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Biden denies giving positions to donors, but ambassadors gave $22 million

By Ben Marquis
|
May 31, 2023

While campaigning for the presidency, then-candidate Joe Biden seemed to indicate that he would break with the unseemly tradition of nominating political donors and supporters to key ambassadorships around the globe.

That hasn't been the case, however, according to a new watchdog group's report which revealed that the "pay to play" practice of political patronage is alive and well in President Biden's administration, the Daily Mail reported.

As a result, a substantial portion of Biden's ambassadors to foreign nations lack any foreign policy experience, any particular knowledge of the country or region they are sent to, and in many cases don't even speak the predominate languages of the host nations.

Democratic Donors Named As Key Ambassadors

The non-partisan Campaign Legal Center just issued a report on what it has dubbed the "Donor-to-Ambassador Pipeline" -- in which political donors are appointed as top diplomats instead of career foreign service individuals -- that has been the rule rather than the exception in the modern presidency under both Democratic and Republican presidents.

The 32-page report revealed that President Biden's non-career political ambassadorial nominees and their spouses have contributed a combined $22.5 million to exclusively Democratic committees and candidates over the past 10 years.

On average, those political nominees and their spouses donated more than $400,000 -- some donated several million -- and more than 82 percent donated at least $10,000 or bundled together donations of more than $100,000 for Democrats, including Biden's 2020 campaign.

The report highlighted a few of the more egregious examples of Biden's ambassadorial nominees who -- aside from being prolific Democratic donors -- had no clear qualifications for the role they were picked to fill, including any particular connection to the host nation or familiarity with the languages spoken there.

"The available facts do not suggest that the contributions analyzed in this report were given in exchange for or because of the promise of an appointment," the CLC noted as a caveat. "But they do create a perception that some nominations are a reward for political contributions -- a perception that is highly damaging to public trust and attitudes regarding government ethics. This is particularly true when an appointee possesses no foreign service credentials or experience with the country to which they are to be appointed that would qualify them for the position."

Biden Maintained the Status Quo Despite Suggesting Otherwise

Newsweek reported that then-candidate Biden, during a 2019 campaign event in Iowa, told reporters with regard to his prospective ambassadorial nominations, "I'm going to appoint the best people possible," and explicitly noted, "Nobody, in fact, will be appointed by me based on anything they contributed."

Yet, he left the door open for at least some appointments of political donors, as he added that "you have some of the people out there ... that are fully qualified to head up everything from being the ambassador to NATO to be ambassador to France ... who may or may not have contributed."

However, an analysis of Biden's ambassadorial nominations by the American Foreign Service Administration showed that 39 percent of his nominees were noncareer "political" appointments. In comparison, 31 percent of former President Barack Obama's ambassadors were political nominees while that figure was 44 percent for former President Donald Trump.

And, per the CLC's report, all but one of Biden's 55 total noncareer political appointees -- the lone exception being Republican Cindy McCain, who in March vacated her post as Ambassador to the U.N. Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome -- are big-time donors to the Democratic Party over the past decade and have little or no foreign policy experience.

Suggested Reforms

The report from the CLC went on to propose several reforms to address the "donor-to-ambassador pipeline" problem, such as amending the Foreign Service Act of 1980 to strengthen and actually enforce federal requirements that nominees possess basic qualifications in terms of their knowledge and proficiency in "the language, politics, economics, and history of the country to which they are to be appointed, and how their foreign policy and international affairs experience qualifies them to be a U.S. Ambassador."

It was also proposed that the Senate should extend the review period of political financial activities for nominees and their families from the current four years to 10 years to provide more context, and also encouraged the Senate to stop being a mere rubber-stamp for ambassadorial nominations and instead actually scrutinize the purported qualifications of the appointed individuals.

The report also called for the appointment and confirmation of a full-time State Department Inspector General as well as a streamlined process for career foreign service employees to file complaints to trigger IG investigations of unqualified ambassadors.

U.S. Stands Alone In Appointing Political Donors As Ambassadors

Roger Weiand, an author of the report and senior researcher for the CLC, told Newsweek, "The U.S. is unusual among other Western democracies in appointing political donors to be ambassadors regardless of qualifications."

"That other countries think our high-ranking diplomats may have bought their positions diminishes the credibility of U.S. anti-corruption efforts abroad," he added. "The Biden administration has maintained the status quo of the donor-to-ambassador pipeline, which could be deleterious for foreign relations."