Washington Blame Game Ensues as Ambassador Posts Sit Empty

The disappearance of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi spotlights a staffing problem.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press briefing at the State Department in Washington on Oct. 3 (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press briefing at the State Department in Washington on Oct. 3 (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

For more than a year, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration faced fierce criticism from lawmakers and former diplomats for letting dozens of ambassador posts and senior State Department positions sit empty.

Now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he’s trying to fix that but Democrats are blocking his efforts. While a war of words between the secretary and leading Democratic lawmakers escalated this week, nearly 60 senior State Department posts, including 49 nominations that have been made to replace ambassador posts, await Senate confirmation.

“We’ve done our part at the State Department by putting forward a slate of candidates,” Pompeo said in a statement on Wednesday. He blamed New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and his colleagues for blocking nominees and using them as “political football[s].” Pompeo said the national security risks of keeping the posts empty “lies at the feet of Senator Menendez.”

Senior State Department officials, including ambassadors, require the president’s nomination and Senate confirmation. Many ambassador posts are filled by career diplomats, while some are filled by outside nominees with political or financial connections to the administration.

Menendez slapped back on Thursday, saying some nominees weren’t qualified or had things in their background that unnerved lawmakers.

“This is the worst batch of nominees that I think [Democratic] staff has ever seen, and we have decades of experience here,” one senior Democratic staffer said. “It is truly something else.”

One of Trump’s ambassador picks that Menendez cited—Christine Toretti, the nominee to Malta—had a restraining order filed against her in 2008 for “placing a bullet-riddled target sheet” in the office of her ex-husband’s doctor.

Other nominees, Menendez said, have failed to disclose accusations involving sexual harassment, involvement in lawsuits or federal investigations, or have made “deeply offensive public statements” about immigrants or women.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Thursday that while some political nominees were facing additional scrutiny, career diplomats were getting caught in the crossfire. “By and large, of the 60-some people who have not gotten through the Senate, the vast majority of them are senior foreign service officers,” Nauert told reporters on Thursday, responding to several of Menendez’s criticisms.

“Get these people through. Put them up for a vote so the State Department can conduct the diplomacy it needs to do on behalf of the American people,” she said.

While the blame game plays out in Washington, ambassador posts including Australia, Mexico, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey remain empty with no nominees to send to the Senate.

The disappearance of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey spotlighted the issue this week.

Turkish officials believe that Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was last seen on Oct. 2. His disappearance and alleged killing sparked a furious response from many in Washington, particularly on Capitol Hill, as the Trump administration ducked questions on the Saudi government’s role in the matter.

The State Department insists that its diplomats are in contact with Turkish and Saudi officials to get a grasp on what happened to Khashoggi. But the United States does not have an ambassador in place in either Ankara or Riyadh to help manage the diplomatic crisis.

The point led to a tense line of questioning with a reporter during a press briefing with State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino on Wednesday:

Question: Who again—what’s the name of the ambassador in Turkey right now?

Palladino: I don’t have that in front of me right now and I— Matt—

Question: What’s the name of the ambassador in Saudi Arabia right now?

Palladino: I see what you’re getting at. OK. We are confident in our diplomatic—

Question: The answer is that you don’t have an ambassador in either place, right?

Before moving on to other subjects, Palladino said lower-ranking embassy staff in each country were up to the task: “Let me just say these are senior foreign service officers that have had full careers and we’re confident in our team’s ability.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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