'Beyond the pale': antics of Trump ambassadors highlight crisis in US diplomacy

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Pablo Martínez Monsiváis/AP</span>
Photograph: Pablo Martínez Monsiváis/AP

The US ambassador to Iceland, a dermatologist and major Republican donor, reportedly became so paranoid about his security he asked to carry a gun and to be taken everywhere in an armoured car.

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Despite the absence of particular security concerns, the embassy in Reykjavik advertised in the local press for bodyguards, to placate the ambassador, Jeffrey Ross Gunter.

Gunter’s alleged antics are not an isolated case. A record share of Donald Trump’s ambassadorial appointments have been political, mostly rewards for big-money donors, and his nominees have frequently stood out for their lack of qualifications or aptitude.

A report to be published on Tuesday by Senate Democrats on the current situation at the state department, titled Diplomacy in Crisis, said: “While it is true that every administration has its share of questionable appointments, the Trump administration’s choices have gone beyond the pale, jeopardizing the department’s ability to safeguard our nation’s interests.”

Since being nominated May 2019, Gunter has proved so hard to work with he has gone through seven deputy chiefs of mission (DCMs), career diplomats who do most of the day-to-day management of the embassy. According to CBS News, he rejected his first deputy, who had spent months learning Icelandic, because he “didn’t like the look of him” at their introductory meeting.

Gunter also reportedly refused to return to his post after attending a conference in Washington in February, arguing he could do the job remotely, and was only coaxed back to Reykjavik in May after a call from the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

The state department said that Gunter’s return was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

CBS reported that Gunter was persuaded not to make a formal request for a gun permit to the Icelandic authorities, who have very strict firearms laws.

Gunter did not immediately respond to a request to comment, but after the CBS report, he issued a statement to the Icelandic press, saying: “Our focus at the US embassy remains where it has always been – on strengthening the US-Icelandic bilateral relationship which brings so much benefit to both our great nations. I am honored to be leading our team during this successful period of US-Icelandic appreciation and respect.”

On the question of the ambassador’s preoccupation with his personal security, a state department spokesperson said: “Protection programs for our leadership are standard features at most US facilities around the world. We continue to have a very close working relationship with Icelandic authorities on security and other matters.”

Gunter has proven so hard to work with he has gone through seven deputy chiefs of mission

Gunter is far from being the only wealthy Trump-donor-turned-diplomat to stand out for their eccentricities. The ambassador to the UK, Woody Johnson, a billionaire Trump backer, has been investigated by the state department office of the inspector general (before the inspector general was fired in May) for racist and sexist remarks.

Johnson is reported to have resisted holding Black History Month events in 2018, asking his aides whether he would be addressing “a whole bunch of black people”. He was also reported to have held a number of official functions at a men-only London club, White’s.

Johnson rejected the charges. He wrote on Twitter: “I have followed the ethical rules and requirements of my office at all times. These false claims of insensitive remarks about race and gender are totally inconsistent with my longstanding record and values.”

Johnson’s former DCM, Lewis Lukens, claimed in December that the ambassador had fired him because he had mentioned Barack Obama in a speech to British university students.

Related: Trump reportedly picks handbag designer as ambassador to South Africa

Lana Marks was a handbag designer and member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club before he made her ambassador to South Africa, where she also forced out her DCM, amid concerns that she was seeking to install her son in a senior role in the embassy, after she referred to him as her “chief of staff” in a tweet, which she later deleted.

Marks told Foreign Policy that she had removed her DCM, David Young, because “our management styles were quite different” and was seeking to get him a more senior job elsewhere. US officials said there was no connection between Young’s departure and Marks’ son.

“The rate at which DCMs are being removed, and the reasoning behind the removals, has created cause for concern,” the Senate Democratic report, said. “In the process, the department lost significant institutional knowledge and substantive experience.”

The report includes a litany of cases of unqualified or unvetted diplomatic nominees. It notes the recent case of Mina Chang, who was given a senior state department job despite having limited relevant experience and allegedly padding her résumé with exaggerated accounts of her career, claiming to have served on a UN panel that did not exist. There was even a fake Time magazine cover about her accomplishments.

Chang resigned but denied the allegations against her. She said the Time cover was done by an enthusiastic supporter, although Chang did not correct an interviewer who presented it in 2017 as an example of her achievements.

Christine Toretti, nominated in May 2018 to serve as ambassador to Malta, had been subject to a restraining order in 2008 for “placing a bullet-riddled target sheet” in the office of her ex-husband’s doctor.

Ronald Neumann, the head of the American Academy of Diplomacy and former deputy assistant secretary of state, said that the Trump diplomatic record was “somewhat outside the norm in numbers, and I think further outside the norm in poor quality of political appointees”.

Of the 189 US ambassadorial posts, only three are currently held by African Americans, according to the American Foreign Service Association. The increasing share of top jobs going to Trump donors have also served to close off avenues of career advancement in general, leading to an exodus of aspiring diplomats.

Between July 2017 and June 2018, according to the Senate Democratic report, 722 full-time, non-seasonal employees left the state department, about 7% of the total staff.

A state department spokesperson rejected widespread reports of low morale, using one of Pompeo’s favourite buzzwords.

“The state department’s swagger is fully back,” the spokesperson said. “From day one, Secretary Pompeo has delivered on advancing the interests and values of the American people both here at home and around the world.”

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