Note to Trump: Dissent is not disloyalty

Firing deputy AG over the immigration ban is bad. Telling State Dept. critics to get with the program is worse

For all the fireworks surrounding the defiance of former acting attorney general Sally Q. Yates to President Donald Trump's shutdown of immigration from seven predominantly Muslim nations and her subsequent firing, the real warning sign about the new administration came not from its handling of dissent from the Department of Justice but from the Department of State. The utter dismissal of the views of the 100 career diplomats who used appropriate channels to express their concerns about Mr. Trump's policy portends an administration determined to shut itself off from all outside opinion and to fill its ranks with yes men and women who will never question the president or his advisers. That's a recipe for disaster.

Ms. Yates is being cast as a hero by the left and a traitor by the right. In truth, she was a person stuck in a position that was untenable but also temporary. She was an Obama administration holdover filling in until Mr. Trump's choice for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is confirmed by the Senate, which is expected shortly. She believed, according to news reports, that Mr. Trump's immigration order was certainly unwise but also probably unconstitutional, if not on its face then because of its clearly discriminatory intent. She was reportedly troubled by a statement from Rudolph Giuliani that the policy reflected an effort to make good on President Trump's campaign promise of a ban on Muslim immigration and by the president's own statement that Christian refugees would be given priority. She's absolutely right.

During her confirmation hearing, none other than Senator Sessions grilled her on whether she would stand up to a president who was doing something she believed to be illegal. She said she would, and so that left her with two choices over the weekend. She could object quietly and resign, or she could do what she did, which was to voice her conclusions in a way that was guaranteed to call attention to them — and, not incidentally, embarrass the president.

For all the comparisons, what she did was not the same as the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre in which President Richard Nixon fired his attorney general and deputy attorney general for refusing an order to dismiss the Watergate special prosecutor. She was not standing up to the person who appointed her, and her employment was temporary to begin with. But it was not without cost either. Ms. Yates chose a path that guaranteed her a double-barreled blast of scorn and name-calling from the bullies at the White House who thought they could make themselves sound strong by calling her "weak."

The situation at the State Department is different. For decades, the agency has provided a mechanism called a "dissent channel" memo for staff members who disagree with official policy to provide their views to the secretary of state without fear of reprisal. As recently as last summer, more than 50 state officials sent such a memo to then-secretary John Kerry objecting to the Obama administration's Syria policy as having been overwhelmed by the realities on the ground. It was a potentially explosive document, given the election-year timing and Mr. Trump's focus on what he called a weak foreign policy by the president. Nonetheless, Mr. Kerry said he respected the institution of the "dissent channel" and met with the memo's authors to discuss their views and to explain the administration's policy.

Yet when asked about the 100 or more state officials who have said they will sign a dissent channel memo for Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson when he takes office expressing concerns about the immigration ban, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer lashed out, repeatedly suggesting that if they had a problem with the policy, they should quit.

The issue here is not whether Mr. Trump should be able to change the policy direction of the State Department. It's whether he and his administration see any value whatsoever in speaking with people who have actual experience in the policy areas where they're making changes, who might be affected by them, who would be called on to support them or who would carry them out. Administration officials didn't consult key members of Congress from their own party (much less Democrats) before President Trump issued the order. They didn't discuss the idea with the secretaries of defense or homeland security. Leaders in nations affected by the ban — including Iraq, a principal ally in the war against ISIS — weren't briefed.

Isolated administrations that distrust opposing views, discount professional opinion and stuff agencies with loyalists make catastrophic mistakes. Mr. Trump needs to realize that voicing dissent is not disloyalty, displaying integrity is not weakness and offering the benefit of experience is not intransigence. If he doesn't, we will all suffer the consequences.

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