Left-Wing Diplomats Still in Top Spots at More Than 100 U.S. Embassies

The Trump administration's failure to fill ambassadorships with loyalists is maintaining Obama's influence, observers say

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 07 Dec 2017 at 7:16 AM

A failure to put key people in place at the State Department and embassies around the world is undermining President Donald Trump’s foreign-policy objectives, according to experts who agree with those objectives.

Trump’s nomination of K.T. McFarland to be ambassador to Singapore blew up this week amid questions about whether she was truthful in testimony about her knowledge of former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s conversations with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Senate leaders have put the nomination on hold.

The staffing deficiencies go far beyond McFarland. She is one of 16 ambassadorial appointments currently awaiting action by the Senate. But the president has also made only 60 of 188 possible appointments to the ambassador corps, according to a list maintained by the American Foreign Service Association.

J. Michael Waller, vice president of government relations at the Center for Security Policy, said every political position where Trump has not made a nomination is occupied by a holdover from former President Barack Obama's administration — or careerists who are often hostile to Trump's aims.

"The administration is primarily to blame," he said. "It's easy to blame the Senate, and it deserves blame. But the administration is not naming people ... In so doing, they're letting Obama people stay in power."

Trump has failed to name ambassadors in several key countries, including Iraq, Egypt, Mexico and Pakistan. Other major countries have no U.S. ambassador because nominations are held up in the Senate.

Related: Report: Trump Expects to Get Three More Supreme Court Picks

A failure to confirm Richard Grenell, for instance, has left the embassy in Germany without a permanent leader. Nominated on September 2, Grenell has been awaiting a vote on the Senate floor since the Foreign Relations Committee advanced the nomination with a favorable recommendation in October.

"We don't have an ambassador in South Korea," said a former senior State Department official who worked under President George W. Bush. "We don't have an ambassador in Saudi Arabia. It's amazing."

The former official, who asked not to be identified, said Democratic obstructionism in the Senate is partially to blame for "slow-rolling" nominees.

"But you can't slow-roll nominations that aren't made," he said. "The ambassadors are very important."

Loyal Ambassadors Needed to Implement Changes
Not having ambassadors loyal to the president makes it harder to implement policy changes, the former official said. He said career diplomats holding those posts might not agree with the policies and resist them. He said a president needs people to carry out instructions.

"Sometimes, the instructions are controversial," he said.

"It's a phony argument. You need to put your own people in to shut things down."

Ásgeir Sigfússon, a spokesman for the American Foreign Service Association, said Trump might be a little off Obama's pace at naming and getting confirmations of ambassadors. But he added that it is too soon to get a good read on it.

"It's really hard to answer that question really accurately until the one-year point," he said.

But Trump is not just lagging on ambassadors. According to the Partnership for Public Service, the State Department has 72 political positions with no nominee, with another 29 people awaiting confirmation votes. The unfilled slots include five undersecretaries and 18 assistant secretaries.

That mirrors the broader federal government. The organization's data indicate that the president has failed to make nominations for 248 positions requiring Senate confirmation. Another 157 people await votes.

Trump has argued that many of those positions do not need to be filled in an effort to shrink the size of government. Waller, of the Center for Security Policy, said Trump will not succeed without people to implement his philosophy. Even when the bureaucracy is benign, he said, career officials will keep following the path they were on without new marching orders.

And the fact is that the bureaucracy at the State Department is not neutral, Waller said. He pointed out that 99 percent of State Department employees who made political donations during the presidential campaign gave to Democrat Hillary Clinton.

"It's a phony argument. You need to put your own people in to shut things down," he said. "Their goal is to outlast the Trump administration, and it looks like they're going to do it."

Trump Administration Fighting Itself
It is bad enough to simply leave posts vacant. But Waller said some people hostile to Trump's interests actually have managed to get jobs in the government.

"Then you're fighting against yourself for no good reason," he said.

Waller pointed to Todd D. Robinson, reportedly the Trump administration's choice to lead the U.S. embassy in Venezuela. Waller said Robinson is a troubling choice. He served as ambassador to Guatemala during the Obama administration and worked with an organization funded by liberal billionaire activist George Soros to undermine the pro-U.S. government there under the guise of fighting corruption, Waller said.

In addition, Waller noted, national security adviser H.R. McMaster retained Obama holdover Fernando Cutz and promoted him to head up America's Latin America policy. Cutz earned a master's degree from the Clinton School of Public Service — run out of the Clinton Presidential Library — and was hired by Ben Rhodes, an Obama-era deputy national security adviser who spearheaded the Iran nuclear deal.

Cutz is an odd choice to be making policy for an administration that has taken a hard line on illegal immigration, Waller said. He said imploding Venezuela is on the verge of sparking a mass out-migration that could reach U.S. shores, while Cutz opposes Trump's proposal to build a border wall.

A third nominee, 30-year foreign service veteran Joseph MacManus, has drawn opposition from Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to serve as ambassador to Colombia. They object to MacManus' role advising Clinton during her response to the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

Waller said past presidents of both parties came to power with a large team of like-minded people. He said that was not the case with Trump.

"He hasn't really thought it through because he's been so busy being president, and he never really had a cohesive team," he said.

Related: How Trump's Slow Hiring Is Undercutting His Agenda

Trump's populist campaign sought a break from both parties' foreign policy establishments. That has shrunk the pool of potential appointees.

"It is harder to recruit, but at the same time, he has not really tried," he said.

Waller said there many former officials who worked in previous administrations and people outside of Washington who would be willing and able to serve. They do have connections to previous administrations, he acknowledged.

"But they never became part of the swamp," he said.

(photo credit, homepage images: ...KT McFarland, CC BY-SA 2.0, by Gage Skidmore; photo credit, article images: ...KT McFarland, CC BY-SA 2.0, by Gage Skidmore)

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