White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki indicated this week that the White House hopes to name nominees for ambassadorships “soon,” a highly anticipated announcement in L.A. donor circles and among Democratic fundraisers across the country.
Only adding to the chatter of who is in line for what was an Axios report this week that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was under consideration to be ambassador to India, but Garcetti’s staff labeled the story as speculative.
Comcast executive David L. Cohen is seen as a leading candidate for Canada, while The Washington Post reported last month that Cindy McCain was a potential nominee for the United Nations World Food Program and Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first chief of staff and the former mayor of Chicago, for Japan. Bob Iger, executive chairman of the Walt Disney Company, has been floated as a possible ambassador to Great Britain, but that is one of the most prized assignments for non-career diplomats, often with many names in the mix.
A Disney spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment, and the White House has declined to comment on any specific names.
Iger said on Bloomberg TV last year that “giving back in some fashion, serving our country in some fashion, is certainly something that I would consider seriously. But a lot of it would depend on what it is, what the opportunity is, and whether I thought it would be something that I would both be stimulated by and be good at.” In a chat for the virtual Clio Awards last month, he quipped that he’d like to go back to being a weatherman.
Also mentioned for possible postings are Chris Dodd, the former senator and ex-chairman of the Motion Picture Association, as a potential pick for Ireland. Nicholas Burns, a veteran diplomat, is seen as likely to be named to China.
The process is playing out differently than it did during the years of Barack Obama, when a number of Los Angeles’ well-connected donors and bundlers were tapped for the foreign assignments, including HBO executive James Costos, who became ambassador to Spain; music executive Nicole Avant, who was sent to the Bahamas; and entertainment executive Charles Rivkin, who was assigned to France. Rivkin is now chairman of the Motion Picture Association.
This time, there is said to be a much tighter circle in the know, with those in consideration told to keep their potential nominations close to the vest, while others have been waiting, unclear of where things stand, as the White House focuses on the Covid-19 crisis.
There also is a high level of mindfulness over the potential controversies that can arise from the first announcements of ambassadorships — a distraction to the administration as it seeks passage of two major pieces of legislation, the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan. Donald Trump tapped political appointees for about 44% of his postings; the historical average is around 30%, according to the American Foreign Service Association.
Earlier this week, Psaki also said that Biden wants to ensure that the makeup of his team is diverse, i.e. not a list of white men.
“I will say that he’s — soon, I’m sure, will be evaluating some recommended nominees coming from our personnel office and our national security team to fill some important posts,” she said.
Meanwhile, among career diplomats, there is concern over the number of political appointees who will get some of the choice assignments. While career foreign service officers typically are tapped to go to world hotspots, there also is concern about filling some of the showier European posts with those who don’t have the experience.
For generations, it’s been typical for presidents to tap friends, bundlers and former colleagues for ambassadorial postings — the 1950s musical Call Me Madam even spoofed the practice. Foreign service officers have criticized the practice, but Politico reported on Thursday that there has been pushback to the idea of not breaking with past traditions in filling spots in Europe.
Brett Bruen, who served as director of global engagement for President Obama’s National Security Council, told Deadline that the issues facing U.S. allies are so much more complex as the administration rebuilds diplomatic relationships.
“Hollywood executives, fashion designers, well-heeled donors are not the people you send in to restore relations with allies that are questioning whether can count on us as reliable partner,” Bruen told Deadline. “There are so many more security issues and threats these days. The complexity of what an ambassador has to do and is responsible for is so much greater even than a few years ago.”
One chief argument for non-career diplomats taking the roles has been that they do have relationships to the president that a career diplomat often does not have, and that many bring professional management experience that can be a fresh asset to an embassy. Some, like Rivkin, earned high marks for their tenure in inspector general reports. And given that the salary of roughly $150,000, it typically means a substantial pay cut for well-heeled figures, who also can expect to shell out their own money, even in the high-six figures annually, for entertaining.
Those who are picked have to have survived a vigorous vetting process, one that includes a binder full of questions and can lead to recommendations to do such things as divest holdings.
The word in donor circles is that, because Biden has a career’s worth of non-industry friends and former colleagues angling for the assignments, the demand for slots is even greater. There are more than 90 vacancies among 189 positions.
Finally, there is what is likely to be the most crucial part of their debut: the confirmation hearing. Rarely does a cycle go by that some nominee’s appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee goes a bit off the rails — and the danger certainly is there. Among the committee members is someone who thrives on targeting Democratic donor bases of Silicon Valley, Hollywood and other industries: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).