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U.S. Diplomacy’s ‘Gordon Problem’ Goes Way Beyond Gordon Sondland

With the ambassador’s headline-making testimony, the Ukraine impeachment inquiry shed unprecedented light on the difference between political appointees and career diplomats.

Trump's EU ambassador Gordon Sondland testifies in the impeachment inquiry.
Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee in the impeachment probe on Capitol Hill on Nov. 20. Samuel Corum-Pool/Getty Images

Armed with a wry smile and $55,000 watch, Ambassador Gordon Sondland couldn’t have offered a starker contrast to the career diplomats he was compelled to testify alongside in the public impeachment hearings. 

Sondland, a millionaire former hotel magnate with no prior diplomatic experience now serving as U.S. ambassador to the European Union, sought to portray himself as just one of the foreign-policy team. He said he was in lockstep with the president, other senior diplomats, and the interagency process on President Donald Trump’s Ukraine policy. “Everyone was in the loop,” he said.

Some of Sondland’s colleagues—most of them professional diplomats and national security officials—begged to differ with his characterization of a smooth-running team. One, National Security Council aide Tim Morrison, referred to the “Gordon problem.” Another former aide, Fiona Hill—a witness Thursday on the final day of public impeachment hearings this week—was even more blunt. Hill said Sondland was involved in “a domestic political errand” related to Trump’s alleged efforts to improperly withhold military aid and use an Oval Office meeting as leverage with Ukraine’s leader. Other diplomats, including Hill, were “involved in national security foreign policy,” she said.

Another career diplomat who was a witness Thursday, David Holmes, recounted Sondland speaking loudly on the phone with Trump in Kyiv about an American rapper the president pushed to have released from prison in Sweden, in part at the urging of the Kardashian family. It came after Sondland spoke on what he could get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to deliver for the president, and said Trump “does not give an [expletive]” about Ukraine. Several current State Department officials who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity said career ambassadors wouldn’t have conducted themselves in such a way on a call with the president. 

Sondland’s role has thus cast an unprecedented national spotlight on a long-standing and controversial practice carried out by Democratic and Republican presidents alike: giving plum ambassador posts to deep-pocketed political donors with no background in diplomacy. 

Trump has followed in the footsteps of Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and those before them in tapping campaign donors who helped bankroll their path to the White House to be U.S. ambassadors in countries like France, Hungary, Luxembourg, the Bahamas, or South Africa. It puts these ambassador nominees in a different camp than political appointees who are regional experts, or, more notably, career diplomats who often spend 20 to 25 years in the foreign service before being considered for an ambassador assignment. Nearly every other country around the world spurns this practice, opting instead to send their most experienced career diplomats or high-level government officials to serve in ambassador posts abroad.

The impeachment saga has, perhaps for the first time, offered an opportunity for critics of the practice to kickstart a national debate on matter. These critics—experts, former diplomats, a handful of lawmakers—call it thinly veiled corruption and say it undercuts the U.S. diplomatic corps at a time when U.S. interests globally are being challenged by such powers as China and Russia. Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren is the only candidate in the 2020 presidential race who has pledged to end the practice if elected. “Ambassador Gordon Sondland got his job after writing a $1 million check to Donald Trump’s inaugural committee,” she said as Democratic candidates took the stage for a debate on Wednesday evening. “This is Washington corruption at its worst. I’ve pledged never to give ambassadorial positions to wealthy donors—and every candidate should do the same.”

Though in the end Sondland offered a damning account that explicitly outlined Trump directing a “quid pro quo” with Ukraine, to critics he personifies a longstanding fear: diplomacy in the hands of amateurs unfamiliar with the ethical and legal guardrails U.S. government employees must operate under can spectacularly backfire.

“Not surprisingly, Sondland has been in the upper corridor of really disastrous political appointees,” said one former senior career diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity to speak more candidly. “Because the more blatantly these political appointees believe, ‘I bought this position fair and square I can do whatever the hell I want with it’ … the more problematic the leadership is that comes from that.”

Modern U.S. presidents have traditionally allocated about one-third of ambassador posts to political appointees, including campaign donors, and two-thirds to career ambassadors. Trump has strayed from the average, appointing 44 percent political to 56 percent career ambassadors, according to data from the American Foreign Service Association. However, this topline number doesn’t tell the full story, experts and former diplomats say; the number is constantly shifting as ambassadors cycle out of posts—and it could bend closer to the historical average as Trump ends his first term as president. 

The debate over political donors as ambassadors isn’t black and white. For starters, there’s no clear-cut divide between how effective career versus political donor ambassadors are. Some political donor ambassadors can have outsized influence in Washington and punch above their weight in the country they’re posted to. Conversely, there have been ineffective career diplomat ambassadors. 

Proponents of the practice say it simply reflects the reality of the political landscape in the United States: Presidential campaigns are becoming increasingly expensive, and both parties pick some ambassador nominees from a stockade of high-profile donors for a variety of reasons. Additionally, foreign capitals would often prefer a well-connected political donor as their ambassador from Washington than a career foreign service officer—if it means they have a more direct conduit to the president’s inner circle.

Being an ambassador “comes with it a requirement that you be able to access the Oval Office, that’s the expectation of the host government,” said another former longtime career foreign service officer. “I don’t think Japan, for example, would ever want to take a career person, because they want somebody who can pick up the phone and call the president.” 

