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An Ambassador On Leaving The Trump Administration


Even though the meeting with North Korea may be back on, the way which President Trump cancelled the summit last week was notable because there was reportedly no consultation with his aides or allies or members of Congress. It's a profound shift from the way America normally conducts foreign policy. Already, 60 percent of senior State Department officials have left under this administration. And among them is the former ambassador to Panama, John Feeley. He's a former Marine who rose through the ranks of the State Department. And he describes himself as a William F. Buckley Republican who has voted for both Democrats and Republicans. But he's never let politics interfere with his decades of work in diplomacy. That is until the election of Donald Trump and a meeting that he had with the president.


JOHN FEELEY: It really shocked me. My sense was that the president hadn't been given a lot of information beforehand. And so his very first question to me was, so what do we get out of Panama? What's in it for us? And that was sort of - took me aback. So I gave him kind of a long run of all of the good things that we are doing. And let me make very clear, Panama is an excellent friend and ally of the United States. And so at the end of it, you know, his response was, oh, that's pretty good. How's my hotel doing down there?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A few months after that meeting with President Trump, Feeley resigned his post. Ambassador Feeley joins us now from Miami. Welcome to the program.

FEELEY: Lulu, it's a pleasure to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In The New Yorker piece, you were quoted as saying, he's like a velociraptor. He has to be boss. And if you don't show him deference, he kills you.

FEELEY: It's true. It was an impression that I had. And I - that just of somebody who was very aware of his own power and very conscious of any potential threat.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've been a diplomat for decades, and you've worked through both Republican and Democratic administrations. How is foreign policy, briefly, normally conducted in those administrations? How does the United States normally find consensus for how it deals with other countries?

FEELEY: Yeah, that's a really great question. And, you know, part of that is why you have so many senior people like me leaving the Department of State. This is not about a foreign service or a career diplomatic corps that feels that it must have the final say on all things. The State Department and the career foreign service are enormously patriotic. We are apolitical. We serve the president. We sign an oath that says that we will serve unconditionally the president and implement his or, in some future, her foreign policy. But we are involved. And our involvement is our value added. We live and work overseas. We speak languages. We tend to develop years of expertise if not in regions, then on specific thematic issues.

And in this administration, there is almost no consultation with the people who actually know about the issues, know the history of the issues. I think the recent episode in North Korea is a perfect example. The approach in this administration was to send now-Secretary Mike Pompeo and have him have a few conversations and then mint a coin. And there is almost a one-man-band foreign policy apparatus that operates out of the Oval Office.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For those who have worked in Latin America, having foreign policy managed by one man and his family is very reminiscent of sort of cult-of-personality figures.

FEELEY: Very much so - and when family members are involved as key advisers. You know, I've spent a career going to places around Latin America and looking at the organogram of who sits in what office. And a lot of Latins have told me, you know, John, that's good to - that you know who the minister of security is or, you know, the undersecretary for judicial issues. But really, the person you have to know is his brother or, you know, his wife because that's the real power there. And we've never had that in the United States. We have been a country - I mean, not that there haven't been - the Kennedy family had family members and others, but they were qualified and universally recognized as qualified.

One of the problems with Mexico policy has been that it has been put on the shoulders of a young man, the president's son-in-law, who really doesn't know much about Mexico. And that's not to say he's a bad person, to say that he can't learn. But you have somebody like Roberta Jacobson, who is our ambassador there, who had spent 30 years working on Mexico, who knew everybody. And she's not invited into meetings with the Mexican president. So that's a real problem. Again...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Explain to me why that's a problem. I think defenders of the president would say Jared Kushner has a direct line of communication to the president of the United States, who will actually listen to him.

FEELEY: And that's OK. But that means that Jared Kushner, if he is going to play that role, should at least be informing the president by informing himself, by learning about the issues, by studying the issues, by doing the homework.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was the personal calculation for you coming out publicly and speaking out about why you resigned as ambassador? Other foreign service officers have not chosen the same route. They have sort of quietly left.

FEELEY: That's correct. And that was my intention. There was an official at the Department of State who read my private letter of resignation to the president. And we know that this happened because it was published by Reuters. And it was there that I wrote to the president that when I was a junior officer, I had signed an oath to completely and fully implement foreign policy, even policies with which I might have disagreed. And then my instructors made clear to me that if there ever came a time when I could no longer do that, I would be honor bound to resign. And that time has come.

By leaking that, it made it clear that I had left because of a very strong difference of values and principles with this administration. And as soon as that happened, the reaction to that was a tremendous amount of support. And I felt and I sensed the desire to at least have a few voices out there that are going to say that integrity and principles and values in the conduct of our foreign relations - they matter. And so I decided that I would not just go quietly into that good night.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: John Feeley is the former ambassador to Panama and a Univision commentator. Thank you so much.

FEELEY: Thank you, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF POPULOUS'S "CANOE CANOA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.