Political News

Former Obama staffer's viral tweet a message to Trump on immigration

Posted January 16, 2018 3:13 a.m. EST

— Former White House staffer Gary Lee's very first tweet went viral amid the fallout over President Donald Trump making disparaging comments about immigration from African countries and Haiti.

Over the weekend, the son of Korean immigrants tweeted a picture with his then boss, President Barack Obama, welcoming him into the Oval Office with his arms outstretched. Former White House photographer Pete Souza captured the moment.

Lee spoke to Don Lemon on "CNN Tonight" on Monday about the contrast between Trump and Obama. Lee said that while he found Trump's comments around immigration upsetting, he believed Obama taught his staff "we could celebrate our diversities and that made us so much stronger."

Lee left the Obama White House as a staffer in 2011 for a Fulbright Scholarship in Korea where he would study his parent's language and culture. The viral photo with Obama was taken on Lee's last day at the White House. The former President greeted Lee in Korean.

'Living proof the American dream is possible'

Although the picture is now seven years old, Lee said he was motivated to share it now by the recent NBC report claiming Trump asked a Korean American intelligence analyst where she was from. According to the report -- which CNN has not verified -- when she said she was from New York, Trump continued to ask the question until she answered that she was Korean.

"Where are you really from?" is a question that many call a microaggression -- or a statement that may seem harmless, but can have often unintended marginalizing consequences. Lee told Lemon that he feels this question can represent a viewpoint that "a default American looks a certain way, and it doesn't compute if you say, as this analyst said, well I'm from New York."

Lee said he shared the story of his last day with friend and former White House Associate Director of Public Engagement Kal Penn. He said Penn started to cry saying "think about how incredible this is -- that your parents that are Korean immigrants, came from Korea, sacrificed all this stuff so that you and your brother could have all the opportunities that they never had. You went into the Oval Office and saw the first African-American president, and he greeted you in your parents' native language."

Lee told Lemon that his parents came to the United States at ages 18 and 26. At one point, he said, they only had $20 in their bank account. He said he was not the only child of immigrants to work in the Obama White House, but that they "are all living proof that the American dream is possible."