UPDATE: Since this story went to press and the 115th Congress adjourned, the following are some of the nominations that were not confirmed and have now been returned to the State Department and White House:
Marshall Billingslea: undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights
David Schenker: assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs
David Stilwell: assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs
Robert A. Destro: assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor
R. Clarke Cooper: assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs
Ronald Mortensen: assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration
Leandro Rizzuto: ambassador to Barbados
Doug Manchester: ambassador to the Bahamas
Joseph Cella: ambassador to Fiji
Kenneth S. George: ambassador to Uruguay
John Rakolta Jr.: ambassador to the United Arab Emirates
Donald R. Tapia: ambassador to Jamaica
Christine J. Toretti: ambassador to Malta
Lynda Blanchard: ambassador to Slovenia
Kathleen Ann Kavalec: ambassador to Albania
Francisco Luis Palmieri: ambassador to Honduras
Daniel N. Rosenblum: ambassador to Uzbekistan
Adrian Zuckerman: ambassador to Romania
W. Patrick Murphy: ambassador to Cambodia
Robert K. Scott: ambassador to Malawi
Michael J. Fitzpatrick: ambassador to Ecuador
Jeffrey Ross Gunter: ambassador to Iceland
Ronald Douglas Johnson: ambassador to El Salvador
Edward F. Crawford: ambassador to Ireland
Kenneth A. Howery: ambassador to Sweden
Mary Catherine Phee: ambassador to Qatar
John P. Abizaid: ambassador to Saudi Arabia
Kate Marie Byrnes: ambassador to Macedonia
Lana J. Marks: ambassador to South Africa
Matthew H. Tueller: ambassador to Iraq
The shocking death and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi in October ignited a diplomatic firestorm that still rages across the geopolitical landscape. Despite President Trump’s equivocations on the murder, the CIA and a number of Republican senators have concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman likely ordered the killing of Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, prompting questions about the wider implications for U.S.-Saudi relations.
But the diplomatic crisis has shed light on another, more fundamental challenge confronting the Trump administration’s foreign policy strategy: the dearth of U.S. ambassadors in key posts across the globe, including Riyadh.
As the White House navigates a turbulent political minefield, both abroad and at home with a new Democratic-led House, it is doing so without the full weight and imprimatur of a major component of American diplomacy. As a result, key allies and other nations must fill the vacuum left by a mercurial U.S. president who is shaping policy oftentimes in 280 characters or less.
The Trump administration has hit the two-year mark and as of this printing, roughly 60 ambassadorships remain unfilled. Of those, however, the majority have nominees awaiting confirmation. (The State Department also has vacancies in high-ranking positions such as assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor.)
The announcement of nominees was slow-going at the start of Trump’s presidency but has sped up dramatically in recent months.
Notably, on Nov. 13, the White House announced it would nominate retired four-star Army Gen. John P. Abizaid to be the next U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, a post that has been vacant for the entirety of Trump’s presidency.
While many posts have nominees, that does not guarantee they will be confirmed — and the problem now is that the clock is ticking. When a session of Congress ends every two years, nominees who did not get up-or-down floor votes essentially have to start the process from scratch during the next session.
There is an exception to this rule. Members can reach a unanimous consent agreement to keep certain nominations on the calendar for the following session. Such agreements, however, are relatively rare and usually only apply to a few select candidates.
Fortunately, though, nothing gets the bureaucratic process moving like make-or-break deadlines. Congress is likely to make one big final push at the end of 2018 to approve a slew of nominees before the session wraps up. As of press time in December, the final list of confirmations had not yet been finalized, but there was already a significant yearend scramble to get key nominees confirmed.
On Dec. 14, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee cleared a large number of ambassadorial candidates, many of them career diplomats. Among them were: Christopher Paul Henzel (Yemen); lawyer Arthur B. Culvahouse (Australia); Earle D. Litzenberger (Azerbaijan); Lynne M. Tracy (Armenia); John Matthews (Brunei); Kyle McCarter (Kenya); Michael S. Klecheski (Mongolia); and Sarah-Ann Lynch (Guyana).
The yearend confirmation blitz is likely to make a significant dent in the number of empty ambassadorships abroad. And while Trump has been criticized for not pushing hard enough to get U.S. ambassadors in place, he is hardly the first president to encounter problems getting his nominees confirmed. The nominees of both Republican and Democratic presidents regularly face lengthy delays in Congress, often due to bureaucratic logjams or partisan gridlock. Some are blocked for purely political reasons, a time-honored tactic used in the Senate by both parties. Some political appointees don’t pass muster for lack of experience.
In early 2014 under President Obama, for example, the confirmation of 50 ambassadorial nominees was stalled in part due to scheduling delays, but also because of partisan turf battles in Congress. Months earlier, Senate Democrats had invoked the so-called “nuclear option” to eliminate filibusters for most presidential nominations, citing Republican obstructionism. As a result, many judicial and executive branch appointments were able to pass with a simple majority in the Senate, as opposed to the 60-vote threshold that had been required for decades.
