Doug Kmiec, a prominent conservative supporter of President Barack Obama who submitted his resignation as the U.S. ambassador to Malta earlier this month, says the State Department improperly clamped down on articles he wrote about his Catholic faith and his admiration for President Ronald Reagan.
The former Justice Department official, one of Obama’s most prominent conservative and pro-life supporters, spoke to me on Thursday by phone from the Malta embassy. He said it was the first time he had spoken to a reporter since his resignation letter was accepted out of respect to the request of the State Department that he not comment to the media until the President had a chance to act on his letter.Now that the State Department has informed him that Obama has accepted his resignation — and moved Kmiec’s departure up from August to May — he’s speaking out against the bureaucrats he said treated him unfairly. The White House had no comment, referring calls to the State Department, where a spokesman would only confirm that Kmiec had resigned but wouldn’t say when that resignation became effective.
During the impeachment of Bill Clinton, Kmiec, then a law professor at Notre Dame, was one of the highest profile conservative legal scholars advocating for impeachment, making regular national TV appearances to comment on Clinton’s political and legal troubles. Kmiec later went to Pepperdine and Catholic University but rejoined Pepperdine around the time Clinton tormenter Ken Starr was the law school dean. Kmiec’s career came full circle, in a way, when he became an ambassador under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Kmiec says he has tremendous respect for Obama but said he was disappointed that his request to speak to the President directly had gone unfulfilled.
As first reported by Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter, Kmiec submitted his letter of resignation to Hillary Clinton in a letter dated April 16. The letter came in the wake of a State Department Inspector General report on the Malta embassy which said that Kmiec’s “outside activities have detracted from his attention to core mission goals.”
Kmiec’s outside writings and speeches, according to the OIG report, have “created friction with principal officials in Washington.” The report said that Kmiec believed that he “was given a special mandate to promote President Obama’s interfaith initiatives,” and “has devoted considerable time to writing articles … and to presenting his views on subjects outside the bilateral portfolio.”
But Kmiec says that his outside writings and speeches — much of which focused on interfaith dialogue — were part of the mission of the U.S. embassy in Malta, a country with an overwhelmingly Catholic population, and had a “highly positive effect” on bilateral relations.
“What is really heartbreaking is not to be able to speak to the President about this, about the distortion — intentional or unintentional, clumsy or politically motivated somehow — by the Inspector General,” Kmiec told TPM. “I love this work so much, and was so honored to be doing this for the country and for this President in particular.”
“The thing that is so saddening to end this way, is that I haven’t lost any of my enthusiasm for the President’s ability to lead the country. I have seen it applauded and greatly appreciated here and in international settings,” Kmiec said.
“I mean if I could get Barack Obama to fly into the Malta airport for 30 seconds, I think I’d be canonized. The man is extremely respected, and I think everything we’ve done has just magnified that respect, and in an honest way,” Kmiec said.
“That’s the thing that troubles me so deeply about this, I feel so good about the achievements here,” Kmiec told me.
‘Faith Based’ vs. ‘Interfaith’
If you’re looking for evidence that the Obama administration intended for Kmiec to maintain an interfaith dialogue, Kmiec says you don’t have to look any further than his swearing-in ceremony, where Kmiec was introduced by the head of the President’s Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership Program.
Kmiec said it was no secret that interfaith dialogue was a part of his larger mission. But when he got to work at the State Department, he quickly faced obstacles, including the close regulation of his outside writings from a personal perspective and the cancellation of a conference he had organized.
Shortly after he started in Malta, Kmiec began organizing a conference for academics and diplomats on interfaith dialogue. After invitations went out, Kmiec got an email from a State Department official that said the conference was off and that they would appreciate it if he never used the word “faith based” again.
“It’s not clear to me whether this was natural hostility or confusion or something else but my supposition is that somebody was convinced that the word ‘faith-based’ violated the Constitution, but that ‘interfaith’ didn’t violate the Constitution,” Kmiec said. “The slice of that cheese is so thin that I can’t make sense of it. They’re about 25 years behind in terms of the courts’ jurisprudence on the First Amendment.”
One particularly offensive overreach, says Kmiec, was when State Department officials edited an article Kmiec wrote memorializing his father in a way that changed his father’s views.
“I thought it was highly offensive to have my father’s memorial piece edited by the Department of State, and indeed what was edited out was reference to his faith and mine and also there was some substantive disagreement with views my father held, so they changed them,” Kmiec said. “So there was a certain aggravation there.”
Kmiec said that when the inspectors left after their visit in the fall, he told them he wouldn’t go out of his way to go outside of his embassy’s mission.
“In fairness to them and in fairness to me, my conception and their conception of mission and theirs must have been different, because I had always assumed and had no reason to think that this had become a categorical rule” that he couldn’t write about interfaith issues, Kmiec said. “Nor did I think I lost the benefit of the regulations that said in your personal time, you can write personal things so long as you identify them as such.”
He also wrote a piece for the L.A. Times for what would have been Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday that the State Department rejected because it wasn’t related to his mission.
Changes to IG Report
When the inspectors wrapped up their visit to the Malta embassy in the fall, they gave Kmiec a draft report of his progress that Kmiec said he was pretty happy with.
“The embassy report was glowing, it had 15 minor suggestions in them… and my personal evaluation — I mean if I were writing it myself, I think I walk on water, so I would have used bigger adjectives and more adverbs — but I was quite satisfied with my report,” Kmiec said.
“But when the folks got back to Washington, apparently someone said ‘well you didn’t hammer the ambassador enough,’ because all of the sudden there was a new and tough and ‘improved’ version that we got a copy of that had all of this business about outside activities in it,” Kmiec said. “And it seemed that things that were positively stated about me and my post suddenly became much more qualified and turned into a negative. And when I saw that, I was quite alarmed.”
In his letter to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Kmiec said the OIG had a “flawed and narrow vision of our diplomatic mission.”
“As a consequence, my voice has been prevented from speaking; my pen has been enjoined from writing; and my actions have been confined to the ministerial,” Kmiec wrote. “You deserve better, but until these rigid, and rigidly narrow, perspectives are overcome, you and the President are being deprived of the intelligent insight of much of your Embassy’s work. Should you want to challenge this organizational difficulty, I am at your service.”
Still Supports Obama
Despite his issues with his treatment at the State Department, Kmiec — who authored a book arguing that that Catholics can support Obama — said he’s still a supporter of the President.
“I see the President, from very early on in his administration, trying to provide of pre-natal care for pregnant women and providing for the needs of those who don’t have health care just as he said he would, providing an executive order saying this money wouldn’t be used for abortion practices just as he said he would,” Kmiec said.