Jan 31, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden trimming diplomatic posts for top donors

Then-Vice President Joe Biden is seen walking with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and U.S. Ambassador to Italy John Phillips.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, left, and U.S. ambassador to Italy John Phillips in 2015. Photo: Tiberio Barchielli/Italian Prime Ministry/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

President Biden is tempering the ambassadorial expectations of his big-dollar donors, signaling he won't hand out plum posts for months and hinting he'll nominate fewer of them than his predecessors.

The big picture: The president embraced the Democratic Party's push for diversity when choosing his Cabinet. Now lawmakers are pressuring him to extend it to his ambassador picks, meaning white male donors — the core of his fundraiser base — will be in serious competition for fewer spots.

What we are hearing: Biden is most likely to reward loyal politicians and former aides, with talk about former senators like Claire McCaskill headed for a gilded post in Europe.

  • On the policy-makers front, Julianne Smith, a former Biden aide, could be nominated as ambassador to NATO.
  • In the donor class, Denise Bauer, Obama's ambassador to Belgium, was a top fundraiser. She could return to Europe, possibly Paris, among the most coveted positions.
  • Doug Hickey, another big Biden donor, also is interested in a foreign posting.
  • James Costos, a former HBO executive who served as Obama’s ambassador to Spain, has expressed interest in the United Kingdom, but many others are interested, including David Cohen, a Comcast executive.
  • Louis Frillman, a real estate investor, and Nathalie Rayes, president of the Latino Victory Project, have told associates they're interested in Madrid or another European post.

The big question: The ambassadorship to China has recently gone to former politicians, giving Beijing the prestige of a big-branded name and the White House the comfort that its envoy will have a political antenna to detect any potential problems.

  • If Biden names Disney executive chairman Robert Iger, who has told Biden officials he’s interested, it would break that mold.

Biden is scheduled, weather permitting, to visit the State Department on Monday, a symbolic showing as he seeks to re-invigorate diplomacy and underscore America’s commitment to allies and partners. He's also expected to deliver remarks about his foreign policy initiatives.

  • While the president certainly will name some donors to top posts, others are getting nervous they’ll be passed over and are feverishly pressing their cases.
  • While more than 800 individuals and couples raised more than $100,000 for Biden's presidential bid, the more elite group of "bundlers" raised well above that amount and also gave the maximum of $620,000 to the Biden Victory Fund.

By the numbers: Biden will likely make non-career nominations for about 30% of the roughly 190 total ambassadorships, leaving 70% for the career Foreign Service, according to people familiar with the matter.

  • That 70:30 ratio would be in line with the traditional breakdown, according to the American Foreign Service Association.
  • President Trump deviated by nominating political ambassadors for about 44% of his appointments.
  • Trump's nominees also skewed heavily non-diverse, with more than 90% of his openings going to those who are white, Foreign Policy reported in 2018.

Go deeper: The political category has always been divided, broadly, into three buckets: policy experts, politicians and donors.

  • Biden is expected to draw more heavily from the first two categories, leaving fewer positions for donors looking to cap a successful business career with a foreign posting.
  • Biden has a sprawling network of Beltway friends and allies but was never that successful — or reliant — on the money and celebrity classes in New York and California.
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