An open letter to my former colleagues in the US government’s civil, foreign, intelligence, and military services

You will be hearing much in the coming weeks about your responsibility and duty to stay in government notwithstanding the election of a man as president who has demeaned your work, your competency, and perhaps even your gender, race, ethnicity, and religion. Some who have left government and some who have never served will impugn your sense of professionalism if you choose to resign your positions rather than to serve this man. And some will say that it only reinforces the claim that you were biased against him from the start. You may feel that you have to stay to make things better or that you will be letting down your country if you leave.
 
 My message to you: go with your conscience, mindful of your own needs. As someone who served for more than a decade — less than some and more than others — I can say with total honesty that I could not serve this president. I served Republican and Democrat alike in my time. And I found good and bad in both. But, the tone of the incoming administration is abhorrent and I could not serve with my full heart and effort the causes that may be promoted by it.
 
 Nor should you be asked to. The promises that Donald Trump made on the campaign trail chill me to my very bones and most of them would require you — not him — to actually fulfill them directly. No Arabic interpreter should feel compelled to translate the demarche, telling the governments of the Middle East that Muslims are no longer welcome in America. No political officer in Mexico should feel guilty that they cannot make the demand that Mexico pay for a racist, impractical wall. No military officer should feel compelled to kill the families of suspected terrorists or intelligence officers feel obliged to torture people. In fact, good laws protect you from such illegal conduct. And none of you signed up to violate your principles or betray your fidelity to what is right.

Others will say that you must stay to keep the government running. But curious: many of them would probably refuse a political position if offered. You have just as much right to leave the government if, like these professionals, your sense of ethics compels you to shun the work that may now be required. You are not merely functionaries, robotically carrying out instructions from your superiors. You are professionals. Adults. Serious people. And you and your concerns need to be addressed seriously by those for whom you work.
 
 Were you to leave, and to explain why, you may send a signal that while the incoming administration may be morally bankrupt, you are not. And if this threatens to undermine operations, then so be it. Perhaps then those who will soon take power will learn that with it comes responsibility and the need for sobriety.

President Obama has urged that we give Donald Trump the opportunity to succeed, underscoring the importance that his presidency will have for all of us. It is true: as president, his responsibilities will be significant and he will need help. But, do not let this need shame those of you who simply cannot stomach the possibility. Trump also needs to understand that one of his new obligations is to create a climate in which the federal workforce, which he has stressed he intends to trim in any event, wants to do its job, feels valuable, and has sound, responsible leadership. He must give you a reason to serve not just demand your fealty.

You all took an oath when you joined the U.S. government. In that oath, you said that you will “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” You did not swear allegiance to a president nor did you commit to execute any order he may make. Certainly, no one should undermine the president from within. If serving, then it is your responsibility to do your job to the best of your ability and the president must be able to trust that he is getting your best professional judgment and support. But, should his instructions contradict with your oath and your integrity, then there is no reason in the world why you should feel obliged to stay. Indeed, resigning in protest remains one of the most powerful acts a civil servant can take.

Some of you may not be able to resign, even if you want. You have mortgages, families, and responsibilities at home. Some may be close to retirement or just starting out, with more than your share of student debt. I have been there. Some of you have promised to serve a certain term of service and remain bound to that obligation. You also should not feel compelled to resign or guilty if you remain in government service. It remains an admirable calling and people have to eat. You can only do what you can do and you can only respond to this situation within the fullness of your means.

I cherish my time as one of you. I empathize deeply for the jarring, upsetting situation in which you now find yourself (perhaps against your own voting preferences). I wish you all the best as you contemplate your futures and look to make decisions about your life.

Best of luck,

Richard Nephew

Former civil servant at the Department of Energy, Department of State, and National Security Council