This story is published in a content partnership with POLITICO. It was originally reported by Anita Kumar and Nahal Toosi on politico.com on March 15, 2021.
Donald Trump named more of his political allies to serve as ambassadors than any president in modern history. Now the pressure is on Joe Biden to reverse that trend – and set a new standard.
Biden still plans to dole out ambassadorships to major campaign donors, but some diplomats say slashing the number of fundraisers sent to overseas posts would restore confidence in the federal government, boost State Department morale and send a message around the globe.
“Our diplomats expect Biden to build diplomacy back better. That’s what he promised on the campaign trail,” said Brett Bruen, a former Foreign Service officer who now does consulting work. “It means not going back to the old practice of doling out ambassadors to the well-to-do and the well-connected.”
Every presidency starts with the politically well-connected clamouring for all types of coveted positions, including White House jobs and board memberships, but the jockeying for ambassadorships in cities from Paris to Sydney always tops the list. The Biden presidency is no different, according to interviews with five donors, but after the perception of corruption around nominees grew during the Trump years, Biden is being pressed to appoint more career diplomats.
Most presidents in recent decades have given 30 per cent of ambassadorships to political appointees, including major campaign donors. But Trump increased that number to roughly 44 per cent, which included posts in some countries that usually went to career diplomats, such Thailand and Kenya.
Plenty of high-profile names have been mentioned, including Cindy McCain, widow of Senator John McCain; long-time Biden friend and former Senator Chris Dodd; and Comcast executive David Cohen. Richard Perkins, a donor and former speaker of the Nevada Assembly, told POLITICO that he is lobbying to be the top US diplomat in Canada.
In total, about 800 individuals or couples raised at least US$100,000 each for Biden’s campaign. “There are some who do a lot for the campaign and they don’t have a lot of experience in government and you want to take care of them and what the fuck else are you going to do with them?” said a long-time Democratic donor.
Taking their time
The White House has yet to start the lengthy vetting process for ambassadors who are political appointees, meaning some nominations could be weeks or even months away, according to two people briefed by the White House on the situation. Instead, the White House has been focused on pushing Covid-19 legislation through Congress and compiling lists of nominees for judgeships and attorneys general. Biden has named only one ambassador thus far: Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a former State Department official and ambassador, to the United Nations.
The entire process has been hampered by the pandemic, which largely precluded donors from mingling with Biden at in-person fundraisers during the campaign or travelling to Washington to visit with White House officials after the inauguration.
As Biden concludes his eighth week in office, donors are growing impatient and calling White House officials and allies to ask what they can do to secure a spot.
Congressman Don Beyer, a Democratic fundraiser who served as ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, said he’s received calls from about a dozen donors in recent weeks trying to determine their next steps.
“When they came to me two years ago, I told them the president is going to send people he knows, likes, trusts and who have been integral in getting him elected,” Beyer said. “Now it’s late, way too late. You can’t just write a check.”
Aside from his representative to the UN, President Barack Obama waited until after taking office to announce most of his ambassador choices, even timing the one for Ireland to coincide with St. Patrick’s Day. Trump, on the other hand, announced his picks for several posts, including Israel, before he was inaugurated. On Wednesday, Biden will meet virtually with Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin, though no ambassador is expected to be named.
At the White House, the selection of Senate-confirmed ambassadors is being shepherded by Steve Ricchetti, counsellor to the president; Cathy Russell, director of the White House presidential personnel office; and Katie Petrelius, special assistant to the president for presidential personnel, according to the two people briefed by the White House.
The State Department is still waiting on the White House to signal which posts will be reserved for career diplomats, according to two current and former US officials. The administration has yet to nominate people for an array of top State Department positions, including assistant secretaries and undersecretaries.
“We continue to engage in conversations with the White House and we've been gratified that our counterparts understand and value the importance of career professionals in senior roles, including ambassadorships,” a senior State Department official said when asked about the status of the situation.
The White House did not respond to questions, but press secretary Jen Psaki has said more than once that the administration has no timeline for the process. “That may be tough news to hear for people who are interested in ambassadorship roles, but he has not had a conversation about that, nor has there been a memo presented to him to make decisions,” she said in February.
Pay for play
Most advanced democracies rely almost exclusively on trained career diplomats for their ambassadorships. But in the US, presidents of both parties have engaged in the long-standing practice of giving ambassadorships to donors even though it’s been criticised as a corrupt pay-to-play scheme that damages America’s international standing.
“When you talk to [donors], get them in a private room and off guard, they’ll be real open to the fact that they’re looking to get something out of it,” according to a donor. “Is it openly spoken about? No, but it’s pretty clear.”
During the Democratic primary, Senator Elizabeth Warren called on her rivals to pledge not to reward donors with ambassadorships. Biden refused to rule out the practice but said that anyone he appointed would be qualified and would not receive the nod based on their contributions.
“He is a guy who has come through the long Democratic tradition, but unlike Trump, I think he’s going to pick career people for very important posts,” a Biden ally said.
Trump’s ambassadors included Carla Sands, a former socialite, B-list movie star and chiropractor, recently found to have violated federal law when she urged Americans to donate to her boss’s campaign using her official Twitter account in Denmark. Then there was New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, accused of firing a top staffer in the UK for praising Obama. Dermatologist Jeffrey Ross Gunter sought to carry a gun in Iceland, where violent crime is rare.
Career diplomats say they don’t think all political appointees are poor choices to be ambassadors. Some political appointees, they say, have been excellent while other career appointees have flopped.
There are benefits to tapping a political ally, according to donors: They generally have closer relationships with the president, White House officials and members of Congress and occasionally have their own money to spend on diplomatic events in expensive countries where US taxpayer dollars are limited.
The Biden administration has indicated that it will revert to the practice of giving 30 per cent of ambassadorships to political appointees, but not whether it would go even lower than that as some diplomats hope.
Whatever the number, veteran diplomats said they want more slots in Europe – where most political appointee ambassadors are concentrated – reserved for career appointees. Those include posts in Germany, Poland and Romania.
They also hope the administration considers placing career appointees in high-profile but challenging ambassadorships in Russia and China.
Sending a signal
Nominating a career diplomat instead of a political one can send certain signals to his overseas counterparts.
Saudi Arabian officials, for example, have often preferred having a political appointee because such figures are more likely to have a direct line to the president. But given the Biden administration’s efforts to de-emphasise the US-Saudi relationship, placing a career diplomat in Riyadh could essentially tell the Saudis that they won’t get backchannels to Biden or special favours.
The ambassador to the European Union is another example. That post’s reputation was tarnished after Trump political appointee Gordon Sondland was enmeshed in the Ukraine scandal that led to Trump’s first impeachment trial. Some US diplomats argue that by naming a career appointee to that slot, Biden could signal to the EU that he takes the relationship seriously.
Some ambassadorships have been vacant for years, including those in Qatar, Chile and Singapore, in part because the Trump administration couldn’t get its nominees confirmed by the Senate. And because Trump devoted so many slots to political appointees, their departure upon Biden’s arrival has left a huge gap.
“No other country has nearly half its ambassadorships vacant, or ever has. This hurts our ability to defend our national interests and pursue our national objectives,” said Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats’ union.
Others sounded a note of sympathy for the Biden team, especially given the Trump administration’s resistance to allowing the transition process to begin until weeks after the election.
“There are so many processes that broke down in the Trump years … and those have to be rebuilt,” said Dana Shell Smith, a former US ambassador to Qatar who came from the career ranks. “So while everyone agrees that we need positions filled, it’s just a reality that it can’t be done overnight.”
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