Spoiler alert: no, but he’s probably got a few things to say about it when he comes home. Career diplomat John Feely resigned as US ambassador to Panama. The State Department announced that Feely was leaving for “personal reasons,” but according to Reuters, the 35-year State Department figure strongly implied that a conflict with the current president was the real motive:
“As a junior foreign service officer, I signed an oath to serve faithfully the president and his administration in an apolitical fashion, even when I might not agree with certain policies. My instructors made clear that if I believed I could not do that, I would be honor bound to resign. That time has come,” Feeley said, according to an excerpt of his resignation letter read to Reuters.
The timing of this report made it appear as though the resignation was linked to Donald Trump’s “shithole” remarks from yesterday. A number of news outlets — although not Reuters — framed the report in that context. NBC News initially reported that the resignation was an explicit reaction to Trump’s comments, in a tweet that has since been deleted:
BREAKING: NBC confirms with the State Department that the U.S. Ambassador to Panama, John Feeley, has resigned because he no longer feels he can comfortably serve under @realDonaldTrump. Feeley is the first U.S. diplomat to resign over the president's comments.
— Mary Emily O’Hara (@MaryEmilyOHara) January 12, 2018
Others, such as the normally Trump-sympathetic New York Post, used a slightly more ambiguous implication:
The US ambassador to Panama has resigned on principle in the wake of President Trump’s “shithole” comment about Haiti and Africa in the Oval Office, according to a report.
John Feeley wrote in a resignation letter to the State Department that he can no longer serve the Trump administration, according to Reuters.
“In the wake” was the linkage used by MSNBC, too:
JUST IN: U.S. Ambassador to Panama has resigned in the wake of President Trump's racially charged comments about Haiti and African nations pic.twitter.com/qh6kX50S4V
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) January 12, 2018
There’s only one problem with “in the wake,” which is that wakes follow behind boats. Feely’s resignation was initially reported before Trump made the comments in the first place. In fact, as Associated Press reporter Matt Lee pointed out on Twitter, the US embassy in Panama had already announced Feely’s intention to resign before the meeting between Trump and members of Congress in which the “shithole” comments occurred:
— Matt Lee (@APDiploWriter) January 12, 2018
The resignation was announced yesterday, but Feely had resigned two weeks earlier:
JUST IN: Feeley informed the State Dept. on Dec. 27 of his decision to retire, State Dept. spokesperson says. https://t.co/fiPD5E6VMA
— NBC Politics (@NBCPolitics) January 12, 2018
What can we learn about this? For one thing, perhaps it’s best to check out press releases before linking one event to another. Correlation isn’t causation, after all, and in this case there wasn’t even any correlation. Also, beware of blood-in-the-water news cycles, or at least retain a sense of skepticism about them when it comes to other developments.
On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that Feely’s resignation isn’t news. He’s apparently made it clear (if Reuters’ report is accurate) that he sees too much of a conflict between Trump’s policies and his own values to continue serving as ambassador. His letter makes it sound as though the issue is a policy dispute rather than a style or tone issue, although perhaps Feely might be happy to have already resigned after yesterday’s comments. A policy dispute would not be surprising — Feely got appointed to the post in Panama by Barack Obama in 2015. His career track at State probably allowed Trump and Rex Tillerson to keep him in place while working on other transitions, but it’s safe to say that Feely wasn’t on the Trump train before now.
Given all that, Feely took the honorable step of resignation rather than public criticism while serving abroad. When Feely does complete his assignment in March and returns to the US, expect him to have plenty to say about the policy disputes as well as Trump’s careless statements. But in the future, perhaps news agencies can do some of this background work before jumping to erroneous conclusions.