Because presidents have given such assignments to donors for the better part of 250 years? There may be a lot of room for criticism of the Trump administration and the US in general on ambassadorial picks, but NBC’s critique misses the mark. Their research turns up fourteen nominations to the diplomatic corps who shoveled out big bucks for Trump’s inauguration committee, including a few who hardly seemed prepared for their jobs:
For ambassador to the United Arab Emirates — a job so sensitive in the tense Middle East that every previous president gave it to a career diplomat — Trump picked a wealthy real estate developer with no diplomatic experience.
The ambassador to Morocco? A well-heeled car dealer. The nominee for Iceland? While well-traveled, he had never been to that Nordic country. For Melania Trump’s native country of Slovenia? The founder of an evangelical charity who frequently reposted false far-right social media posts on her Facebook page.
None have diplomatic experience, but they share one trait: All were big donors to Trump’s presidential inaugural committee, which is now under federal investigation.
An NBC News review of those who donated to the Trump inauguration found at least 14 major contributors to its inaugural fund who were later nominees to become ambassadors, donating an average of slightly over $350,000 apiece. Though the Trump administration says the business acumen of these nominees qualifies them to represent the U.S. abroad, six of the 14 nominations have languished for months in the Republican-controlled Senate. One nomination has stalled for about two years.
Let’s start with context. The US has 188 ambassador-level slots in its diplomatic corps according to the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), most to nations but some to multilateral organizations. Currently, there are 28 vacancies, a few for slots that won’t get filled because of the current diplomatic status between the US and those specific countries, Belarus being one example. Several of the multilateral-org slots remain unfilled. There are another 33 nominees that are awaiting Senate confirmation, eight of whom are career diplomats.
Speaking of which, NBC argues that the percentage of political appointees in the Trump administration is higher than usual. They claim that previous presidents had two-thirds of confirmed ambassadors appointed from the career ranks. NBC’s calculation puts the Trump administration at 50%. Note, though, that this refers to confirmed appointees. AFSA’s list of both confirmed and nominated appointees show that 66 of the 188 potential slots have been filled with political appointees — roughly a third — while 94 are career assignments, exactly half. The difference is the 28 vacancies which remain unfilled and unnominated, slots which the administration doesn’t seem too anxious to fill.
The problem isn’t that the Trump administration is more political than previous administrations, or that the donor-nominee problem is getting worse. (NBC’s anecdotes don’t include Barack Obama donor-nominees who didn’t know the form of government employed by their host country or had never set foot in that country.) We have a chronic problem of donor-nominees that goes back much further than 2017.
This is actually the specific problem with the Trump administration:
There are also 52 vacant ambassadorships out of about 250. Two years into their presidencies, President Obama had 11 and George W. Bush had 15. There are also a large number of vacancies in critical countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
NBC claims to be using AFSA data to quantify ambassadorial slots, but AFSA’s tracker only shows 188 positions. Still, NBC is correct to claim we have had too many slots stay open for far too long, and specifically in strategic positions as noted above. Besides those three, Trump has failed to appoint ambassadors to Egypt, Georgia, Jordan, and Qatar, all countries with significant strategic interest to the US. Our ambassador to Ukraine is a holdover from the Obama administration, as are ambassadors to Greece, Kuwait, Lebanon, and the Philippines. We just got around to nominating an ambassador to Turkey in February despite the fact that Turkey is a NATO member and a key to fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
The White House has done a poor job on appointing ambassadors, but that has little to do with Trump donors. From the very beginning, Trump didn’t take this part of the job seriously, and the result is that the diplomacy of the US has been largely left in the hands of charges d’affaires, career State Department officials who have extensive experience and professionalism but no connection to Trump and no buy-in on his agenda. For an administration that likes to complain about a “deep state,” this failure is even more mystifying.
We’re past the halfway point in Trump’s term. It’s time to fill these slots, and it’s time that Mitch McConnell prioritizes their confirmation. While NBC’s specific critiques are off target a bit, they’re aiming in the right direction.