President-elect Donald Trump’s requirement that all politically appointed ambassadors leave their posts by Inauguration Day is historically the normal precedent, but that hasn’t stopped critics from crying foul.
The Department of State issued a diplomatic cable on Trump’s behalf Dec. 23 notifying politically appointed ambassadors that they are required to leave their posts by Jan. 20, nearly a month after the fact. It is quite normal for all political appointees, including ambassadors, to vacate their positions at the completion of the presidential term, yet The New York Times published an article Thursday arguing the opposite.
“The mandate — issued ‘without exceptions,’ according to a terse State Department cable sent on Dec. 23, diplomats who saw it said — threatens to leave the United States without Senate-confirmed envoys for months in critical nations like Germany, Canada and Britain,” said the Times piece. “In the past, administrations of both parties have often granted extensions on a case-by-case basis to allow a handful of ambassadors, particularly those with school-age children, to remain in place for weeks or months.”
The article quoted former Amb. Marc Grossman, who cited exceptions made by former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell reportedly allowed some political appointees to stay in their posts after the traditional Jan. 20 deadline. But as Domani Spero of Diplopundit noted in a piece Friday, Powell’s offer is by far the exception, not the rule.
Trump’s mandate should come as no surprise to politically appointed ambassadors, who by nature are awarded their positions not out of meritorious diplomatic service, but because they are close to the president. John Kirby, the State Department’s spokesman, noted that Obama administration appointees were told to submit resignations by Dec. 7, as per tradition.
“All political appointees for the Obama Administration were directed to submit their letters of resignation, and the due date was December 7th, and the resignations are to take effect at noon on January 20th,” Kirby told reporters Friday. “All political appointees were directed to do that. That is common, typical practice. And when you’re a political appointee for this or any other administration, you have no expectation of staying beyond the inauguration of a new administration. That’s the way it works.”
The Times article went on to claim that Trump’s decision threatens to leave the U.S. without “senate-confirmed envoys” in “critical nations like Germany, Canada and Britain” for months. While this is technically possible, it is far from a disastrous situation. Politically appointed ambassadors do not typically have a long track record of diplomatic service, and U.S. embassies generally have what is known as a “deputy chief of mission,” who is responsible for day-to-day operations at their assigned embassy. As the State Department website clearly notes, this person is “a career Foreign Service Officer” who acts as the “Charge d’Affaires (person in charge) whenever the Ambassador is absent.”
“That’s why you have deputy chiefs of mission who are extremely competent and professionals – extremely competent professionals who are trained to be in those jobs and are expected to be able to fill in and step in for the ambassador at other times of absence as well,” Kirby told reporters. “So yes, in those cases where we have a politically appointed ambassador who will be leaving office of the 20th on the afternoon of the 20th, those duties will fall to the DCM, as appropriate, until such time as a new ambassador can be confirmed and appointed – or appointed, confirmed, and put in office.”
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