President Donald Trump said before he took office that he planned to choose New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, a campaign supporter and old friend, as his ambassador to Britain. But it took until this week for the White House to formally submit Johnson’s nomination to the Senate.
So far, Trump has nominated 20 ambassadors, with six confirmed, including the ambassador to the United Nations, according to the American Foreign Service Association.
By this point in their first terms, President Barack Obama had nominated 40 ambassadors with three confirmed excluding the U.N. ambassador, while President George W. Bush had nominated 27, with three confirmed, according to statistics compiled by the non-partisan Partnership for Public Service. The Trump administration is taking 77 days on average to confirm ambassadors to countries, while Obama nominees 26 days and Bush’s 11, according to the Partnership for Public Service.
The slow pace of selecting key American representatives abroad is hurting the U.S. diplomatically, as foreign leaders try to suss out the administration’s worldview and their place within it, according to interviews with more than a dozen foreign policy experts, current and former ambassadors, and sources familiar with the hiring process.
“Countries get miffed when they do not have an ambassador because they believe they’re seen as not important and that Washington does not respect them,” said Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, an independent, non-profit association of former senior U.S. ambassadors and high-level government officials.
Although career foreign service officers hold the majority of the 188 ambassadorships available, Trump has yet to fill dozens of posts, including critical ones in places like Afghanistan and France, with Senate-confirmed ambassadors. That has left a charge d’affaires – essentially an acting ambassador – overseeing those embassies.
The dearth of ambassadors, coupled with the skeletal leadership at the State Department, means that foreign governments frequently are at a loss in their efforts to decode the Trump team’s ideology and policy moves.
“Because so much of State is unstaffed, in some ways that’s making the ambassadors even more important as a point of contact,” said one serving U.S. ambassador, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “The ambassadors are running into this even at multilateral gatherings, where officials from countries where they are not posted come to them and say, ‘I don’t know who to talk to in Washington. Can you help?’”
Countries with confirmed appointees include China; Israel; the Republic of Congo; Senegal; and New Zealand. The Senate also confirmed Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. This week, former Sen. Scott Brown announced via Twitter that he’d arrived in New Zealand as its ambassador and posted a photo of him and his wife outside the residence.
A State Department official said: “The department is working closely with the White House,” and noted that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that “there are other candidates at various stages in the process. We refer you to the White House for any questions regarding the selection and vetting process.”
White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said that currently there are over 55 ambassadors going through the internal vetting and clearance process, which the Trump administration asks people to do before it announces its intent to nominate. A number of these picks have complex disclosure or financial forms given their years in the private sector, Walters added, and that can contribute to the delay.
The slowdown in ambassador picks under Trump stems from two key problems, said people familiar with the process: The White House’s hiring has input from too many senior staffers and factions as well as a lack of a deep bench of donors or finance types from the campaign.
The personnel process for selecting ambassadors as well as political appointees has been hampered for months by turf wars between the West Wing’s senior staff, Cabinet secretaries, and a president who insists on signing off on every hire – sometimes, with a lack of agreement among the principals on the best person for the job. The White House, not the State Department, has been controlling the ambassador selection process.
Trump has in multiple cases announced that he intends to nominate someone for an ambassadorship as opposed to just nominating that person. Sometimes word leaks out about a Trump pick long before he even announces his intent. Reports weeks ago indicated Trump had selected former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman as his ambassador to Russia. But Huntsman has not yet been formally named.
Typically, roughly 30 percent of ambassadorships go to political appointees, who tend to be donors or key finance officials from the campaign. But Trump relied on a narrow circle of donors and advisers, many of whom have already joined his administration in other capacities—leaving a shorter queue of ready candidates for diplomatic posts.
“That was thin in this campaign,” said one Trump transition official. “That universe is much smaller under Trump than it would have been under Romney or Jeb Bush.”