Jun 9, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Biden pressed to renominate failed Obama ambassador pick

George Tsunis is seen in a screengrab from Senate.gov
George Tsunis. Photo: Senate.gov

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) has asked President Biden to nominate George Tsunis, a New York hotel executive and major Democratic donor, for an ambassadorship, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez has the ability to slow-walk any ambassadorial nominee, giving the White House plenty of reasons to placate him on one specific candidate. Tsunis has a checkered political history, though.

  • During his 2013 confirmation hearing to be ambassador to Norway, Tsunis acknowledged he had not visited the country and mistakenly referred to the country’s head of government as “president,” not “prime minister.”
  • Tsunis’s performance was lambasted by then-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), lampooned in comedy sketches and ultimately languished in the Senate.
  • Tsunis pulled himself out of contention in 2014.

What they're saying: “I have a longstanding policy on not commenting on anyone who may, or may not, become a nominee,” Menendez told Axios.

  • The White House also declined to comment.

The intrigue: Tsunis is the founder and CEO of Chartwell Hotels. He has long been a Biden donor and even indicated he’d support him in 2016, when the then-vice president ultimately decided not to run.

  • During President Obama's 2012 reelection effort, Tsunis bundled $1.3 million for his campaign.
  • Tsunis also has been a staunch supporter of Menendez and linked his interest in helping Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-N.J.) 2020 presidential bid — before Biden got in the race — to Menendez.
  • ”This is George helping Sen. Menendez help Cory Booker," Tsunis said on CNBC in March of 2019.

Between the lines: Biden plans to draw mostly on political allies and former aides for his first slate of political ambassadors, and it’s unclear how many pure donors will make the initial cut.

  • Even though he has had a list of potential ambassadors in hand since March, the president has delayed announcing his first political group and likely will do it later in June, after he returns from his first trip abroad.
  • Some advisers had wanted Biden to name ambassadors for NATO and the European Union before meeting with leaders in the UK and then Brussels over the next week.

Be smart: After his disastrous hearing, Tsunis made inroads with some senators, who appreciated his willingness to listen and learn.

Go deeper