It’s also difficult to measure the effectiveness of an ambassador, who alongside other diplomats often operates behind the scenes, working on the intangible, complex, and never-ending task of maintaining ties with a foreign country. If major scandals are easy to track, easy and tangible diplomatic victories are few and far between. In one of the few social science studies available that has sought to measure the effectiveness of career versus political ambassadors, the academic Evan Haglund found that, on the whole, career diplomats marginally outperformed their political appointee counterparts, measured on the basis of embassy inspection reports released by the State Department. 

But anecdotally, nearly every modern president has faced a scandal caused by a political donor-turned-ambassador, with a higher frequency than their professional diplomat counterparts. Obama’s former ambassador to Luxembourg, Cynthia Stroum, left her post in 2011 after a scathing internal watchdog report found she pushed the embassy into a “state of dysfunction” with “bullying, hostile and intimidating” approach toward employees. Stroum helped raise more than $500,000 for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Obama’s ambassador to the Bahamas—another campaign fundraiser, Nicole Avant—left her post after facing accusations by the State Department Inspector General of “dysfunctional” leadership and extended absences and personal leave from her post.

Before political appointees even enter their posts, however, they receive only a surface-level crash course in being a diplomat. Once an ambassador is nominated and confirmed by the Senate, they only spend a few weeks taking a course through the State Department to learn how to be an ambassador, dubbed by some as ambassadorial “charm school.”

The limited training fuels the concerns among former diplomats that the current system leaves donor ambassadors woefully underprepared to take their job. “It is utterly impossible to teach political appointees in three weeks what they would’ve learned in three decades, or two decades, as an ambassador,” said the former senior diplomat. “It’s as ludicrous as thinking you could make a Marine colonel with a three-week crash course, it’s an absurd idea.”

“Literally what we do in ambassador ‘charm school’ is familiarization, and we inoculate them from the worst kinds of troubles they can get into, from a rules and regulation standpoint,” said another former U.S. diplomat. 

But scholars who study the issue point to other worrying trends magnified under Trump. Ryan Scoville, an associate professor of law at Marquette University who has conducted studies on the subject, said his research shows three trends. First, political appointments have become more common; second, that those political appointees are less qualified than ones tapped for ambassador posts in past decades; and third, that the average value of campaign contributions to presidential campaigns has skyrocketed. The average campaign contribution for a political donor ambassador under Trump is 1,400 percent higher than those under President Ronald Reagan, Scoville said, even adjusting for inflation. He said his research suggests presidents “pay more and more attention to donations, and less and less attention to credentials.” 

Enter Gordon Sondland, the former hotel magnate who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee. Sondland testified that he facilitated Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into opening an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, allegedly withholding military aid and a White House meeting with the new president until it did so. Sondland, an envoy with no direct jurisdiction over Ukraine, appeared to only realize in hindsight the implications of their campaign to pressure Ukraine being tainted by domestic political motivations based on his testimony. 

Sondland isn’t alone in facing scrutiny in the Trump era, however. Democrats have pilloried the Trump administration for sending ambassador nominees to the Senate for confirmation who have checkered backgrounds or are seen as unqualified for the job. Some faced sexual harassment allegations, one even had a restraining order filed against her for leaving a “bullet-riddled target sheet” in the office of her ex-husband’s doctor. Trump’s former nominee to be ambassador to the Bahamas, Doug Manchester, was asked by the Republican National Committee to donate $500,000 while he awaited Senate confirmation, revealing a possible pay-to-play scheme. The Republican National Committee criticized Manchester for linking future contributions to his ambassadorship as inappropriate, and he later withdrew his name from consideration.

But these cases have left a mark on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, responsible for overseeing the Senate confirmation process for all of Trump’s ambassadors and other senior State Department posts. 

“Three years in, the Trump Administration insists on sending us nominees with restraining orders or who failed to report lawsuits or made other material omissions in their nomination materials,” Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement to Foreign Policy. “That is why the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff has been forced to dedicate a significant amount of time and resources on vetting this Administration’s nominees because of the White House’s negligence or incompetence. These jobs aren’t a joke—there are billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars and the lives of U.S. citizens on the line here.”

Scoville, the Marquette University professor, said Congress should shoulder some of the blame for allowing the practice to continue under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Democratic Rep. Ami Bera introduced a bill that would cap the number of political ambassadors a president could appoint, though it is unclear how much traction the bill will gain in Congress. “If the Senate wanted to shut down this practice, it could. And yet, there has been extreme deference on the part of the Senate for decades on ambassadorial nominations,” Scoville said.

The status quo worries some former senior diplomats the most. Sondland is not the first or last political donor-turned-ambassador to land himself in hot water. But with increasing competition from Russia and China on the world stage, this practice could have more damaging impacts as it continues.

“It is becoming clear that the United States can no longer afford to be an extreme outlier in sending amateurs abroad,” said Barbara Stephenson, a former career diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Panama and president of the American Foreign Service Association.

“We’ve got to put people who know what they’re doing at the head of those embassies and get a proper foreign policy process going again, so that we don’t just lose to Russia and China.”

This article has been updated.

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

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