President-elect Donald Trump’s order for all politically-appointed ambassadors to leave their overseas posts by Inauguration Day is “breaking with decades of precedent by declining to provide even the briefest of grace periods,” according to the New York Times:
The mandate — issued “without exceptions,” according to a terse State Department cable sent on Dec. 23, diplomats who saw it said — threatens to leave the United States without Senate-confirmed envoys for months in critical nations like Germany, Canada and Britain. In the past, administrations of both parties have often granted extensions on a case-by-case basis to allow a handful of ambassadors, particularly those with school-age children, to remain in place for weeks or months.
Mr. Trump, by contrast, has taken a hard line against leaving any of President Obama’s political appointees in place as he prepares to take office on Jan. 20 with a mission of dismantling many of his predecessor’s signature foreign and domestic policy achievements. “Political” ambassadors, many of them major donors who are nominated by virtue of close ties with the president, almost always leave at the end of his term; ambassadors who are career diplomats often remain in their posts.
This is followed by several anecdotes of the personal difficulties facing these ambassadors, who seem inordinately surprised, given that the outcome of the 2016 election was announced two months ago and was a very big story. Why, the New York Times even reported on it!
Also, while the ambassador termination is being treated as a very big story this week, the State Department cable notifying all of the ambassadors was sent on December 23rd, and Inauguration Day is January 20. We’re talking about people with considerable means receiving a month’s formal notice that they need to make new life arrangements, over a month after they knew it would be necessary. Even if some of them were taken aback on Election Day because they swallowed the media and political consensus that Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in, they’ve had plenty of time to adjust to the new reality.
The UK Independent notes that under the traditional approach, ambassadors “had the option of requesting to extend their term,” and those requests were approved on a “discretionary individual by individual basis, with allowances sometimes being made for those with children at school.” That makes the Trump transition’s blanket denial of extensions seem a bit less world-shaking. As a source in the foreign service community told Fox News, the Trump transition directive is “not that significant, but it is more unyielding than in the past.”
Why, it’s the most unyielding directive since … Barack Obama’s. Somehow the hyperventilating editorialists of the New York Times forgot that Obama did the exact same thing, notifying all of George W. Bush’s ambassadors that they had to vacate their posts by Inauguration Day.
Fox News recalls the Washington Post reporting the news in December 2008 without the slightest hint of disapproval, or a single heartstring-tugging anecdote about the difficulties faced by the ambassadors and their families:
The clean slate will open up prime opportunities for the president-elect to reward political supporters with posts in London, Paris, Tokyo and the like. The notice to diplomatic posts was issued this week.
Political ambassadors sometimes are permitted to stay on briefly during a new administration, but the sweeping nature of the directive suggests that Obama has little interest in retaining any of Bush’s ambassadorial appointees.
Most ambassadors, of course, are foreign service officers, but often the posts involving the most important bilateral relations (such as with Great Britain, Japan and India) or desirable locales (such as the Bahamas) are given to close friends and well-heeled contributors of the president.
That’s still how it works. The people asked to vacate their posts by the Trump Administration are big Obama donors and political allies. In fact, career diplomats complained about how crass and obvious the “selling of public office” had become by Obama’s second term, as one former ambassador put it to the UK Guardian in 2013.
The Guardian ran the numbers and found the average amount of political cash raised by recent or imminent appointees “soaring to $1.8 million per post.” Some of them were far above that average, such as Obama’s choice for representative to the Court of St. James’s, Matthew Barzun, who personally donated $2.3 million to Obama’s re-election campaign and helped raise $700 million more. That wasn’t public knowledge, by the way; it was revealed when someone leaked Democrat Party records to the media.
Those notorious Democratic National Committee documents released by WikiLeaks had even more information on these politically appointed diplomats. “Essentially, Obama was auctioning off foreign ambassador positions and other office positions while Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State,” charged the Observer last September.
The Center for Public Integrity counted 31 Obama campaign “bundlers” — good for at least $500,000 in donations — named as ambassadors, mostly to Western Europe and other “highly developed and stable countries such as Canada and New Zealand.”
“Another 39 of Obama’s second-term ambassador nominees are political appointees who either gave his campaign money or are known political allies. They, too, largely enjoyed postings to wealthy and peaceful nations — Ireland, Denmark and Australia, for example — or high-profile countries such as China and India,” the Center added.
The Center expected the incoming Trump administration to do much the same thing, as both Republican and Democrat presidents have for generations, but noted Trump would “find it difficult to match President Barack Obama’s legacy of sending top political patrons to the world’s poshest capital cities.”
That’s something to keep in mind when establishment media outlets try to manufacture a tale of diplomatic crisis, painting Trump as a bull galloping through the ambassadorial china shop. As a British diplomat sighed to the Guardian back in 2013, “All that really matters is that the ambassador is close to the White House — and his top fundraiser usually is.”
Some of Obama’s ambassadors have been highly problematic, even leaving aside the question of how many zeroes were on the check they wrote to obtain their posts. The Washington Post reported on the parade of diplomatic horrors in February 2014:
The nominee for ambassador to Norway, for example, prompted outrage in Oslo by characterizing one of the nation’s ruling parties as extremist. A soap- opera producer slated for Hungary appeared to have little knowledge of the country she would be living in. A prominent Obama bundler nominated to be ambassador to Argentina acknowledged that he had never set foot in the country and isn’t fluent in Spanish.
Even former senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the new U.S. ambassador in Beijing, managed to raise eyebrows during his confirmation hearing by acknowledging, “I’m no real expert on China.”
The nominee for ambassador to Norway mentioned above also admitted he’d never actually been there before, and Obama’s choices for ambassadors to Argentina and Iceland said the same of their respective countries. His pick for ambassador to Hungary, soap opera producer Colleen Bell, gave confirmation testimony that suggested she would have difficulty finding it on a map.
Obama’s ambassadors to the Bahamas and Luxembourg left their embassies in a state of extreme “dysfunction,” as official reports said of both postings. Ambassador to Luxembourg Cynthia Stroum was such a disaster that members of her staff requested transfers to Iraq and Afghanistan to get away from her.
His ambassadors to places like the Vatican and Dominican Republic caused problems with their hosts. The Dominican Republic complained that the White House’s insistence on appointing openly gay Obama campaign bundler James Brewster was meant to promote “an LGBT agenda inconsistent with the Christian cultural values and tradition of the Dominican Republic.” The Vatican was not amused by Obama’s attempts to send them abortion activists.
Donald Trump, therefore, is not the first President-elect to desire a clean diplomatic slate, or worry that his predecessor’s political appointees might cause trouble for the new administration if they were given extensions. Trump arguably has more reason for such concerns than any previous chief executive. Magnifying his policy into an unprecedented, unacceptable breach of protocol is Fake News manufacture at its worst.