Trump is not alone in appointing political donors with no relevant experience to ambassadorships in foreign capitals. All recent presidents have done so. Yet the problem is getting worse—as the cost of American presidential campaigns skyrockets, as wealthy Americans flex their muscles within the American political system, and as the selling of ambassadorships for cold, hard cash becomes more and more overt.
Earlier this year, the Marquette University law professor Ryan Scoville published research examining the credentials of “political” ambassadors—that is, envoys who come from outside the diplomatic corps and are appointed because they are friends of or major donors to the president. He found that political ambassadors’ relevant expertise, as measured by their language ability, policy experience, and familiarity with the country to which they are posted, has been on the decline in recent decades. Scoville concluded that “the credentials of the average political appointee have diminished just as the average size of campaign contributions has grown.”
Two days before Sondland testified, CBS News reported on what it called a “possible pay-to-play scheme” involving Doug Manchester, a GOP contributor whose nomination as ambassador to the Bahamas stalled for more than two years. According to a leaked email, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tried to hit up Manchester’s family for $500,000 just days after Trump tweeted in support of his confirmation. In the end, Manchester withdrew.
Sondland’s appointment succeeded even though it, too, was obviously transactional. The hotel owner did not support Trump for the Republican nomination and did little to get him elected. But once he won, Sondland wrote a big check. And just like magic, he was off to live in Brussels as the American ambassador to the European Union. Along with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Sondland became the president’s go-to guy for dealing with Ukraine—even though that country is not part of the EU. For Trump, it seems, Sondland’s disdain for note-taking was an asset, not a flaw.
National security is harmed when diplomacy is done badly. When the United States has a problem with another country, it can resolve it by diplomacy, force, or just ignoring it and hoping it goes away. When the first option is debilitated by putting incompetent presidential sycophants in charge of embassies, that leaves only the two other alternatives. If command of an aircraft carrier were handed over to a real-estate developer because he had contributed to a political campaign, the outrage would be immediate. But putting our soft power, our ability to conduct diplomacy, in the hands of the unqualified and clueless is somehow acceptable.
That Sondland gave bad diplomatic advice was clear in the cellphone conversation he had with the president on July 26 as he sat in a restaurant in Kyiv. Trump had personally intervened in favor of A$AP Rocky, an African American recording artist who was arrested and charged with assault in Sweden. Sondland, according to the testimony of the U.S. diplomat who was eating with the ambassador, suggested that Trump “let [the rapper] get sentenced, play the racism card, give him a ticker-tape [parade] when he comes home.” Sondland then helpfully added that Trump would be able to tell the Kardashians that he had tried to help A$AP Rocky. In other words, Sondland was encouraging the president’s impulse to let a celebrity family dictate the status of our relationship with a significant ally.