‘A dagger in my heart’: Obama alums struggle to adjust to a Trumpian world

In Miami, the crowd was standing and cheering Friday as President Trump smiled broadly after pledging to reverse key provisions of the Obama administration’s historic Cuba opening.

A world away, in Portland, Maine, Ben Rhodes could not contain his frustration.

“The few people in Miami enabling Trump in carrying out this charade should be embarrassed/held accountable,” Rhodes wrote on Twitter. “He could care less about Cubans.”

It was the first of four tweets Rhodes, a foreign policy aide to former president Barack Obama, fired off attacking Trump as the president was speaking. Rhodes was in Maine to attend the wedding of a fellow Obama alum, speechwriter Jon Favreau, but that had not stopped him from fighting back against Trump. In the morning, Rhodes had published an essay on The Atlantic’s website titled, “Trump’s Cuba Policy Will Fail.”

For Rhodes, the moment represented both a policy setback for the United States — and a personal letdown. He had played a leading role in the secret, high-wire negotiations with the Castro regime that led to the restoration of diplomatic ties in 2015 after 54 years. That role was so meaningful that it is highlighted in Rhodes’ Twitter bio: “Obama foreign policy adviser and speechwriter. Mets fan, Cuba negotiator, dad to Ella and Chloe.”

(Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

In an interview, Rhodes said he took solace that Trump, who put new limits on commercial transactions and U.S. citizens’ travel to the island nation, had not ended diplomatic relations.

But “personally, part of what makes it difficult [to accept] is that we were six years into the administration and spent a year and a half of exhaustive negotiations before announcing” the Cuba opening, said Rhodes, who coincidentally spoke at a Cuban entrepreneurship event in Miami on Monday. “They seemed to do this in such a slipshod way. Years of work and painstaking negotiations are countered by what feels like very minimal work and thought.”

Rhodes isn’t the only Obama administration veteran who seems to be experiencing personal pain as Trump strips away portions of the 44th president’s legacy — on immigration, trade, the environment and, perhaps, health care. Ensconced in think tanks in Washington and New York, or in the private sector on both coasts, the Obama alumni network has become a diaspora of the disappointed as Trump tries to make good on his promises to upend much of what they had worked to accomplish.

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“I felt short of breath and like there was a dagger in my heart,” said Wendy Cutler, former acting deputy U.S. trade ambassador who spent three years helping negotiate the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord from which Trump withdrew the United States on his third day in office.

Cutler, now a vice president at the Asia Society, had left USTR on an emotional high one week after she had been among the U.S. delegation in Atlanta in Oct. 2015 when the TPP, the largest regional pact in history, was completed.

On Jan. 23, when Trump held an Oval Office event to announce the U.S. withdrawal, Cutler was in her eighth-floor office in Dupont Circle. She couldn’t bear to watch.

“When I give speeches, a lot of Asian colleagues are stunned,” Cutler said. “Even though they watched the campaign and knew the agreement was in trouble, they cannot come to terms with how quickly this happened.”

Every transfer of the White House between political parties means a sharp shift of policy focus. But the handoff between Obama and Trump has been particularly disorienting, given their polar opposite views of the world and rhetorical means of expressing it.

Obama tried to buck up his staff a day after Trump’s election victory during a speech in the Rose Garden, when he told scores of somber-looking aides, some tearful, to keep their “heads up.” But it has been increasingly difficult.

For Cecilia Muñoz, who spent two decades as a leading immigrant rights advocate before serving as Obama’s White House domestic policy adviser, the Trump wrecking ball followed her to the end of the earth.

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After serving eight years in the Obama White House, Muñoz had booked a hiking vacation in New Zealand to begin the day after Obama left office January 20 — traveling as far from the United States as she could get.

Six days after she arrived in New Zealand, however, Trump announced a sweeping travel ban on citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries, sowing chaos at several airports as federal authorities detained dozens of travelers.

“I checked in [on the news] a couple times a day to be aware of what was happening, much to my husband’s dismay,” said Muñoz, now a vice president at the New America think tank. “Then I worked off my feelings on the hikes.”

The good news for the Obama world is that Trump, at least so far, has not brought quite as much radical change as he promised on the campaign trail. He backed off suggestions that his administration would seek to end the U.S. involvement in the NATO alliance. He has not ended a deferred action program for some undocumented immigrants. The travel ban was halted by the courts. And Congress has balked at Trump’s proposal to spend billions for a wall on the Mexico border.

On the flip side, Trump has installed a conservative Supreme Court Justice, withdrawn the United States from the Paris climate accord, moved to relax broad swaths of Obama’s regulatory agenda and drastically reduced the acreage of national lands the former president had sought to preserve as federal monuments.

The Republican-led Senate is nearing a vote on legislation to repeal Obama’s signature health care law.

“If you live in NV, AK, ME, OH, WV, AZ or CO please call your Senators and tell them not to pass #Trumpcare. We need to pressure them now,” Tommy Vietor, a former Obama foreign policy spokesman, wrote on Twitter this week.

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Vietor and several other former Obama aides — including Favreau and fellow speechwriter Jon Lovett, as well as political adviser Dan Pfeiffer — have been among the most outspoken Obama alums through “Pod Save America,” a twice-weekly podcast aimed at fomenting opposition to the Trump presidency.

Their guest on June 1 was Brian Deese, a former Obama senior adviser who had worked closely on the Paris climate accord. Deese called into the show from his home in Portland, Maine, just hours before Trump was scheduled to appear in the White House Rose Garden to announce his decision on whether to withdraw from the Paris deal.

In an interview Friday, Deese said he later felt compelled to watch Trump’s announcement and found it “incredibly frustrating because it was all predicated on a totally false premise.”

Deese remains buoyed by the possibility that the Obama administration’s efforts to get countries such as China and India to sign on to reducing carbon emissions will pay long-term dividends despite Trump’s actions. On a personal level, however, he found the president’s rationale “embarrassing.”

“I have trouble explaining the logic to my 4-year-old daughter,” he said.

Asked if she understands how hard he worked on the global accord, Deese was hopeful.

“I think she has a sense of what her dad was fighting for,” he said.