also want to thank Acting Secretary Tom Shannon, who has just been superb through this entire process. And Tom, thank you so much. (Applause.) It was truly and indeed an honor that Tom joined us in the Oval Office last night for my swearing-in, and I appreciated that he was there.

Obviously, I also want to recognize and thank all of you here at headquarters of our State Department, the staff and partners around the world, who have faithfully performed your duties regardless of who was in charge. It was so important. I know many of you have assisted ambassadors and other officials during the Senate confirmation process, and indeed some of you have been through it yourself. Having just come through it for the first time, I can assure you the Senate still takes it as serious as ever, they’re as energetic as ever, they’re as thorough as ever – but we’re here. (Laughter and applause.)

So in the days and weeks ahead we’re going to have plenty of opportunity to discuss in more detail the goals, the priorities, and the strategic direction for our organization. But for now I really want to take a few minutes to communicate my high regard for the men and women of the State Department and share with you some principles for all of us to live by as we pursue our shared mission.

The individuals who comprise this department are among the finest public servants in the world. Many of you serve our nation abroad and have served our nation abroad. State Department staffers in the field are not just conduits for policies and plans; you are our emissaries of our nation and the ideals we stand for. When people see you, they see America.

When I wake up each morning, the very first thing I ask myself is: Are all of our people safe? The safety of every single member of our State Department family, regardless of where he or she is posted, is not just a priority for me. It’s a core value, and it will become a core value of this department. (Applause.) This means the State Department family here in the U.S. and all those agencies serving under chief of missions abroad, including Civil Service; Foreign Service officers and specialists; locally engaged staff of host country and third-country nationals; interns, fellows, support contractors and implementing partners; and not least of all, the family members who support us at home and in our service to our country overseas.

The Foreign Service is not the only component of the State Department. The Civil Service workforce at the State Department plays an indispensable role in all we achieve, and we cannot attain success without the mission-critical services that you provide.

Though we often live in a world of headlines, working outside of the public eye does not make you any less essential to our operations. Your dedication, your intelligence, and your sound judgment are the brick and mortar elements of all we do. We all depend on your good work, and I know it will continue.

One of the great – (applause) – one of the great challenges and thrills for the State Department staff is deciding how to confront changing conditions in every corner of the world. And I encourage all of you to use your natural and well-developed skills to adapt to changes here at home as well.

I know this was a hotly contested election and we do not all feel the same way about the outcome. Each of us is entitled to the expression of our political beliefs, but we cannot let our personal convictions overwhelm our ability to work as one team. Let us be understanding with each other about the times we live in as we focus our energies on our departmental goals.

As Secretary, I will deploy the talent and resources of the State Department in the most efficient ways possible. That may entail making some changes to how things are traditionally done in this department. Change for the sake of change can be counterproductive, and that will never be my approach.

But we cannot sustain ineffective traditions over optimal outcomes. I will gather information on what processes should be reformed, and do my part to make sure we are functioning in the most productive and efficient way possible.

Regardless of the circumstances shaping our country or our department, we must all remain focused on the mission at hand before us. I remind you that our undertakings are larger than ourselves or our personal careers.

Our duty is to faithfully represent our nation in the arena of foreign affairs. If we stay focused on the work before us, I promise I will work to ensure you achieve your own personal success and your professional satisfaction in what you are doing.

For every individual who works at the State Department, I ask that we adopt a few core principles.

First, I believe that any organization runs best when all of its members embrace accountability. From the mailroom to the boardroom, every member of a team has a job to do. I know nobody will always be perfect, and that certainly includes me. But I ask that everyone strive for excellence and assume responsibility for their actions and their decisions.

The New England Patriots have signs posted all over their team facilities that simply say, “Do your job.” It is a brief message, but one with profound importance. If we all do our jobs and embrace a willingness to be held accountable for our performance, we work better as a unit and move closer to attaining our goals. It’s worked pretty well for the Patriots over the years, as I must admit. (Laughter.)

Secondly, I want us to be honest with one another. We’re on the same team. We share the same mission. Honesty will undergird our foreign policy, and we’ll start by making it the basis of how we interact with each other.

Lastly, we’re going to treat each other with respect. No one will tolerate disrespect of anyone. Before we are employees of the State Department, we are human beings first. Let us extend respect to each other, especially when we may disagree.

What I ask of you and what I demand of myself – I will embrace accountability, honesty, and respect no less than anyone.

Before President Trump called me, I thought I would be entering retirement this spring after four decades of business experience. (Laughter.) Renda and I were ready to head off to the ranch and enjoy our grandchildren. But when I came back from my first meeting with President Trump and he asked me to do this, Renda said, “You didn’t know it, but you’ve been in a 41-year training program for this job.” (Laughter and applause.) So despite our own dreams, she said, “You’re supposed to do this.”

Well, my first day is here. I’m on the job. Hi, I’m the new guy. (Applause.)

As such, I will depend on the expertise of this institution. There are over 75,000 members of the State Department workforce, both Foreign and Civil Service employees, with an average of over 11 years of service in the department. I have 25 minutes. (Laughter.) You have accumulated knowledge and experience that cannot be replicated anywhere else. Your wisdom, your work ethic and patriotism, is as important as ever. And as your Secretary, I will be proud to draw upon all these qualities in my decision-making.

I ask that you join me in upholding high standards of ethics and professionalism, committing to personal accountability and honesty, and respecting your colleagues. There will undoubtedly be times of victory, but there will also be many times of difficulty. Let’s go forward as a team through all of it. Let’s make the American people proud of what we do in this building and beyond.

Inscribed on the walls in this lobby are the names of fallen Foreign Service personnel, who, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, gave their last full measure of devotion. They died in service of causes far greater than themselves. As we move forward in a new era, it is important to honor the sacrifices of those who have come before us, and reflect on the legacy that we inherit.

