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How Much Do Ambassadors Who Were Political Donors Actually Influence Foreign Policy?


The impeachment inquiry has brought us a cast of characters from the U.S. diplomatic world - career foreign service officers and political donors turned ambassadors. Gordon Sondland, who testified yesterday, falls into that latter category. He's a Trump donor turned ambassador to the European Union. So we thought it would be a good moment to explain just how ambassadors get those jobs. NPR's Michele Kelemen has her story.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In most countries, you have to work your way up through the foreign ministries to become an ambassador, but only about two-thirds of U.S. ambassadors are drawn from the foreign service, as former Ambassador Barbara Bodine explains.

BARBARA BODINE: The United States is the only developed country in the world that relies on such a large percentage of noncareer ambassadors.

KELEMEN: Bodine, now the director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, says some political appointees come with strong resumes in business, politics and foreign affairs. And they can bring useful skills to the job, including their connections to the administration. By law, contributions to political campaigns are not supposed to be a factor, though Democratic and Republican presidents have named donors and bundlers as ambassadors.

BODINE: These people, who may have very thin experience to draw on, often go to some of our most important allies and our most important adversaries.

KELEMEN: So far, about 45% of Trump's ambassadors are political appointees. That's far above average. And there's another trend that worries Bodine. She's heard that some ambassadors in Europe have gone through two or even three deputies, a position always held by career foreign service officers.

BODINE: The career people are there to fulfill the policy of the administration, and they're not there to subvert the president or subvert the ambassador. And so it's a hostility that is counterproductive.

KELEMEN: That hostility was on display Thursday when Trump's acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney blasted some of the career officials who have been testifying under subpoena to the committees leading the impeachment inquiry.


MICK MULVANEY: And what you're seeing now, I believe, is a group of mostly career bureaucrats who are saying, you know what? I don't like President Trump's politics, so I'm going to participate in this witch hunt that they're undertaking on the Hill. Elections do have consequences, and they should.

KELEMEN: That angered a former career diplomat, Barbara Leaf. She's been through many transitions, including this one, and says everyone starts off with some suspicions about career public servants.

BARBARA LEAF: And every one of them without exception got over that initial suspicion within months of dealing with, working closely with the career professionals of the civil and foreign service. This administration has been the exception to that rule.

KELEMEN: Leaf says she had good experiences working under political appointees over the years, but she calls the story of Gordon Sondland, the current ambassador to the European Union, Exhibit A of what can go wrong. The White House put the Trump donor at the center of Ukraine policy, and Leaf says he seemed out of his depth.

LEAF: Beyond that, gets himself entangled in a whole set of issues that, frankly, he clearly did not understand in a frontline state, Ukraine, that has been under constant assault from Russia and is really a key piece of our geopolitical foreign policy.

KELEMEN: Leaf was the ambassador to the United Arab Emirates until March of 2018. She says the Trump administration has been slow to fill diplomatic jobs in the Middle East.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.