NBC News Investigates Trump Ambassador Nominees
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There are 52 U.S. embassies without an ambassador 2 1/2 years after President Trump took office. An investigation by NBC News says that at the same point in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, there were only 15 or fewer unfilled ambassadorships. Some especially strategically significant postings are vacant, including Pakistan, Qatar and Brazil. Other embassies, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Turkey, have nominees who await confirmation. Emily Siegel and her team at NBC News reported on this and joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.
EMILY SIEGEL: Thanks so much for having me here.
SIMON: An unwritten rule has been that sensitive posts go to career diplomats. You know, the cushy ones with a nice social life go to the major donors. Has the Trump administration changed that formula?
SIEGEL: Yeah. So one of the things that is very different about this administration is the ratio of career foreign service officers that have been nominated to political appointees. So traditionally - and this goes back to the 1950s - it's been around two-thirds of career foreign service officers and one-third political appointees. But for the Trump administration, it's closer to 50/50. And we're seeing some of these appointees are going to places like the UAE, which has always been career foreign service officers.
SIMON: Now, both Republican and Democratic administrations often appoint major political donors to ambassadorships. The Center for Public Integrity did a report that named 31 Obama campaign bundlers. Your findings, though, suggests the Trump administration has stepped up this practice.
SIEGEL: So what we specifically looked at were donors to the inaugural committee. The way inaugural committees work is they're not subject to traditional laws of campaign finance. So if you're giving to a campaign, there's a limit. But inaugural committees don't have that. And the past administrations have put their own caps on, I think, to show some restraint. For instance, for the Obama inauguration, he put a cap of $50,000. So it sort of sends a political message. The Trump administration didn't have any sort of limitations. They don't have to have them, but most of the administrations have done that.
SIMON: And what was the practical result of that? Were there any real whopper contributions?
SIEGEL: Yeah. There were really large contributions. Of the donors we looked at, there were four different people who gave $1 million each. Those are really large contributions.
SIMON: Of the million-dollar contributors, any wind up as ambassadors or nominated?
SIEGEL: Yeah. So we had a couple. There were four, I believe, who each gave $1 million. One of them is still pending. So Doug Manchester, who was nominated as the ambassador to the Bahamas, he donated $1 million through a trust. And he was the one who during his hearing with the Senate said that he believed that the Bahamas was a U.S. protectorate, which it's not. And he's waited the longest for confirmation. So in May, it will be two years since he was nominated to be an ambassador.
SIMON: Now, to be sure, there's nothing illegal in this. I mean, very famously, Pamela Harriman, perhaps the greatest name Democratic contributor of all time, had her pick of embassies, and nobody pretended otherwise.
SIEGEL: Yeah. I think it's just when you look - take a closer look and what's different about a lot of these nominees, again, is that they're not getting confirmed at the same rate as past administrations. And they also have given extremely large amounts to the inaugural committee. And also there are a larger number of political appointees as opposed to career foreign service officers. On its face, this is something that's common, and it's been going on for a long time, but there are certain ways that this administration is doing it that it's a little bit different.
SIMON: Emily Siegel of NBC News, thanks so much for being with us.
SIEGEL: Thanks so much for having me.
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