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Morale disintegrates at State Department as diplomats wonder who will quit next to escape Trump

President Donald Trump boards Marine One as he leaves Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Friday, Jan. 12, 2018.
President Donald Trump boards Marine One as he leaves Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. AP

The unexpected departure of a top ranked diplomat is shaking up an already unsteady diplomatic corps and raising questions about who will be next to leave.

News of John Feeley’s resignation’s Friday sent shock waves through the State Department where the ambassador of Panama was seen as a rising star and a potential future assistant secretary — and more than a dozen State staffers said it caused them to question their own commitment to an administration they feel is undercutting the department’s work and U.S. influence in the world.

“Given what happened in the last few days, people are wondering how are they going to be effective in an environment like this,” said a U.S. official who works regularly with the State Department. “It’s one thing for us to go in and slam our hands on the table and say this is what we want ... It’s another to denigrate them and make it crystal clear this is what our leadership thinks about them in the vulgarest of terms.”

U.S. officials said dozens of email messages were flying around the State Department about Feeley’s decision to leave. They were a mix of disappointment, concern and admiration for the ambassador who served as a mentor to many of the current diplomats who specialize in the Western Hemisphere.

The U.S. State Department, which called Feeley one of the leading Latin American specialists, confirmed he is leaving his post on March 9, explaining he has opted to "retire for personal reasons."

The resignation comes as the State Department undergoes a massive personnel shift. State has been shedding diplomats rapidly; 60 percent of the State Departments’ top-ranking career diplomats have left and new applications to join the foreign service have fallen by half, according to recent data from the American Foreign Service Association, the professional organization of the U.S. diplomatic corps.

Colleagues said the feelings Feeley expressed in his resignation letter about not being able to work under President Donald Trump reflect sinking morale within a diplomatic corps that has lost confidence in the administration’s approach toward diplomacy.

The news hit the department particularly hard Friday, as many officials were also learning from published reports that Trump, in a White House meeting with congressional leaders, called El Salvador and African nations “shithole countries” and questioned why the U.S. admits immigrants from Haiti.

Feeley had actually sent his resignation letter at the end of December, well before this latest presidential controversy. But those who know him say the administration’s similar words and approach toward foreign partners played a role in his decision to leave.

Some of Feeley’s colleagues have stuck it out at the State Department, saying they feel an even greater responsibility to defend the ideals of diplomacy. “There is a sense of duty to carry out what we’ve been trained,” said one State Department official.

But others have wrestled with staying, feeling unsure whether they’re protecting U.S. influence or contributing to its erosion. Many diplomats had never contemplated leaving State, always intending instead to make U.S. diplomacy their life’s work and long-term career track.

Feeley is not the first high ranking State Department official to leave his post rather than remain with the Trump administration. In November, foreign service officer Elizabeth Shackelford, who worked in Nairobi for the U.S. mission to Somalia, quit, writing a letter slamming the administration for abandoning human rights policy and its “stinging disrespect” of the foreign service.

Colleagues said Feeley is not the kind of leader to leave without having wrestled with the decision — especially considering the trajectory he was on. He dedicated his career to public service first as an active-duty military helicopter pilot for the Marine Corps before joining the State Department in 1990.

“John was born for the foreign service,” said the U.S. official. He served as the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City, and was the second most senior official in the Western Hemisphere Affairs bureau before becoming ambassador to Panama.

He remained busy under Trump. He arranged an Oval Office meeting with Trump and Panama's president. He later helped organize Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to the Panama Canal.

“He was the most respected Latin America expert in the Foreign Service and doubtlessly headed for senior leadership positions,” said Benjamin Gedan, who was National Security Council director for Latin America during the Obama administration and worked with Feeley at State.

Mark Feierstein, the White House National Security Council’s senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs under President Barack Obama, said he’s surprised more haven’t left considering Trump’s behavior and policies.

“Trump has given ambassadors over the last year many reasons to resign,” Feierstein said. “Yesterday was only one. There were plenty others. And there will be more.”