Seth Meyers tries to bring us up to date on the fast-moving impeachment investigation into Donald Trump’s attempts at bribery and extortion with the Ukrainian president. This sets the stage for this week’s public testimony by many more witnesses, including Trump’s Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland who has a whole lot of explaining to do to reconcile his earlier testimony with that of career officials in the state department who have contradicted him.
Sondland is a good example of why you don’t want amateurs doing difficult or sensitive jobs. Sondland is a wealthy person who bought himself an ambassadorship by donating a million dollars to Trump’s inauguration festivities. Dennis Jett, a professor of international affairs, explains how in the US, so many ambassadorships are for sale like this, and Trump, although by no means the only one to sell ambassadorships, has been the worst in recent times. About 45% of his ambassadors have been political appointees, against an average of about 30% for his predecessors.
In every other developed democratic country, the role of ambassador, with only very rare exceptions, is given to career diplomats who have spent decades learning the art of international relations.
In the U.S., however, many ambassadors are untrained in diplomacy, and have simply bought their way into a prestigious post.
While some political appointees are political allies and friends of the president, for many postings – particularly in Western Europe and the Caribbean, where 80% of the ambassadors are political appointees – who gets the job depends on money.
Even after the Foreign Service Act was passed, political contributions continued to play such a role that it was possible to estimate how much more London would cost than Lisbon. The larger a country’s economy and the number of tourists that visit it, the higher the price of becoming ambassador.
And for those who want to add a fancy title to their resume and have the money, a six or even seven figure price is not too high.
Under Trump, it’s not just the posts in rich countries and tropical paradises that are for sale. United Nations ambassador Kelly Craft and her husband contributed over $2 million to Trump’s election campaign and inauguration. She also gave generously to over half the Repubican senators on the Foreign Relations Committee that had to approve her nomination.
Trump wants loyalists who will do what he says and for that purpose appointing ambassadors merely because they contributed to him makes sense. The price you pay for that is that these people, like Sondland have had no training for their jobs and thus risk being incompetent and blabbermouths. Career diplomats learn how to be discreet. They also tend to be people who are aware of boundaries that are dangerous to cross and, being bureaucrats, tend to keep detailed records of things and file reports through proper channels. This is why the most damaging witnesses in the impeachment inquiry have been the two career ambassadors to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovich and William Taylor, followed by members of their staff.
Trump is also a victim of his own vindictiveness. He clearly felt that Yovanovich was standing in the way of his desire to push the president of Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden. But all he had to do to get rid of her was to tell the secretary of state that he had lost confidence in her and she would be recalled, since ambassadors do serve at the will of the president. But no. He had to smear her because in his eyes, anyone who does not do what he wants is an enemy and must be vilified and publicly humiliated. The result is that she is now viewed as a courageous truth-teller whose reputation has been tarnished. This will not endear Trump to other career officials, though it may intimidate some. But bureaucrats also know how to play the inside game, and this is what Trump should be afraid of.
Trump’s other mistake was in bringing Taylor out of retirement to replace Yovanovich as ambassador in Ukraine. Taylor’s career days in the state department are over and so he has nothing to lose by being candid.