Much media attention was given to David Rank, charge d’affaires and acting ambassador at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, when he announced his resignation over President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement.
Press coverage emphasized Rank’s long resume, but somehow those career bios largely failed to mention that he was a key player in one of the most controversial incidents of the Obama presidency: the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap.
Bergdahl, a sergeant in the U.S. Army, is set to go on trial in October for abandoning his post and endangering fellow soldiers while serving in Afghanistan in 2009. He sought a presidential pardon from outgoing President Barack Obama, but to the surprise of many observers, it was not granted.
Captured by the Taliban after leaving his post, Bergdahl was held prisoner until May 2014, when the Obama administration agreed to trade five high-ranking Taliban detainees for him. Not only was the agreement denounced as a desperate political stunt, and an exceptionally poor bargain, but the Obama administration was accused of violating federal law by freezing Congress out of the negotiations. The Obama administration eventually conceded it did not follow the proper procedure for releasing the “Taliban Five” but insisted it was necessary to waive the relevant laws out of concern for Bergdahl’s safety.
Politically, the Obama team’s need to play up Bergdahl as a returning hero infuriated critics of his conduct, particularly those who maintain that a number of American soldiers were killed during attempts to find and rescue him. This, in turn, led to a bitter tertiary debate over how many deaths and injuries could be directly attributed to Bergdahl’s desertion — an argument that didn’t exactly bring the American people together in fellowship.
Rank’s involvement in the process was not a buried secret reporters needed to dig up. He was given an award for it, as his embassy bio indicated in the third of its four brief paragraphs: “In 2015 he received the State Department’s Distinguished Honor Award for his role in securing the return of the only American service member held by the enemy in Afghanistan.” Bowe Bergdahl was the only U.S. soldier held captive by the enemy.
The first paragraph of Rank’s bio notes that he served as “a Senior Adviser to the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.” The Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan was Dan Feldman, a longtime Democratic political operative who popped up in just about every story about Rank’s resignation to sing his praises.
Some outlets, like NBC News, had the presence of mind to note that Feldman was a “political appointee in the Obama administration,” but said no more about his politics than that. Others, like the Washington Post, quoted Feldman on Rank’s resignation without saying a word about his political background.
Rank was a political agent conducting a political stunt when he resigned but was presented as an apolitical individual acting purely from his troubled conscience. His resignation was not even all that significant to the embassy since his replacement was already on the way – former Iowa governor Terry Branstad, who was confirmed as ambassador to China in May.
Rank was involved in one of the most bitter partisan battles of Barack Obama’s second term but that wasn’t even mentioned in passing. The U.S. media is deeply concerned about the motivations, history, and connections of politicians, government employees, and private citizens under some circumstances but not so much in others.