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Under Trump, More Big Donors Are Named Ambassadors — And Controversies Have Followed

President Trump's State Department has sent more political appointees abroad as ambassadors than have previous administrations.
Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency
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President Trump's State Department has sent more political appointees abroad as ambassadors than have previous administrations.

U.S. presidents have a long history of rewarding wealthy political donors with ambassadorships. Many appointees ably take on the work of diplomacy. Some others cause controversy.

Jeffrey Ross Gunter, Trump's ambassador to Iceland, shocked that country — one of the world's safest — when he advertised earlier this summer for private bodyguards and requested permission to carry a gun. Trump's envoy in London, Robert Wood "Woody" Johnson IV, who owns the New York Jets NFL team, is said to have asked authorities to hold the British Open, a major golf tournament, at a Trump-owned property in 2018.

"I've worked with some excellent, excellent, professional political ambassadors over the course of my career," says Lewis Lukens, a longtime U.S. diplomat who served as Johnson's second-in-command and left the State Department last year. "But I will say that Donald Trump not only has a higher percentage of political ambassadors, but has a higher percentage of ambassadors who don't seem to be temperamentally or intellectually suited for the work."

Usually, about two-thirds of U.S. ambassadors come from the Foreign Service and the rest are political appointees. In the Trump administration, however, the proportion of political appointees is higher than usual. Career diplomats now make up just 57% of the ambassadorial posts.

When it comes to the administration's political appointees, the State Department is trying to brush off any controversies.

When the U.S. Embassy in London came up for a regular review, the department's inspector general's office heard complaints that Johnson had made sexist and racist remarks.

Lukens describes the remarks as "inappropriate comments about women's looks and women in the workplace and some racially insensitive comments over the course of many, many months."

In preparing for a Black History Month event, Johnson appeared "agitated" and wondered aloud whether he would be speaking to "a whole bunch of Black people," according to CNN.

The inspector general's report, issued last week, calls for further investigation into the ambassador's management of the London embassy. Its first recommendation was for further examination of Johnson's alleged remarks — but the State Department responded that it is unnecessary because "the Ambassador has viewed the Office of Civil Rights video on workplace harassment and has instructed all section and agency heads to do the same."

Johnson is a "valued member of the team, who has led Mission U.K. honorably and professionally," a State Department spokesperson who did not want to be named tells NPR.

The inspector general's report did not address the controversy around the British Open.

Trump has denied that he spoke to Johnson about lobbying the U.K. to move the golf tournament to his property in Scotland, and the British government has stated, "Johnson made no request regarding the British Open or any other sporting event."

But Lukens tells NPR that the ambassador did raise the request with British officials — even though Lukens had warned him that doing so would violate federal ethics rules.

"The ambassador came to me the morning after a visit to Washington where he had met the president. And he said, 'The president would like me to push the British government to host the British Open at his golf course in Turnberry,'" Lukens tells NPR.

"The British government doesn't control where the British Open is, anyway, but clearly the ambassador felt pressure from the president to deliver something," says Lukens, who is now with the Signum Global Advisors consulting firm.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Democratic staff issued a blistering report last month about Trump's State Department, noting an environment of "chaos and mismanagement" in which "career public servants have found themselves under attack."

"President Trump has sent his nominees to represent the American people abroad who have misled Congress, who have made offensive and racist statements, whose résumés would not have even made it through a first round of vetting in any other administration," the ranking member of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, said as the report was issued.

Now Douglas Macgregor, a retired U.S. Army colonel and Trump's nominee for ambassador to Germany, is facing opposition from both Republicans and Democrats, according to a senior congressional aide who did not want to be named because he is not authorized to speak to journalists on the record. The opposition is due to Macgregor's isolationist views and remarks that the American Jewish Committee has called "incendiary," the aide says.

"America is an extreme outlier in sending inexperienced people abroad to serve as ambassadors," says Barbara Stephenson, a former U.S. ambassador and career diplomat who once ran the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents U.S. diplomats.

It is often up to U.S. embassies' top career officials — the deputy chiefs of mission — to help diplomatic newcomers run embassies and adjust to their new job. But Lukens says many Trump appointees see career professionals as part of a "deep state," not to be trusted.

Deputy chiefs of mission "have been dismissed or reassigned at U.S. embassies in Canada, Iceland, Romania, France, the United Kingdom, and South Africa," according to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Democratic staff report.

In South Africa, Ambassador Lana Marks, a handbag designer and a member at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort, wanted to make her son a sort of chief of staff, Lukens says. After her deputy warned there were nepotism rules against it, she forced him out, Lukens says. (Foreign Policy reportsthat the embassy said the deputy's departure was a "separate issue.")

When Gunter, a California dermatologist and Republican political donor, took up his post as U.S. ambassador to Iceland, he refused to accept his deputy, who had spent months learning Icelandic to prepare for the job, CBS News reported.

Gunter has had seven deputies in the year he has been in his post, which is costly and disruptive for the State Department. Officials have declined to comment about this or about reports of him wanting to carry a gun and hire private guards. Iceland's national police commissioner told The Associated Press,"We are still weighing the request and assessing the level of potential threat for foreign embassies in Iceland."

Instances of political appointees behaving inappropriately span administrations and political parties. Cynthia Stroum, for example — a Democratic donor who served as President Barack Obama's ambassador to Luxembourg — resigned in 2011, just before an official review found that she bullied embassy staff and engaged in financial improprieties such as expensing a purchase of a new mattress.

The proportion of career diplomats nominated as ambassadors could rise again if presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden wins November's election. But Biden has made no promises about ending the practice of appointing political donors to ambassadorships. "Vice President Biden has committed to filling diplomatic postings with qualified individuals who understand the world and America's role in it," says Andrew Bates, a campaign spokesperson.

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Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.