For all of President Trump’s foreign policy norm-breaking, his administration has observed at least one diplomatic tradition that stretches back decades: naming campaign donors, party stalwarts, and political allies to ambassador posts around the world.
It’s a practice on which presidents have long relied to reward the people who helped put them in the White House. Loyal campaign backers and deep-pocketed contributors have historically landed assignments in vacationable locales, while career diplomats have taken on the more challenging or obscure posts. Trump’s stable of ambassador nominees follows the same pattern, despite his pledge to “drain the swamp” of political practices that benefit insiders.
A Washington Examiner review of Trump’s 54 ambassador nominations to date found that roughly half have gone to donors or allies and half have gone to career diplomats. The 28 nominees whose appointments are typically described as “political” include major contributors to Trump’s inaugural committee, longtime Republican Party activists and even friends of Trump’s inner circle, while each of the 26 nominees whose appointments are typically described as “career” have spent years in the foreign service. The Examiner review did not include ambassadorships to organizations, such as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, nor did it include political positions that hold the ceremonial title of ambassador.
The 50-50 split of Trump’s nominees so far is higher than that of many previous presidents.
“The tradition has usually been about 70 percent career, 30 percent political,” a Democratic aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told the Washington Examiner. “So, it’s something we’re watching generally.”
Just 40 ambassadors selected by the Trump administration had been confirmed by press time; 14 nominations were still pending before the Senate. The White House has yet to name ambassadors to represent the U.S. in many countries facing diplomatic difficulties, reflecting the slow speed at which the appointments process has moved throughout the administration. For example, Trump has not yet unveiled a nominee for ambassador to South Korea, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia, according to the Partnership for Public Service.
At least 19 of Trump’s political ambassador picks donated money to his campaign, the Republican National Committee, political action committees supporting his campaign or his inaugural committee. Some went on to land coveted diplomatic roles despite their lack of foreign policy experience.
Trump named Doug Manchester, a California hotelier, as his ambassador to the Bahamas in May. “Papa Doug,” as he is known in San Diego, hosted a fundraiser for Trump in June 2016 that required attendees to pay at least $28,000 for admission and another in Sept. 2016 for Vice President Mike Pence. One of Trump’s most generous West Coast contributors, Manchester gave $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Manchester’s qualifications for the ambassadorship came under fire after his confirmation hearing in August, during which he described the Bahamas as a “protectorate” of the U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., urged his colleagues in September to vote against the nominee and argued that Manchester’s testimony demonstrated “less than a thorough understanding of the basic diplomatic and national security issues” surrounding the Caribbean nation he was tapped to represent.
Trump nominated Kelly Knight Craft, a major Republican fundraiser, to serve as ambassador to Canada in June. Craft donated $265,400 to Trump Victory, a PAC supporting Trump’s campaign, according to Federal Election Commission filings, and gave at least $16,600 to the RNC in 2016. Her husband, coal executive Joe Craft, gave $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee.
During an interview with a Canadian television station shortly after she was sworn in in September, Craft cited her friendship with Canadian-born hip-hop star Drake as something that ties her to Canada and later raised eyebrows when she told a different Canadian station she believed “both sides of the science” on climate change.
Other major donors have scored similarly desirable appointments during the first year of Trump’s presidency. Jamie McCourt, former co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was confirmed to be ambassador to France after the White House first floated — and subsequently withdrew — her nomination for ambassador to Belgium. She hosted a fundraiser for Trump’s campaign and donated $50,800 to his inaugural committee. David Fischer, CEO of the Suburban Collection, landed an appointment for ambassador to Morocco earlier this month after he gave $250,000 to the inaugural committee.
David Hopkins, a political science professor at Boston College, said the number of Trump donors in glamorous ambassador roles is nothing out of the ordinary.
“It’s common practice for ambassadors to be drawn from three main populations: friends and personal supporters (including financial donors) of the president, ex-politicians of the president’s party, and career diplomats. The precise mix of these three groups will differ from one presidency to the next, but the general pattern is very consistent across administrations,” Hopkins said.
“Most frequently, friends and donors receive ambassadorships to nations with friendly ties to the U.S. and relatively few diplomatic challenges, such as Canada, Australia, and Western Europe, while career diplomats are more likely to receive assignments to more hostile nations or in the developing world,” Hopkins added.
A handful of Trump’s nominees have indeed come from his social circles or from the ranks of his party.
For example, Trump’s pick for ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Robin Bernstein, has been a longtime member of the president’s swanky Florida club, Mar-a-Lago, and developed a friendship with Trump during their years together on the Palm Beach social scene. The White House briefly faced ridicule in October when it listed “basic Spanish” as one of Bernstein’s qualifications for the job of representing the U.S. on a Spanish-speaking island.
Edward McMullen, now ambassador to Switzerland, organized South Carolina for the Trump campaign during the primary, took on a leading staff role during the transition and later became vice chair of Trump’s inauguration committee.
Trump nominated Callista Gingrich, wife of his friend and prominent supporter Newt Gingrich, to serve as ambassador to the Vatican and chose Scott Brown, a former Republican senator, as his ambassador to New Zealand.
But Trump is far from the first president to reserve his administration’s best diplomatic assignments for his donors, friends, and party loyalists.
Former President Bill Clinton named political connections to 28 percent of his ambassadorships, while former President George W. Bush did so 32 percent of the time, according to the American Foreign Service Association.
Former President Barack Obama faced criticism for some of his own political ambassador picks.
For example, Obama appointed an ambassador to Argentina in 2014 who admitted during his confirmation hearing that he had never actually traveled to Argentina. The nominee, Noah Mamet, was a bundler for Obama’s reelection campaign who brought in $500,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Colleen Bell, another Obama bundler who raised $500,000, landed an appointment to become ambassador to Hungary despite her background as a television producer who worked on soap operas. Bell stumbled through her confirmation hearing in 2014 when she was unable to answer basic questions about the country she would soon represent, prompting Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to launch a tirade on the Senate floor against the “totally unqualified” nominee.
Grant Reeher, political science professor at Syracuse University, suggested many political ambassadors go on to represent the U.S. successfully in their assigned countries.
“The hope is that these appointees also prove to be competent in the new role, and often their high-profile backgrounds in business or government help with that,” Reeher said. “And for damage-control, they have the backstop of the career civil servants already in the embassy. “
But Reeher cautioned that Trump’s unique style on the international stage could make even the sleepiest embassies difficult places to work.
“In this instance, however, the negative reaction President Trump has generated throughout the Western World may complicate the situation. Being Trump's ambassador, say, in Norway or Denmark, is going to be trickier than in past administrations, requiring greater skill and deftness,” Reeher said. “Loyalty to Trump and effectiveness in political fundraising may not select for the right attributes. So, in this case, the traditional recipe might not prove functional.”