Who’s got dibs on France? Trump friends and donors jockey for ambassadorships

0
Share
New York businesswoman Georgette Mosbacher whoops it up at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. Mosbacher has thrown her hat into the ring for an ambassadorship: “I’ve always wanted to serve in that capacity.” Photo for The Washington Post by Lucian Perkins.

Patrick Park doesn’t think of himself as a political person. The Palm Beach philanthropist spends most of his time and considerable fortune raising money for charity. But when Donald Trump was elected on Nov. 8, he started thinking about how he could help the president and the nation.

“I wrote him a little note and said, ‘I want to serve our country. Is there something I can do?'” says Park.

“Something” turned out to be a possible ambassadorship – nothing definite, of course, – when the two men talked in Florida over the holidays. They’ve been close friends for 18 years, and Park, 63, estimates that he has chaired close to 200 fundraisers at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, raising more than $100 million for a variety of causes.

But he’s not active in politics and says he didn’t raise a dime for Trump’s campaign, although he attended a Trump rally at his family’s exhibition hall outside Cleveland and happily voted for him.

So their conversation was less about foreign policy and more about skill sets. Working in philanthropy, Park told Trump, was not unlike serving as an ambassador: It’s all about dealing with people, promoting the country.

“His response? ‘I think you would be very good at that, and I think that would be good for you,'” recalls Park.

They even talked about where Park might serve: A good fit might be Austria, because Park has a background in music and a long history of fundraising for the arts. “It’s a very cultural nation,” he says.

There were no promises, but Trump assured Park that he’d hear more in due course. Now, like so many friends of the president’s, he’s waiting to hear from the White House and says that he’s honored to be considered.

“There’s a process,” says Park. “I’m hoping it works out.”

And so it begins: the march of ambassadors.

It’s one of the most prestigious titles in public service and requires no diplomatic experience, just the blessing of the president and Senate confirmation. Most of the top postings – Western Europe and the Caribbean – go to political appointees, traditionally close friends and top campaign donors. The balance, about 70 percent of the 187 U.S. ambassadors worldwide, are career diplomats. (The president’s representative to the U.N. also carries the title of ambassador but is a Cabinet-level position.)

Traditionally, the selection has been a secret process with no public comments before a nomination. Trump loyalists such as Park, however, seem to be more forthcoming about their admiration for the president and their desire to represent him overseas.

Immediately after the election, the presidential transition team began collecting names and winnowing a list of top contenders. (The White House did not respond to questions about the president’s selections or timetable.) So far, only three choices have been announced and only two officially nominated: Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as ambassador to China and bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman as ambassador to Israel. Friedman’s Senate hearing is scheduled for Thursday, but the earliest either man is likely to be confirmed is sometime in the spring.

For ambassador to Britain, which many consider the plummiest of the plum posts, Trump has picked billionaire Robert “Woody” Johnson, owner of the New York Jets and a generous donor to the Republican Party. Trump made the announcement the day before his inauguration during a lunch for his top Cabinet picks and other advisers, casually introducing “Ambassador Woody Johnson, going to St. James” – referring to the Court of St. James’s, the formal name for the U.S. ambassador’s post in London.

Johnson, 69, originally supported Jeb Bush for president, then turned to his old friend after Bush dropped out. Johnson threw a $25,000-per-person fundraiser for Trump last summer at his East Hampton mansion, became vice chair of the Trump Victory Committee and served as a member of the inaugural leadership team. He won’t be the first NFL owner to serve as ambassador – Steelers owner Dan Rooney was posted in Ireland from 2009 to 2012 – but if confirmed, he would be in Britain while the NFL is considering an expansion team based in London. (Johnson did not respond to requests for comment.)

No other names have been announced, but a few have leaked out: private equity firm founder William Hagerty is the leading candidate for Japan, and Brian Burns, a Palm Beach philanthropist and another longtime friend of Trump’s, is the front-runner for Ireland. Others unofficially in the mix: Republican National Committee finance chairman Lewis Eisenberg for Italy and Wall Street financier Duke Buchan for Spain.

