Are you ready for ... Vatican Ambassador Ken Starr?

At least he’d be prepared to write really juicy diplomatic dispatches back to the State Department. Yes, it’s that Ken Starr, Crux’s John Allen reports, whose name has begun to float in Vatican circles as a top candidate for US Ambassador to the Holy See:


In terms of names making the rounds for the Vatican slot, for some time conventional wisdom has held that Trump would tap Callista Gingrich, the wife of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. She’s a lifelong Catholic, and was instrumental in her husband’s conversion to Catholicism in 2009.

However, some signs now suggest that Gingrich may be in line for a different appointment. One name to pop up recently as an alternative is Kenneth Starr, the former U.S. Solicitor General and, most recently, president of Baylor University until his resignation amid a sexual abuse scandal in June 2016.

That might slow down consideration of Starr, as the church has its own issues in dealing with sexual abuse scandals, although his overall credentials make him a very credible pick. However, Starr has been most mentioned for another post, one that would probably give him a higher profile. Foreign Policy reported two months ago that Donald Trump wanted Starr as the administration’s highest-ranking diplomatic voice on religious liberty, an issue on which Trump repeatedly campaigned:

Supporters will be watching closely for who he picks for the top post at the Office of International Religious Freedom.

Though best known for uncovering details of Clinton’s extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky, Starr took an interest in religious freedom issues in his role as president of Baylor University in Texas from 2010 to 2016. “He’s been very, very strong on the issue,” Frank Wolf, a former Republican congressman and religious freedom advocate, told FP. The university has been organizing conferences and sending letters on the issue, he added.


Starr, an evangelical Christian, has been very active in raising the issue in the political sphere. He told Baylor’s student newspaper that education and religious liberty are his “two abiding passions,” and this role would allow him to fully pursue the latter with a higher profile than the Vatican posting might. However, not much has happened on that front, even after Starr’s speech at a Waco GOP event that focused almost entirely on the subject a month ago:

The former Baylor University president and chancellor Ken Starr spoke about religious liberty Tuesday at the meeting held by McLennan County Republican women.

The event that took place at Hilton Hotel included speeches from the women, a prayer and a lunch.

The judge spoke about the importance of religious freedom and discrimination against religion in public places.

He says, “When the bill of rights was written, the very first freedom mentioned was freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, freedom of faith, freedom of worship, so we need to be reminded of that, we also need to always be vigilant.”

Both Starr and Mrs. Gingrich would bring a higher profile to the posting, but Allen wonders whether the Trump administration wants to invest that much effort in the relationship. The lack of effort in requesting a summit with Pope Francis at next month’s G-7 meetings has certainly raised some questions about that commitment, as has an apparent lack of staff to adequately brief Trump on such a meeting even if he wanted one:


On background, sources told Crux that aside from the logistical difficulties of getting from Sicily to Rome in between a NATO summit and Memorial Day, there’s also a problem of staffing on the White House side, as right now the perception is there’s no one who could brief Trump adequately for an encounter with the pope.

As a result, the focus now in terms of how seriously the administration is likely to take the Vatican, shifts back to Trump’s choice for his ambassador – and, on that front, the basic message coming from longtime watchers of the diplomatic scene seems to be, “Don’t hold your breath.”

Allen’s a sharp reporter — he’s usually spot on, and he’s worth relying on here. However, there are resources available to Trump for such briefings, if he had an interest in pursuing a meeting next month. He could rely on former ambassador and now-Congressman Francis Rooney for consultations, for instance; he’d almost certainly come along for the trip anyway. At least a few of the members of Catholics for Trump could help out too, including Rick Santorum, who’s name has been oddly absent from some of the speculation about this position. Besides Santorum, there are almost three dozen other high-profile Catholic advisers on that team, including Jim Nicholson, another former ambassador to the Holy See, the ACU’s Matt Schlapp, and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, who might want another job these days anyway.


Any of these advisers would also make a good choice to fill the open ambassadorial slot, especially since one key quality necessary is to have the ear and the trust of the president. Nothing much has been heard from this group since the election, or even since it was formed, which is telling in and of itself. Right now it appears that Trump and the White House don’t see value in taking the US-Vatican relationship seriously, which is a mistake for reasons involving both foreign policy and domestic politics. If so, we can expect that Starr will choose the higher-profile slot, Callista Gingrich might do the same, and we will wait a long time for the open ambassadorial slot to get filled.

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