Biden Taps Billionaire Campaign Donors for Ambassador Posts

Progressive Democrats lambasted Trump over the practice.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris participate in virtual grassroots fundraiser.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris participate in virtual grassroots fundraiser.
Then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participates in a virtual grassroots fundraiser alongside then-vice presidential running mate, Kamala Harris, in Wilmington, Delaware, on Aug. 12, 2020. Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden is tapping wealthy campaign donors, including many with no prior diplomatic experience, as U.S. ambassadors despite past efforts from the Democratic Party’s progressive flank to end the longstanding practice.

In recent months, Biden has named deep-pocketed donors, wealthy billionaire supporters, and election campaign funding “bundlers” for ambassador posts to countries such as Greece, Kenya, Argentina, Belgium, Slovenia, Malta, and Canada—continuing a practice both Democratic and Republican presidents alike have carried out for decades but that became a point of contention during the campaign.

Former diplomats and ethics experts as well as members of Biden’s own party have criticized the practice of tapping wealthy campaign donors with no prior diplomatic experience as ambassadors, saying it weakens U.S. foreign policy and effectively amounts to a form of institutionalized corruption.

U.S. President Joe Biden is tapping wealthy campaign donors, including many with no prior diplomatic experience, as U.S. ambassadors despite past efforts from the Democratic Party’s progressive flank to end the longstanding practice.

In recent months, Biden has named deep-pocketed donors, wealthy billionaire supporters, and election campaign funding “bundlers” for ambassador posts to countries such as Greece, Kenya, Argentina, Belgium, Slovenia, Malta, and Canada—continuing a practice both Democratic and Republican presidents alike have carried out for decades but that became a point of contention during the campaign.

Former diplomats and ethics experts as well as members of Biden’s own party have criticized the practice of tapping wealthy campaign donors with no prior diplomatic experience as ambassadors, saying it weakens U.S. foreign policy and effectively amounts to a form of institutionalized corruption.

Biden pledged to rebuild the State Department after former U.S. President Donald Trump’s era, a White House spokesperson stressed in response, underlining the administration’s plans to restore the historic balance of appointing career diplomats to roughly 70 percent of ambassador posts, with 30 percent going to political appointees. (Under Trump, the ratio shifted to about 55 percent career diplomats and 45 percent political appointees.)

Of the political appointees, not all are mega-donors. Some are former politicians or Democratic foreign-policy experts that climbed the ranks of government outside the U.S. foreign service, such as Julianne Smith, Biden’s ambassador to NATO. Some are former senators who served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, such as Jeff Flake, Biden’s ambassador pick for Turkey. Others don’t really fall into either category: Biden recently nominated former Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan, who worked on Biden’s campaign team beginning in 2019, to be the U.S. ambassador to Belize. (Kwan formerly worked in public diplomacy roles at the State Department after her figure skating career.)

The mega-donors, however, are getting their nominations as well.

Some former diplomats said Biden needs to do better to course-correct after the Trump era, defined by historically low morale in the State Department, widespread mismanagement, bullying allegations directed at Trump appointees, and career diplomats being dragged into the political maelstrom of Trump’s first impeachment trial.

“The world has changed so much after Donald Trump,” said Brett Bruen, a former career diplomat who served as director of global engagement at the White House during the Obama administration. “And the notion that we can continue to act like even the past practice of rewarding donors and political friends with plush posts overseas is not just a diplomatic sleight but really becoming a serious national security issue, it undermines our credibility in a lot of these capitals.”

No other developed country puts wealthy donors in ambassador posts.

Other State Department officials said Biden is undercutting his own pledges to revive the State Department’s morale by continuing the practice, even if it was standard under past presidents. In short, after weathering the Trump era, they expected better from Biden. “They are just unabashedly treating these posts as party favors,” one career ambassador fumed.

Members of Biden’s own party have also criticized the pattern of doling out ambassadorships to wealthy campaign donors, particularly in the wake of Trump’s first impeachment trial. The trial spotlighted the practice on the national stage, when Trump campaign mega-donor-turned-ambassador Gordon Sondland testified before Congress on the president’s withholding of military aid to Ukraine unless the country agreed to launch an investigation into Biden. In the midst of the trial, one Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Ami Bera, introduced legislation to curb the practice, but the legislation was never passed.

During her presidential primary campaign against Biden in early 2020, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren pledged to end the practice of naming campaign donors as ambassadors if elected president, calling the practice “Washington corruption at its worst.”

“I’ll never give ambassadorships to unqualified donors just because they wrote me fat checks,” she said in one campaign ad at the time.

Warren’s office did not respond to several requests for comment for this story.

Nevertheless, the donor-to-ambassador pipeline has continued under Biden. Constance Milstein, a New York real estate titan and philanthropist, gave $725,000 to a fundraising committee for Biden’s campaign shortly after the 2020 Democratic National Convention. This month, Biden announced her as his ambassador nominee to Malta. Margaret “Meg” Whitman, former CEO of Hewlett Packard, eBay, and the multibillion-dollar failed media start-up Quibi, was nominated as Biden’s ambassador to Kenya this month. Whitman donated more than $500,000 to Biden’s presidential campaign and fundraising committees.

Wealthy Greek American hotel magnate George Tsunis, Biden’s newest pick for ambassador to Greece, is another longtime Democratic mega-donor. Former U.S. President Barack Obama picked Tsunis to be his ambassador to Norway, but his nomination stalled in the Senate after Tsunis stumbled over basic questions about the composition of Norway’s government, and in 2014, he withdrew his name from consideration. Tsunis had never been to Norway before he was nominated to the post.

“Tsunis has strong ties to Greece, to the Greek American community in the United States and to the Greek Orthodox Church. He has traveled to Greece many times and has extended family there,” a White House spokesperson said when asked about his new nomination.

The record of political appointee ambassadors isn’t black and white, as many seasoned diplomats point out. Some political appointees, including mega-donors, can end up managing embassies well and play outsized roles in advancing U.S. foreign policy, all while having closer connections to the president’s inner circle than career diplomats might—something foreign capitals value.

But there are numerous counter-examples of donor ambassadors mismanaging embassies or undercutting bilateral ties with the country in question through their inexperience, inability to master the basics of diplomacy, or own diplomatic dust-ups.

“If you see an appointment based solely on the donor with no relevant experience, it raises legitimate legal concerns and definitely ethical concerns,” said Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel for advocacy organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “The question is: Can they justify their appointments by the fact that somebody has significant relevant experience?”

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

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