Gordon Sondland embodies an age-old problem—one that the flood of donor money into American politics is only exacerbating.
No other developed democratic country—and perhaps no other country in the world—would entrust any part of its foreign policy to someone like Gordon Sondland. A wealthy West Coast hotel owner, Sondland donated $1 million to President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee and was rewarded with an appointment as the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
This week, Sondland became a reluctant star witness in presidential impeachment hearings before the House Intelligence Committee. In his testimony, he laid out his role in pressuring the Ukrainian government to announce an investigation that would boost Trump’s reelection prospects. But the ambassador also testified, albeit inadvertently, to his own ignorance of diplomatic practices and norms—and to the damage that an unqualified dilettante can do when representing the United States government. He boasted that he speaks with heads of state and senior government officials every day—but added that he does not document those conversations. “I’m not a note-taker, nor am I a memo writer. Never have been,” Sondland said Wednesday. Never mind that a designated representative of the U.S. government has no truly unofficial discussions with foreign leaders, and that memorializing who said what to whom is essential to every ambassador’s job.
Trump is not alone in appointing political donors with no relevant experience to ambassadorships in foreign capitals. All recent presidents have done so. Yet the problem is getting worse—as the cost of American presidential campaigns skyrockets, as wealthy Americans flex their muscles within the American political system, and as the selling of ambassadorships for cold, hard cash becomes more and more overt.
Earlier this year, the Marquette University law professor Ryan Scoville published research examining the credentials of “political” ambassadors—that is, envoys who come from outside the diplomatic corps and are appointed because they are friends of or major donors to the president. He found that political ambassadors’ relevant expertise, as measured by their language ability, policy experience, and familiarity with the country to which they are posted, has been on the decline in recent decades. Scoville concluded that “the credentials of the average political appointee have diminished just as the average size of campaign contributions has grown.”
Two days before Sondland testified, CBS News reported on what it called a “possible pay-to-play scheme” involving Doug Manchester, a GOP contributor whose nomination as ambassador to the Bahamas stalled for more than two years. According to a leaked email, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tried to hit up Manchester’s family for $500,000 just days after Trump tweeted in support of his confirmation. In the end, Manchester withdrew.
Sondland’s appointment succeeded even though it, too, was obviously transactional. The hotel owner did not support Trump for the Republican nomination and did little to get him elected. But once he won, Sondland wrote a big check. And just like magic, he was off to live in Brussels as the American ambassador to the European Union. Along with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Sondland became the president’s go-to guy for dealing with Ukraine—even though that country is not part of the EU. For Trump, it seems, Sondland’s disdain for note-taking was an asset, not a flaw.
National security is harmed when diplomacy is done badly. When the United States has a problem with another country, it can resolve it by diplomacy, force, or just ignoring it and hoping it goes away. When the first option is debilitated by putting incompetent presidential sycophants in charge of embassies, that leaves only the two other alternatives. If command of an aircraft carrier were handed over to a real-estate developer because he had contributed to a political campaign, the outrage would be immediate. But putting our soft power, our ability to conduct diplomacy, in the hands of the unqualified and clueless is somehow acceptable.
That Sondland gave bad diplomatic advice was clear in the cellphone conversation he had with the president on July 26 as he sat in a restaurant in Kyiv. Trump had personally intervened in favor of A$AP Rocky, an African American recording artist who was arrested and charged with assault in Sweden. Sondland, according to the testimony of the U.S. diplomat who was eating with the ambassador, suggested that Trump “let [the rapper] get sentenced, play the racism card, give him a ticker-tape [parade] when he comes home.” Sondland then helpfully added that Trump would be able to tell the Kardashians that he had tried to help A$AP Rocky. In other words, Sondland was encouraging the president’s impulse to let a celebrity family dictate the status of our relationship with a significant ally.
Sondland is an egregious case, but Trump’s predecessors made similar appointments for similar reasons. The three-week “charm school” that new ambassadors attend is not enough to turn donors into diplomats. Four ambassadors appointed by Barack Obama performed so badly that, once the State Department inspector general issued reports on how poorly their embassies were run, they all resigned immediately.
The percentage of political-appointee ambassadors typically runs about 30 percent of the total, with the rest coming from the ranks of career Foreign Service officers and civil servants. At this point, the figure for Trump is 44 percent, though it is dropping; political appointments tend to taper off significantly toward the end of a presidential term.
What certainly has changed over the years is the price for buying the title. Unlike previous presidents, Trump imposed no cap on the amount that donors could give to his inauguration—a decision that gave Sondland the opportunity to demonstrate the magnitude of his newfound enthusiasm for the president-elect through the size of his contribution. A total of $107 million was collected for the festivities, with more than 90 percent of the money coming from 250 donors who kicked in more than $100,000 apiece.
In the end, the Constitution gives the president the power to appoint ambassadors with the advice and consent of the Senate. Selling ambassadorships is a perk that next to none of those who want the job appear willing to give up. In Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate, Senator Elizabeth Warren did say, “Anyone who wants to give me a big donation, don’t ask to be an ambassador, because I’m not going to have that happen.” She urged all the candidates running for president to join her in that pledge.
So far, not a single one has.