The rule change shifted power in the Senate from the minority to the majority party, but it didn’t eliminate delays for diplomatic posts because the minority could still employ procedural tactics to slow-walk nominations. Democrats at the time accused Republicans of purposely dragging out ambassadorial confirmations using these procedural gimmicks, such as refusing to consider groups of nominees at the same time, as had been the norm, or abusing the power of individual senators to place “holds” on nominations for any reason whatsoever.
For instance, Obama nominated Deputy White House counsel Cassandra Q. Butts to be ambassador to the Bahamas in February 2014. Her nomination languished until the 113th Congress ended. Obama re-nominated her in February 2015, but her confirmation was blocked by several Republican senators. Butts died in May 2016 of an illness — still waiting for a Senate vote a whopping 865 days after her initial nomination.
Republicans now essentially argue that Democrats are playing the same game, resulting in the current backlog. In addition to procedural stalling techniques, senators can place holds on nominations to bring the legislative vetting process to a grinding halt.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently accused New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of “putting our nation at risk” by blocking nominations.
“Today, there are more than 60 State Department nominees awaiting confirmation in the United States Senate. That’s more than a quarter of all the senior-level confirmable positions at the department,” Pompeo said in an Oct. 10 statement. “More than a dozen of these qualified political nominees are being held up by Senate Democrats because of politics.”
Menendez promptly fired back, issuing a release the next day that disputed Pompeo’s numbers and argued that some of Trump’s political nominees failed to disclose key information, such as financial conflicts of interest and, in one case, sexual harassment allegations. Menendez also cited nominees’ “track records of deeply offensive public statements, unbefitting of an official representative of the United States, including derisive comments about current sitting U.S. senators, extremist views on immigrants, and demeaning comments about women.”
Menendez also rebutted charges that Democrats were holding up qualified career professionals. “The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has advanced more than 40 career nominations during the Trump administration, as well as more than 1,550 Foreign Service Officers. While Senate Democrats do not control the committee or floor schedule, career nominations have been processed in as few as 11 days,” he said, with the median time averaging approximately six weeks.
“Since January 2017, Senate Democrats have worked diligently with Senate Republicans to advance 131 nominees to the Senate floor. Of those, 107 have been confirmed,” Menendez added. “Even now, after almost 22 months, the Trump administration has failed to nominate anyone for 49 State Department leadership and ambassadorial posts, including two undersecretary positions, and ambassadors to critical countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Australia, Mexico, Pakistan, Egypt and Singapore.” (Nominees for Australia and Saudi Arabia have since been named.)
While Congress can make or break a nomination, there has to be a nomination in the first place — and that falls on the White House. Here, Trump’s track record is mixed. Statistically, Trump has been particularly slow to put forth nominees compared to his two predecessors. The majority of the current batch of nominees was just announced this past fall. The Trump administration has also been plagued by one of the highest turnover rates in modern White House history, further hampering the vetting process.
Perhaps most importantly, the president does not appear to place a high value on diplomacy, insisting that he himself can make grand bargains directly with heads of state and delegating U.S. foreign policy to a small cadre of advisors, such as son-in-law Jared Kushner and members of his Cabinet.
The mood at the top invariably trickles down to the State Department, which executes the president’s directives. The hollowing-out of the U.S. Foreign Service was especially pronounced under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as the one-time ExxonMobil CEO embraced the deep budget and staffing cuts proposed by the White House, causing morale at Foggy Bottom to plummet.
A snapshot of vacancies in December 2017 — four months before Tillerson was fired — reveals the lack of urgency in filling ambassadorships. At the time, 33 vacancies had been awaiting nominees, 10 nominees were awaiting confirmation and only 35 Trump-nominated ambassadors were in place, according to a Dec. 8, 2018, report by CNN.
When Tillerson left at the end of March, eight out of 10 top State Department leadership positions were also vacant, either because staff had left, were fired or the administration never filled the positions. Postings abroad continued to sit empty as well, including ambassadorships to critical allies such as Mexico, the European Union, Turkey, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.
Since then, however, staffing has significantly improved under Secretary of State Pompeo, who ended Tillerson’s hiring freeze. According to the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), Trump has made a total of 188 appointments as of Nov. 16, split roughly between political appointees and career diplomats.
Shortly after taking office, Pompeo was able to shepherd through key ambassadorships to South Korea, Germany, Somalia and Nicaragua, among others. Over the summer, respected diplomat David Hale, a former ambassador to Pakistan, Lebanon and Jordan, was quickly approved as undersecretary for political affairs, the number-three slot at State. In October, assistant secretaries were confirmed for Western Hemisphere affairs; conflict and stabilization operations; and legislative affairs; along with an ambassador-at-large to combat human trafficking. And in December, David Schenker was confirmed to be assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, a key position, while R. Clarke Cooper became assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs.
Pompeo has also resurrected special envoy posts, which don’t require Senate confirmation and which had been eliminated under Tillerson, who viewed them as redundant and unnecessary. On Nov. 9, Pompeo appointed veteran Africa hand J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Center to serve as special envoy to the Great Lakes region, which includes the Democratic Republic of Congo, a potential flashpoint given the country’s volatile elections and a growing Ebola outbreak.
