THE WASHINGTON POST
November 20, 2019 at 6:00 a.m. EST
Just a few years ago, Gordon Sondland was best known as the founder of a successful chain of hotels and a merchant bank in the Pacific Northwest. But this week, Sondland, now U.S. ambassador to the European Union, sits at the center of a scandal that spans Washington, Brussels and Kyiv, Ukraine.
Sondland appeared before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday as lawmakers probed allegations that President Trump was using military aid to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former vice president Joe Biden, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, and his son Hunter.
However, during Sondland’s testimony, another question was in plain sight: Why exactly did the United States send this wealthy hotelier to one of its most important overseas postings rather than an experienced diplomat?
The short answer is that Sondland donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee. The longer answer is more complicated and, to critics, more alarming: America has a deep-seated and unusual system of sending people with no diplomatic experience to do high-level diplomatic jobs.
“None of our major competitors or adversaries would dream of sending an ambassador without decades of experience in the diplomatic corps,” said Barbara J. Stephenson, a career Foreign Service official who served as U.S. ambassador to Panama and is a former president of the American Foreign Service Association.
The United States regularly names political appointees to ambassador positions around the world, but few other nations copy that practice. A 2017 study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin said the United States was an “extreme outlier among foreign services in the number of political appointees as ambassadors, even in key posts.”
The researchers noted that in the other countries they studied (Brazil, Britain, China, France, Germany, India, Russia and Turkey), ambassadorial posts were almost entirely reserved for career diplomats. In the few cases in which political appointees were named, they tended to have significant high-level governmental experience.
The U.S. Constitution states only that the president can choose ambassadors pending Senate approval. It says nothing about their particular qualifications or lack thereof. Historically, most diplomats were simply those with political connections; often they were independently wealthy, which had the practical positive of enabling them to hobnob with economic and political elites during their assignment.
Though the Foreign Service was institutionalized in 1924, political appointments continued. Herbert Kalmbach, an attorney for President Richard M. Nixon, once testified under oath that he had spoken to a wealthy political donor about an ambassadorship. “Well, you know, I am interested in Europe, I think, and isn’t $250,000 an awful lot of money for Costa Rica?” Kalmbach recalled the donor, Ruth Farkas, complaining about one potential destination.
Farkas eventually donated $300,000 to Nixon’s reelection campaign. She was ambassador to Luxembourg from 1974 to 1976.
That appointment caused its own quid pro quo scandal. The Foreign Service Act of 1980 attempted to address it, stating a chief of mission should “possess clearly demonstrated competence to perform the duties of a chief of mission,” including language ability and knowledge of history and culture. “Contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor in the appointment of an individual as a chief of mission,” the act states.
Despite the Foreign Service Act, political appointees, many of them big-dollar donors, have continued to be placed in embassies since 1980. According to data collected by AFSA, only 26 percent of ambassador positions were given to political appointees during President Jimmy Carter’s time in office. During Ronald Reagan’s two terms, between 1981 and 1989, that figure shot up to 38 percent.
Since then, both Democratic and Republican administrations have given plenty of spots to political appointees. Three out of every 10 ambassadors picked by President Barack Obama were political appointees. Obama drew criticism for appointing campaign backer Caroline Kennedy as U.S. ambassador to Japan in 2013, for example.
Even so, Trump has gone further. According to the most recent AFSA data, 45 percent of the ambassadors appointed under him are political appointments, the most of any modern president. He has also stacked the corridors of Foggy Bottom with political appointees — at present, only a handful of assistant secretaries of state are career Foreign Service officers.
In theory, an ambassador requires Senate confirmation. This can weed out some picks. Though the Senate has not voted down a White House ambassadorial pick in decades, just appearing before the Senate can sometimes cause weak candidates to crumble: Hotel magnate George Tsunis withdrew from the nomination to become ambassador to Norway in 2014 after questioning revealed his lack of basic knowledge about Norway.
But, in general, the Senate does little to hold things up. The ever-ballooning cost of U.S. electoral campaigns, which surged to $6.5 billion in 2016, according to OpenSecrets, may add to the problem. Many wealthy presidential donors who harbor ambassadorial ambitions also donate to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
This does not mean all political appointees are inept or scandal prone. Even critics of political appointees acknowledge that often they are professional and can sometimes bring the sort of experience that a career Foreign Service officer might not have.
Some of the most perceptive U.S. ambassadors in history have been political appointees, including William Dodd, a historian sent to Berlin between 1933 and 1937 who warned of the horrors of Nazi Germany as many in Washington ignored them. Previous U.S. ambassadors to the E.U. were political appointees who served without incident.
But the attention on Sondland this week has renewed scrutiny of political appointees, casting a harsh light on the Brussels-based hotelier who seemed to overstep his mark in Ukraine, where he was surrounded by career diplomats and experts in the region.
In her private testimony last week, former White House official Fiona Hill said Sondland’s inexperience and overeagerness made him a “counterintelligence risk.” Sondland has also faced scrutiny for pursuing a $1 million taxpayer-funded home renovation (his attorneys told The Post this week that the renovations were necessary).
The hotelier is not the only Trump political appointee to face scrutiny. The U.S. ambassadors to Germany and Israel have been accused of acting like political activists rather than diplomats. Pete Hoekstra, U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, suffered a bruising first few weeks in office after he refused to answer questions about past anti-Muslim statements.
Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, wrote Tuesday that all candidates in the 2020 presidential election should pledge to choose ambassadors for expertise, not financial contributions. “For every excellent donor-turned-diplomat, there are many more who have been out of their depth of expertise,” wrote McFaul, an Obama political appointee himself.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) made such a pledge in June. No other candidates have followed suit.