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Rubio Blocks Trump’s Honduras Envoy

The Florida senator is increasingly influential on U.S. policy in Latin America.

Francisco Palmieri, the then-acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, at a congressional  hearing in Washington on Jan. 9, 2018. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
Francisco Palmieri, the then-acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, at a congressional hearing in Washington on Jan. 9, 2018. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration has abandoned its efforts to appoint the career diplomat Francisco “Paco” Palmieri as the next U.S. ambassador to Honduras, bowing to pressure from Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who seeks to promote a more hard-line approach to U.S. policy in Latin America, according to congressional sources.

The move opens the door for a political appointee to serve as ambassador to a nation that has emerged as a centerpiece of President Donald Trump’s foreign-policy agenda of curbing illegal migration from Central America. It also represents a blow to career diplomats, who find themselves increasingly sidelined by an administration that favors political loyalists or ideologues.

All the while, Trump has resubmitted for Senate confirmation some of his most controversial nominees for ambassador posts after their initial nomination expired, including political campaign donors with checkered backgrounds. The nominations prompted fierce pushback from Democrats and some Republicans over the course of 2018.

Last fall, in the run-up to the midterm elections, Trump sent U.S. forces to the southern border to prevent a migrant caravan originating in Honduras from making its way into the United States. But he has not dispatched an ambassador to the country since James D. Nealon, a career foreign service officer appointed by President Barack Obama, stepped down in June 2017.

Trump nominated Palmieri for the Honduras post in July 2018. The nomination stalled for several months and expired at the end of the year.

Palmieri is an experienced Latin America hand who served as acting assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs from January 2017 to October 2018.

“Palmieri is well respected,” a Democratic staffer said. “He served in Honduras as a junior officer. He knows the country.”

Senior State Department appointments, including ambassadors, require presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. If a nominee isn’t voted on before the end of the year, the nomination expires and the president must resubmit it.

The decision to table Palmieri’s nomination reflects the growing influence of Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, over the Trump administration’s Latin American policy. Rubio emerged as a key architect of Trump’s campaign, now backed by more than 20 countries, to support the ouster of Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolás Maduro in favor of opposition leader Juan Guaidó amid political and economic strife.

“It appears that Latin America policy has largely been delegated to Sen. Rubio,” said one Democratic congressional aide. “We don’t have an administration, or a president, that cares a whole lot about Latin America, other than building a wall between us. Sen. Rubio is one of their key defenders in Congress, and they are happy to do what he wants.”

Other key ambassador posts that remain unfilled include those in Mexico and Turkey. And congressional aides say the administration has quashed the nomination of Joseph Macmanus, another career diplomat, to be next ambassador to Colombia.

Meanwhile, Trump has advanced the nomination of a San Diego real estate developer, Doug Manchester, to be next ambassador to the Bahamas, a nomination some insiders pointed to as a stark foil to the career ambassador nominees being quashed. Manchester faced scrutiny over sexual harassment issues at a newspaper he previously owned. (Manchester was not personally accused of sexual harassment and insisted he took immediate action on the issues when they were brought to his attention.) Last year, Manchester hired a lobbyist to assist him with the confirmation process.

The State Department, the White House, and Rubio’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Correction, Feb. 7, 2019:  Palmieri served as acting assistant secretary of state from January 2017 to October 2018.  A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the length of Palmieri’s tenure as acting assistant secretary, based on incorrect information on his official biography on the State Department website. 

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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

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