Plugging the Donor-to-Ambassador Pipeline

Trump gives more ambassadorships to donors and fat cats than most presidents. A House bill seeks to stop that practice for all presidents going forward.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Trump's ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland prepares to testify in the impeachment inquiry.
U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland arrives at the U.S. Capitol to testify before the House impeachment inquiry on Oct. 17. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A Democratic lawmaker is introducing a bill that would cap the number of ambassadors a president could appoint who are not professional diplomats, reflecting growing concerns on Capitol Hill about U.S. President Donald Trump’s handling of the State Department amid the ongoing impeachment inquiry. 

Rep. Ami Bera, a California Democrat who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, unveiled a bill on Wednesday that would require 70 percent of ambassadors to come from the professional ranks of the State Department. 

Bera, in an interview with Foreign Policy, said the impeachment probe has pushed forward his plan to introduce this bill, but he hopes for bipartisan support on a bill aimed at empowering career diplomats. 

“The public doesn’t always pay attention to foreign policy, who our ambassadors are,” Bera said. “Well, this story that’s unfolding right now, certainly, a lot of it is around our foreign policy. And who are our ambassadors are, and what they’re doing, and what their qualifications are.” 

The bill is called the Strengthening Traditional American Diplomacy, or STAND Act. It comes as lawmakers place new scrutiny on the Trump administration’s approach to diplomacy amid the impeachment probe, which has pulled back the curtain on the president’s handling of U.S. foreign policy and dragged career diplomats into closed-door depositions where they have raised concerns over the president and his inner circle’s handling of policy on Ukraine.

Some congressional aides expect the bill to gain traction on the House side, particularly from Democratic members of Congress concerned about the president’s approach to diplomacy that precipitated the impeachment probe. Other congressional aides and experts are skeptical the bill would gain traction in the Republican-controlled Senate, and they are wary of legal questions it could raise given the president’s wide authority to nominate who he wants for senior posts across the administration. 

Past presidents have traditionally kept a ratio of about two-thirds career diplomats to one-third political appointees as ambassadors. Political appointees have traditionally been sent to developed countries in Europe and cushier posts, such as Luxembourg, the Bahamas, or Portugal. But Trump has veered away from the tradition: 45 percent of the ambassadors he has appointed are political appointees, some of whom are deep-pocketed campaign donors or in other circles close to the president with controversial backgrounds and no prior diplomatic experience.

Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have faced criticism from former senior diplomats for removing an experienced foreign service officer, Marie Yovanovitch, from her post as ambassador to Ukraine. Her dismissal followed a concerted campaign against her by the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and others following unproven claims she did not support the president. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan told her she was being dismissed despite the fact that she hadn’t done anything wrong, according to Yovanovitch’s testimony before the House impeachment panel that was leaked to media outlets. 

Trump has denied any wrongdoing and accused several of the diplomats who testified of being “Never Trumpers.” The White House press secretary referred to the current acting ambassador to Ukraine, retired career diplomat William Taylor, whom Pompeo picked to replace Yovanovitch, as a “radical unelected bureaucrat” following his testimony before the House impeachment probe. 

The president’s ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, took up a greater role in Ukraine policy and faces new questions over his role in the president’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate one of his Democratic political rivals. Sondland is an Oregon hotel magnate who donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee and has no prior diplomatic experience. 

Trump has followed the tradition of past presidents—both Democrats and Republicans—by appointing people who bankrolled his presidential campaign and inauguration committee as ambassadors to foreign countries, even when they have no prior diplomatic experience.

Trump’s nominated ambassador to Romania, Adrian Zuckerman, is a New York real estate lawyer and member of one of the president’s exclusive golf clubs who faced sexual harassment claims while at a large law firm. His ambassador to South Africa, Lana Marks, is a handbag designer with no prior diplomatic experience who is a member of his Mar-a-Lago club. And his nominee last year for ambassador to Malta, Republican businesswoman and philanthropist Christine Toretti, 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.

Sen. Bob Menendez, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned Pompeo in a letter sent last year that “the Committee’s vetting process has revealed that a number of nominees have demonstrated problems of temperament and judgement that should disqualify them for any position representing the United States.”

Bera said his bill is aimed at empowering career diplomats and the professional ranks of the State Department. “It’s not to say that there aren’t great political appointees, that are experts in their region or their country, that have depth in knowledge,” he said. “But you’ve also seen in this administration, just the breaking of norms, and a large number of political appointees who, you could question whether they have the depth of knowledge necessary to be [ambassador].”

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