And there’s endless speculation, but no leading candidates have emerged for what will undoubtedly be two of the most challenging jobs: ambassadors to Mexico and Russia.

Traditionally, anyone with ambassadorial ambitions raised a ton of money for their candidate during the campaign, celebrated the victory, and then acted like a duck: gliding calmly on the surface while paddling furiously underwater.

Lobbying for the position was considered unseemly and unwise: Should a nomination go off the rails, there would be plausible deniability and no chance of embarrassment for all concerned. So the standard response was no comment except for “I’m delighted to be considered.”

But Trump is a businessman, and his backers are less coy and more matter-of-fact about their ambitions.

One name that has been floated is Georgette Mosbacher, the colorful New York businesswoman, author, GOP fundraiser, and another longtime FOD (Friend of Donald) who freely admits that it’s her dream to add “ambassador” to her long list of titles. “I’ve always wanted to serve in that capacity,” she says.

Mosbacher, 70, has been active in Republican politics since she first arrived in Washington in 1989 as the wife of Commerce Secretary Bob Mosbacher. She ran two skin-care companies, wrote a couple of motivational books, co-chaired the RNC finance committee, and serves on a number of boards. In 2015, President Barack Obama appointed her to the seven-member U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, and she was unanimously confirmed by the Senate last year.

She was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Trump – although she says she didn’t raise a lot for his campaign – and just put her Fifth Avenue apartment on the market for $29.5 million. She hasn’t talked to the president about an overseas post but submitted her résumé to key staffers in the White House and made it clear that she’d like to serve.

“The job description of an ambassador as I know it? I’m qualified,” she says. “I’ve submitted my résumé for a job. That’s how I look at it.”

Nothing is official, and everyone serves at the pleasure of the president. But Mosbacher says the feedback she’s received from the White House is that she’s a strong candidate. “Now I just wait,” she says.

Becoming an ambassador used to be a rubber-stamp process: Once the president formally nominated a candidate, Senate confirmation was almost a given. All nominees go through a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then are confirmed by the full Senate.

With a Republican majority this year, this should be pro forma – but as the Cabinet hearings have demonstrated, even an easy confirmation isn’t that easy.

Career diplomats arguably have a smoother path: After they’ve worked for the State Department for two decades or so, they’re considered experienced enough to become an ambassador. If they’re interested, their names are submitted to the secretary of state for consideration; once nominated, they typically sail through hearings and are overwhelming approved by the Senate.

Political appointees first have to be selected for the post by the president and his advisers, which can often be a contentious behind-the-scenes battle. Once a name is agreed on, the country under consideration is given a heads-up and a chance to voice any objection, and the appointee goes through a vetting process involving background checks, security clearances and financial disclosures. The process takes about three months, and nominations are traditionally not announced until it’s completed.

Fun fact: The State Department issues a “Certificate of Demonstrated Competence” for every nominee, explaining why the person is qualified for the job, and posts it on its website. The hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is supposed to be a coronation – lots of earnest speeches and plaudits – although it’s possible to blow it.

In 2014, Obama named George Tsunis, a New York lawyer who’d raised more than $1 million for the president’s re-election, as ambassador to Norway. Tsunis’s name was withdrawn after a disastrous hearing during which he admitted that he’d never visited the country, referred to its nonexistent president, and called a major political party a “fringe element.” Norway was not amused. Norwegian-Americans, who have the power to yell at their senators, were even more upset.

But most will be confirmed. Then there’s ambassador school (security procedures, language training, protocol) and the move overseas. All of Obama’s political ambassadors were asked to resign on Jan. 20; every embassy is currently headed by a career diplomat serving as acting ambassador until Trump’s replacements show up sometime this summer.

Until then, says Mosbacher, “I’m waiting. And hoping.”

(The Washington Post)