Shortly after the Charlottesville, Va., riots last August, I made the private decision to step down as President Donald Trump’s personal representative and ambassador to the government of Panama. The president’s failure to condemn the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who provoked the violence made me realize that my values were not his values.
I never meant for my decision to resign to be a public political statement. Sadly, it became one.
The details of how that happened are less important than the demoralizing takeaway: When career public servants take an oath to communicate dissent only in protected channels, Trump administration officials do not protect that promise of privacy.
Leaking is not new in Washington. But leaking a sitting ambassador’s personal resignation letter to the president, as mine was, is something else. This was a painful indication that the current administration has little respect for those who have served the nation apolitically for decades.
Never miss a local story.
Now that I am no longer oath-bound to support the president and his policies, several points warrant clarification. I did not resign over any policy decisions regarding my remit in Panama, or — as was incorrectly alleged in the media — because of the president’s denigrating comments about countries that participate in the visa diversity lottery.
I resigned because the traditional core values of the United States, as manifested in the president’s National Security Strategy and his foreign policies, have been warped and betrayed. I could no longer represent him personally and remain faithful to my beliefs about what makes America truly great.
The amateurish promulgation of a country-specific travel ban, the push to build a “big, beautiful wall” and to expel the Dreamers beyond it, the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the belligerent renegotiating of the North American Free Trade Agreement and counterproductive steel and aluminum tariffs are all making the United States weaker and less prosperous. America is undoubtedly less welcome in the world today, as the president pursues a unilateral and isolationist path.
These policies are purportedly being pursued to make good on nativist campaign rhetoric that resonated with many legitimately aggrieved Americans. But I know many of these voters. They are not “deplorables.” They deserve better. They deserve enlightened and informed debate about the true nature of the globalized economy, automation, and the need for education and reimagined job-skills programs to keep us competitive.
Instead, they are being offered the siren song of populist scapegoating of immigrants, jingoistic chest-beating and a schoolyard bully’s attitude that taunts: “I win, you lose.”
In Davos, Switzerland, recently, the president claimed that “America is open for business.” From my years overseas, I know that few international shoppers go into the store if the shopkeeper is constantly belittling and berating them.
A part of my resignation letter that has not been quoted publicly reads: “I now return home, with no rank or title other than citizen, to continue my American journey.” What this means for me is still evolving.
As the grandson of migrant stock from New York City, an Eagle Scout, a Marine Corps veteran and someone who has spent his diplomatic career in Latin America, I am convinced that the president’s policies regarding migration are not only foolish and delusional, but also anti-American.
Demonizing migrants may placate the few genuine racists in America, such as those who carried torches in Charlottesville. But those Americans constitute a sideshow minority, just as felons are only a tiny fraction of today’s hard-working migrants. Still, as someone who worked on southwest border policy for years, I get that simplistic slogans such as “Take Back the Border” may resonate among law-abiding Americans.
But immigration is never a binary proposition. Moreover, policy options based on fear and hashtags will only offer us a false dichotomy. And the immigration issue cannot be debated rationally when the president routinely encourages division and disparages today’s migrants with the same hateful language deployed a century ago to excoriate my Irish and Italian ancestors.
So what does a private citizen do in the face of such wrenching polarization? I plan to speak to Americans and explore our nation’s fears and perceptions about the migration challenges we face. My goal is to create the conditions for respectful and non-confrontational dialogue between supporters of the president’s immigration policy and the full panoply of migrants — from dreamers to day laborers, engineers to chambermaids, small business owners, artists and teachers.
We need to understand each other better. As someone who is fully and proudly American, and yet by life experience fully bilingual and bicultural, I will now do my best to help. Where the president seeks to build a wall, I seek to build a bridge. I now return to the United States of e pluribus unum. I am confident that we can heal the polarization that afflicts us — one conversation at a time.
John D. Feeley, who retired last week as a U.S. diplomat, will soon be working with Univision and the Fusion Media Group.