Senior U.S. Lawmaker Wants to Scale Back Pay-for-Post Ambassadorships

Both parties have rewarded donors with top diplomatic positions, but Trump has taken it to a new level.

Sen. Tim Kaine
Sen. Tim Kaine speaks during a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 24. Susan Walsh-Pool/Getty Images

Both Democratic and Republican presidents have for years doled out plum ambassador posts to deep-pocketed campaign donors and political allies with no prior diplomatic experience, a practice that has led to some embarrassing gaffes and controversies abroad. 

Now, a senior U.S. lawmaker is taking aim at the practice, with a bill that would change how ambassadors are chosen and root out the most inexperienced and least qualified people before their nominations get to the Senate. 

Introduced by Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, the bill would elevate the level of credentials and experience required to be nominated for ambassador posts and require future administrations to be more transparent about the campaign contributions made by their nominees. 

If passed, the bill would represent one of the most significant reforms to the ambassador nomination process in four decades, according to former diplomats and experts who track the issue. 

Kaine’s bill is meant to curb the creeping takeover of U.S. ambassador posts worldwide by political appointees, a practice that has crowded out skilled career diplomats and exposed the department’s culture to politicization. 

“While our country has had some excellent ambassadors from outside the ranks of the career Foreign Service, over the past few decades, an increasing number of nominees have few credentials but have made large campaign contributions,” Kaine said. “This bill will require presidents to justify their non-career nominees by citing their specific relevant skills and allow greater oversight and accountability of these appointees.”

The United States is the only country in the Western developed world that has made a routine practice of tapping political campaign donors for ambassador posts, according to former U.S. diplomats and academics who have studied the issue. Critics say the practice is essentially a form of political corruption—granting senior governmental positions to people who wouldn’t be in the running for the job without substantial campaign donations. 

But the debate over political versus career diplomats is not clear-cut. Even the sharpest critics of the practice in the State Department can point to political appointees who made very effective ambassadors and leaders within the embassy; and, conversely, there have been seasoned career diplomats who underperformed in the job. Additionally, some foreign governments prefer political donor ambassadors, who might have a more direct line to the president’s inner circle than foreign service officers.

While Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren during her presidential primary campaign ruled out tapping donors as ambassadors, former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign has not, according to Politico.

Former President Barack Obama faced scrutiny for some of his ambassador nominees, including George Tsunis, a hotel magnate and campaign megadonor who was tapped to be ambassador to Norway despite never having visited the country. He fumbled basic questions about the Norwegian government during his nomination hearing.

But President Donald Trump has taken the practice to new levels, according to lawmakers and former diplomats. On average, past presidents have nominated career diplomats to about two-thirds of ambassador posts, leaving one-third for political appointees. Trump has significantly increased the ratio of political appointees to about 43 percent versus 57 percent career diplomats, according to data from the American Foreign Service Association—although those numbers are constantly in flux as ambassadors come and go.

Trump has also tapped campaign donors to ambassador posts typically reserved for the most seasoned diplomats or foreign-policy experts. Kelly Knight Craft was appointed ambassador to Canada after she and her husband, Kentucky coal magnate Joseph Craft III, contributed $2 million to Trump’s 2016 campaign and inauguration. She went on to become Trump’s envoy to the United Nations (after a contentious nomination hearing), the first campaign megadonor ever to occupy such a senior role. 

Trump’s ambassador appointees have included controversial campaign donors and members of his elite Mar-a-Lago Club—as well as an Oregon hotel magnate, Gordon Sondland, who found himself at the center of the president’s impeachment investigation for his actions as ambassador to the European Union. 

Kaine’s bill, if passed, would require administrations to outline a nominee’s specific language skills and knowledge or experience in the country for which they’re tapped to be ambassador. It would also require the State Department to publish certificates of competence and financial disclosures going back 10 years on campaign contributions for its appointees—clearly accessible on a single website.

It would also mandate baseline levels of oversight for such ambassadors. The State Department’s watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General, conducts inspections of a certain portion of U.S. embassies abroad each year on a rotating basis, assessing employees’ morale, management issues, and the work of the ambassador. Embassies are inspected an average of once every eight years, meaning many politically appointed ambassadors don’t face scrutiny from these reviews. Kaine’s bill would require the Office of the Inspector General to make at least 25 percent of inspections each fiscal year at embassies run by politically appointed ambassadors. 

Recent studies show that the political appointees tapped for ambassador posts over time have fewer relevant credentials but a track record of larger campaign donations. The average campaign contribution for a political donor-turned-ambassador under Trump is 1,400 percent higher than under President Ronald Reagan, according to one study—a significant leap even factoring in inflation and the overall price tag of presidential campaigns. Congressional aides cite other statistics to back this up: The percentage of political appointee ambassadors who lived or worked in the country where they are nominated to serve went from 26 percent under Reagan to 5 percent under Trump. 

Veteran diplomats say that the political donors-turned-ambassadors operate according to a different set of rules; they can shrug off allegations of mismanagement or misuse of State Department resources, and they can court controversies without repercussions that would befall career diplomats. 

Nearly every modern president has faced some scandal involving a political donor who was tapped to be an ambassador, with Trump more than most—including his ambassadors in South Africa, Iceland, the Netherlands, Germany, and the United Kingdom

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

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