On wealthy political campaign donors appointed U.S. Ambassadors

Filed Under Political Double Standards: Trump gets a bad rap on this issue

By Nate Thayer

January 26, 2017

Donald Trump ordered all U.S. Ambassadors who were political appointments under former President Barack Obama, such as US Ambassador to Singapore, Kirk Wagar, to leave by midday on 20 January when Trump was sworn in as President.

The U.S. embassy in Singapore released this photograph of Ambassador Wagar wearing a Obama shirt as he departed Singapore’s Changi airport on January 20.

Ambassador Kirk Wagar wearing a Obama shirt as he departed Singapore’s Changi airport on January 20. (Photo: U.S. embassy Singapore)

Most ambassadors, of course, are professional diplomats–career U.S. State Department foreign service officers.

The more disturbing question is why presidents appoint unqualified political allies almost always given an ambassadorship as a reward for raising large amounts in political contributions to the presidential candidate. That has been true for every president in the last 40 years, regardless of political party.

Usually, the Ambassadorial posts doled out to the most starkly unqualified are those to countries with the most important bilateral relations, such as Great Britain, Japan, India, China, France, Germany and those cushy vacation spots such as the Bahamas and other beach destinations. In variably, the burden of effecting quality diplomacy to ensure optimal bilateral relations falls on the number two in the embassy, a career diplomat appointed as Deputy Chief of Mission who actually knows what he or she is doing.

The departed Ambassador to Singapore, Florida lawyer Kirk Wagar, who was Obama’s Florida Finance Chair in 2008, raised $4.5 million for Obama’s 2008 election and at least $1 million for his 2012 reelection campaign. For example, after Obama won the 2008 primary in Florida, Wagar led the purge of already designated Florida delegates to the Democratic National Convention that were seen as disloyal to Obama.

In an exchange with one DNC member, Jon Ausman, in which Wagar said some delegates “that have done nothing for Barack” would be replaced with Obama supporters, Wagar told Ausman he had “fucked us” and that if only thirty people purged were upset “we have done pretty well.”

That does not mean that Kirk Wagar was a bad ambassador to Singapore, it just means he had no qualifications to be an Ambassador except for his loyalty to and fundraising prowess for Obama.

Wagar was the first political appointed Ambassador to Singapore since former South Dakota Governor and Jimmy Carter loyalist Richard Kneip from 1978-1980.

Former South Dakota governor and U.S. ambassador to Singapore Richard Kneip

Ambassador Kneipp’s tenure in Singapore is best remembered for his asking
“You mean there was a war between India and Pakistan? What was that all about?” and later “Did you say there are two separate Korean governments? How come?.” When the Ambassador asked “What’s Islam?”, his reputation as a foreign affairs expert was pretty much sealed.

Other candidates for most-unqualified ambassadorial appointments by President Obama include Colleen Bell as Ambassador to Hungary, who was a producer for the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful but whose real qualification was that she and her husband raised millions for Obama. Obama’s choice for Ambassador to Norway fizzled when George Tsunis, another businessman fundraiser, made reference during his senate confirmation hearing to the “President of Norway.” Norway does not have a president.

None of this is new. In 2006, George W. Bush appointed his college fraternity brother Michael Wood Ambassador to Sweden. President Reagan appointed a used car salesman as ambassador to Australia.

The New York Times–and many other media outlets–reported the order by president-elect Trump on January 3 to immediately sack all politically appointed ambassadors as a unprecendeted move motivated by excessive and unnecessary political retribution.

“President-elect Donald J. Trump’s transition staff has issued a blanket edict requiring politically appointed ambassadors to leave their overseas posts by Inauguration Day, according to several American diplomats familiar with the plan, breaking with decades of precedent by declining to provide even the briefest of grace periods,” wrote the Times. “The mandate — issued “without exceptions,” according to a terse State Department cable sent on Dec. 23, diplomats who saw it said — threatens to leave the United States without Senate-confirmed envoys for months in critical nations like Germany, Canada and Britain. In the past, administrations of both parties have often granted extensions on a case-by-case basis to allow a handful of ambassadors, particularly those with school-age children, to remain in place for weeks or months.”

“Mr. Trump, by contrast, has taken a hard-line against leaving any of President Obama’s political appointees in place as he prepares to take office on Jan. 20 with a mission of dismantling many of his predecessor’s signature foreign and domestic policy achievements,” wrote the Times.

But the move was neither unprecedented or surprising.

In fact, President Obama did exactly the same thing prior to assuming office on January 20, 2009.

“The incoming Obama administration has notified all politically appointed ambassadors that they must vacate their posts as of Jan. 20, the day President-elect Barack Obama takes the oath of office, a State Department official said,” wrote the Washington Post on December 3, 2008. “The clean slate will open up prime opportunities for the president-elect to reward political supporters with posts in London, Paris, Tokyo and the like. The notice to diplomatic posts was issued this week.”

The Post added “the sweeping nature of the directive suggests that Obama has little interest in retaining any of Bush’s ambassadorial appointees.”

And in case anyone is under the delusion that Trump will act any differently, to be sure President Trump is likely to appoint unqualified wealthy donors to ambassadorships as a reward for their political loyalty and fundraising abilities exactly as his predecessors from both parties have done.

That is the nut of the problem that damages American interests abroad and should be objected to, not the false premise of partisan blame on one political party or president. It should be noted that the U.S. stands alone appointing unprofessional diplomats to be their ambassadors abroad. It is very rare that any of the other major powers send wealthy hacks abroad to represent their nation’s interests.

Trump got a bad rap from the media and pundits on this issue. But the political system in United States gets exactly the rap we deserve for continuing the policy.

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