In closing, I am honored to be serving alongside each of you as I serve our nation as the Secretary of State. So now I am going to take a moment and pay my respects to those individuals that are memorialized on this wall, and then I look forward to making the rounds and greeting you personally. It may take me a few days. (Laughter.) But in all sincerity, I do hope to have the opportunity to shake the hand of every one of you that’s here. Thank you so much. (Applause.)

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Two Welcome Surprises and One Unwelcome (non)Surpise

We got a couple bits of good news yesterday.

First, we found out that the President issued an Executive Order stating he would not overturn the executive order signed by President Obama affording protections to LGBT employees of federal contractors.

The text reads:

Office of the Press Secretary
January 31, 2017
President Donald J. Trump Will Continue to Enforce Executive Order Protecting the Rights of the LGBTQ Community in the Workplace President Donald J. Trump is determined to protect the rights of all Americans, including the LGBTQ community. President Trump continues to be respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights, just as he was throughout the election. The President is proud to have been the first ever GOP nominee to mention the LGBTQ community in his nomination acceptance speech, pledging then to protect the community from violence and oppression. The executive order signed in 2014, which protects employees from anti-LGBTQ workplace discrimination while working for federal contractors, will remain intact at the direction of President Donald J. Trump.

Of course, it does beg the question of why he would need to publically state he is going to continue with a particular policy. Part of the explanation I am sure is that rumors had been swirling that an executive order was forthcoming either rescinding the Obama protections or allowing discrimination based on "sincerely held religious beliefs" (or both). The latter could still be coming. I also suspect it could have something to do with his nomination of a Supreme Court Justice to fill the seat vacated with Anthony Scalia died (you know, the one that has been vacant since February because the Senate refused to have a hearing for Merrick Garland, the Obama nominee). More on that in a bit.

The next nice surprise came in the form of a bit of support from the Democrats on the House Committee for Foreign Affairs. In a letter to the President, they expressed concern about Press Secretary Spicer's comments regarding those who supported the dissent channel message and not the President's policy, saying they should "get with the program or get out." You can read my thoughts on that here. And by the way, apparently more than a thousand people have signed it so far and more wanted to. And that is out of some 7,600 Foreign Service Officers (that number may be higher if it doesn't include FS specialists) and 11,000 civil servants.

In the letter, they said:

Dear Mr. President:

Yesterday, from the White House podium, your spokesperson, Sean Spicer, announced that State Department employees who offer dissent to your executive order on immigration and refugees should “get with the program or they should go.” We are alarmed by Mr. Spicer’s apparent lack of knowledge about the way foreign policy is made in the United States.

We would like you to know that during the Administration of President Nixon, the State Department established a formal mechanism to allow personnel to express dissent from Administration policy. According to the State Department, “the Dissent Channel was created to allow its users the opportunity to bring dissenting or alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues, when such views cannot be communicated in a full and timely manner through regular operating channels or procedures.” For decades, the Dissent Channel has offered our diplomats the ability in critical circumstances to express concerns and warnings contrary to Administration policies. Notable examples have included dissents from policies toward Vietnam and Syria.

So it’s deeply troubling that your Administration isn’t interested in hearing different perspectives, especially those transmitted through the State Department’s revered Dissent Channel. The State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual prohibits reprisal or disciplinary action against anyone who uses the Dissent Channel. We are requesting your assurances that State Department personnel will not be subject to harassment or retribution if they take advantage of the Dissent Channel or offer policy advice that doesn’t align with White House policy decisions.

Please reply as soon as possible confirming that your Administration will respect the law (P.L. 96-465) governing the State Department and the treatment of its personnel.

It was signed by every Democrat on the committee. Thanks y'all!

And for the record, I don't think most of us are going anywhere. We are the last line of defense for the Constitution (and the first line of defense to protect our military).

So then came the unwelcome news, which was actually not much of a surprise (though the reality TV manner of making the announcement kind of was...I was expecting the President to give a rose to the Supreme Court nominee he selected since he invited the top two for the announcement and had clearly already made up his mind...).

The President is nominating Neil Gorsuch to be the next Supreme Court Justice.

This makes keeping the protections in place for LGBT people seem like a ploy to get our guard down (it didn't work, by the way).

According to the Washington Blade, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), called Judge Gorsuch "Justice Scalia on steroids,” Nadler said. “His record demonstrates that, if confirmed, he would rely on his conservative, originalist philosophy to overturn critical precedents and to disregard the rights of everyday Americans while bolstering protections for corporations and special interests.”

Gorsuch is definitely no friend to the LGBT community. In a paper for the National Review, he lamented that "liberals" are addicted to having the courts rather than the ballot box solve society issues including marriage equality. Never mind of course that it was the courts that overturned laws against interracial marriage at a time when 75 percent of the country opposed it. Because in a Republic, the minority is supposed to be protected from the tyranny of the majority, and the courts are generally our best defense for that. And never mind that it was the courts that desegregated schools. We should just let the majority vote on our rights, right?

He is also a supporter of so-called "religious freedom" laws and has already ruled in their favor. Those laws, in case you aren't aware, allow those with sincerely held religious beliefs to discriminate against LGBT people. This includes doctors in some I guess if you are in the ER and need a doctor with a sincerely held religious belief against you to save your life, you are out of luck. I wonder what Jesus would do...

I admit I am not overly worried, only because he replaces the most far-right judge who was on the court. But I do worry about future appointments (circle of protection around the notorious RBG please).

But I do think it shows we have to stay in, we have to fight to preserve the Constitution and our democracy, and we can't let our guard down for a second.