Pham was initially put forward to head up State’s African Affairs Bureau, but his nomination was held up by Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma over a territorial dispute involving Morocco. (Tibor Nagy now heads the Africa desk.) Other special envoy posts filled by Pompeo include those focusing exclusively on Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, Ukraine and Syria.
Despite the progress under Pompeo, myriad essential posts remain unfilled around the world. The list includes: Pakistan, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Oman, Lebanon, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Venezuela, Thailand, Singapore and Sudan.
Many of these now have nominees in place — such as El Salvador, Iraq, Qatar, South Africa, Sweden, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — but it’s unclear who will make the cut before 2018 ends and the process has to begin again in the new year. For other postings, such as Mexico, Egypt and Pakistan, no nominees have yet been named.
And with Nikki Haley leaving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the confirmation battle over her replacement, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, will likely be contentious given the high-profile nature of the job and the former Fox News personality’s relative lack of diplomatic experience.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann, now president of AFSA, said the vacancies only amplify the disorganization coursing through the administration’s foreign policy agenda. At the same time, the pace of nominations has increased, sparking optimism that the second half of Trump’s term will see ambassadors in place at top U.S. embassies.
“The administration seems to have picked up the pace on nominations and it looks like the Senate is also moving rapidly on confirmation hearings,” Neumann told us via email. “I hope this means that they will confirm a lot of career people before the end of the session. I really don’t know why the nomination process has moved so slowly. Not having ambassadors in major countries does limit the effectiveness of the embassies, although we do have some very good professional officers in change of the missions.”
While Neumann believes the wealth of knowledge and experience still on the ground in the form of acting envoys is enough to quell concerns over Trump’s unpredictable approach to diplomacy, others say acting ambassadors don’t carry the same weight as confirmed ones do.
“With so many empty posts, the State Department is relying on lower-level officials to pick up the slack, even in embassies of strategic importance,” wrote Robbie Gramer in an April 9, 2018, article for Foreign Policy. “The State Department claims it has a cadre of talented career diplomats filling the gaps in interim roles. But the stand-ins lack the clout of formal ambassadors, who are presidentially nominated and Senate-confirmed.
“Foreign leaders take notice when the top U.S. post in their countries sits empty for too long,” Gramer added.
But that may be intentional, according to former U.S. Ambassador Peter Romero, now host of the “American Diplomat” podcast. He said Trump’s foreign policy approach via brinksmanship diminishes the importance of on-the-ground voices. Instead, Trump relies on a small inner circle to formulate policy (Obama was accused of the same thing). This means that governments must look to a limited group of individuals to interpret the president’s agenda.
But on-the-ground ambassadors, as opposed to officials huddled in the White House, are able to address problems in real time with the advantage of extensive background knowledge that is often critical in confronting complex problems.
From internal strife in countries such as Colombia and Venezuela, to ongoing proxy battles between rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, to the threat of a rising China and a volatile North Korea, a steady and stable U.S. diplomatic presence is sorely needed.
Khashoggi’s murder amplified the diminished U.S. global footprint, and in one of the most explosive regions in the world. In this diplomatic vacuum, Trump and Pompeo must rely on information from actors whose agendas might not always align with that of the United States (as evidenced by the Saudi royal family, whose stories on the Khashoggi murder seesawed day by day).
The Middle East is not the only region simmering — and in some cases burning — under the weight of decades-long feuds and failed policies. Closer to home, in America’s backyard, seismic shifts are occurring throughout the Western Hemisphere. Latin America is undergoing tremendous change with new leaders taking the helm in Mexico, Brazil and Colombia; an economic meltdown in Venezuela; and an exploding refugee crisis stemming from the instability in Venezuela as well as gang violence in Central America that has sent a flood of asylum-seekers to the U.S.-Mexican border.
As in the Middle East, Trump’s White House is confronting multiple challenges without the benefit of seasoned and experienced diplomats. The assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs post has only recently been filled. Meanwhile, the president is looking for a replacement in America’s Mexican Embassy after the departure of Roberta Jacobson in May.
Diplomacy is often seen as the first response of international engagement and U.S. force projection. Embassies and the ambassadors that lead them are integral to communicating a narrative direct from Washington. In the absence of a powerful steward speaking on behalf of the president, embassies run the risk of messaging getting lost in translation.
In the absence of face-to-face contact with a presidential emissary to assuage and unravel cultural and coded language or actions, nations run the risk of misinterpreting or, perhaps worse, filling in the U.S. narrative with their own assumptions. If many key diplomatic positions remain vacant amid looming crises and an undercurrent of uncertainty, the world will interpret the United States as MIA on the world stage.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the Philippines, Nigeria and Liberia have U.S. ambassadors in place and the posts were incorrectly identified as vacant.
About the Author
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.
Eric Ham is a national security/political analyst on BBC, SkyNews and SiriusXM’s POTUS Channel and the creator of “The PJs! a.k.a. The Political Junkies” digital political show.