Selling America’s Ambassadorships

Donald Trump is accelerating a practice that harms our national security.

A few years ago, I wrote an open letter to the executive producer of the popular day-time television drama The Bold and the Beautiful. I asked for a job as an actor. My acting credentials? Zero. Any show biz experience? Zilch. A soap opera fan? Nope. But I told Bradley Bell, whose wife was also a producer: “After reading about your wife Colleen being named by President Obama to be our next ambassador to Hungary, I thought, I too can realize one of my wildest dreams: become a soap opera matinée idol.” Colleen Bell had as many credentials to be an ambassador as I did of being an actor. Yet she got the position, instead, by donating more than $2 million to Obama’s campaigns.

The Bold and the Beautiful has turned out to be a veritable incubator of diplomatic talent. President Trump’s envoy to Denmark, Carla Sands, was an actress on B&B (her character slept with her girlfriend’s fiancé). What presaged her diplomatic posting? It was $350,000 in political contributions to Trump.

For all the political squalor inherent in Ukrainegate, there is one silver lining: the sterling reputations of the U.S. diplomats testifying before Congress—in defiance of White House orders—stand in stark contrast to Trump’s cynical and clownish political appointees. Take Gordon Sondland, for instance. He was a hotel chain owner, devoid of any diplomatic or government experience, who essentially purchased his position as U.S. ambassador to the European Union for a cold $1 million donation to the president’s inaugural committee.

There’s also George Glass, an Oregon real estate developer who donated more than $100,000 to Trump’s campaign. In return, he was named U.S. ambassador to Portugal. Glass is an avid propagator of the QAnon conspiracy line about a “Deep State” attempting to destroy Trump’s presidency and a cabal of Satan-worshiping Democrats who run a child sex cult. He speaks no Portuguese. Then there is former ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who Trump ousted. Yovanovitch is a three-time ambassador with 33 years in the Foreign Service and is multilingual.

In other words, our experienced diplomats are locked out of key policy jobs while whoever was willing to write a check is representing our nation overseas. In too many cases, they are unworthy of that privilege and responsibility. Trump’s ambassador to South Africa, Lana Marks, is a handbag designer and Mar-a-Lago member who faced more than a dozen lawsuits by former lawyers, landlords, and contractors alleging fraud. She and her husband, moreover, were fined $360,641 by the IRS for failing to pay back taxes. Had she been a regular job applicant, she would have been denied a security clearance.

Selling ambassadorships is a unique form of legal American corruption, practiced by presidents of both parties. In the 18th and 19th centuries, presidents similarly used to award military officer commissions to unqualified hacks as well—until the bloody cost of incompetent “political generals” during the Civil War led to a popular outcry and legislation to abolish the practice. Auctioning off diplomatic positions, however, has remained untouched.

Pre-Trump, the percentage of “political ambassadors” traditionally hovered around 30 percent, overwhelmingly to the most desirable posts, mainly in Europe. Now, that figure is at a historical record of 45 percent, according to the American Foreign Service Association. Before Trump, research shows that campaign donations between “$650,000 and $700,000 generated a 90 percent probability of appointment to a [wealthy developed country] for personal and bundled campaign contributors respectively.”

Trump-appointed ambassadors have averaged $96,927.98 in political contributions, exceeding the previous record of $60,721.83 set by George W. Bush’s ambassadors, according to research by Marquette University law professor Ryan M. Scoville, who also has found that Trump’s picks are “less qualified” than those of prior presidents.

But, as in the case of Sondland, donations can easily exceed a million dollars. New York Jets owner Robert Wood Johnson IV was awarded the coveted ambassadorship to the United Kingdom after donating nearly $1.5 million to Trump’s campaign and inaugural committee. A million bucks seems to have gotten financier Douglas Manchester a cushy if low ranking posting in the Bahamas.

The consequences for our national security can be dire. Handbag designers and hoteliers versus veteran trained diplomats in charge of foreign policy can potentially mean the difference between war and peace. Only six of 29 U.S. ambassadors to NATO countries are career diplomats.

All of Russia’s ambassadors to NATO member states, by contrast, are, in fact, career diplomats. My research of Russian versus American NATO ambassadors during the Obama administration revealed that Russia’s envoys possessed 960 years of diplomatic experience, averaging 34 years per incumbent, in contrast to America’s ambassadors having 331 cumulative years, averaging twelve years per individual. Those embarrassing figures are even more skewed now.

Putting ambassadorships on the political auction block need not be taken as a given. One presidential candidate has promised to end it. In her plan to “rebuild the State Department,” Elizabeth Warren pledges “to put America’s national interests ahead of campaign donations and end the corrupt practice of selling cushy diplomatic posts to wealthy donors — and I call on everyone running for President to do the same. I won’t give ambassadorial posts to wealthy donors or bundlers — period.”

While the Ukraine scandal may or may not end Trump’s corruption-ridden presidency, it should nonetheless bring about an end to the disgraceful peddling of the nation’s highest diplomatic offices to wealthy dilettantes, a practice that makes the United States a global laughing stock.

In the meantime, I’m taking acting lessons.

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James Bruno

James Bruno is a writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.