President-elect Donald Trump has added another brick to his metaphorical wall of breaking with political tradition. Trump’s camp issued a blanket edict for all politically appointed ambassadors to leave their overseas positions immediately come noon on January 20.
First reported by the New York Times, this mandate - sent out on Dec 23, 2016 - breaks precedent by offering no exceptions to the end of term date. In the past, administrations of both parties have granted extensions on a case-by-case basis to allow ambassadors to sort out family affairs, such as having their school-age children finish out their year. By not providing the option of a grace period, some diplomats who represent the US in countries such as Britain, Saudi Arabia, and Japan are scrambling to figure out new living arrangements, visa rules, and what options they have for their children.
Let’s clear things up. Traditionally, all politically appointed ambassadors tenure their resignations when a new administration comes into power. John Kirby, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, explained as much during the press briefing on Friday:
“I think I can break this down pretty easily, as I’ve seen the press coverage on this as well. 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. 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….You’d have to talk to the Trump transition team about why they decided to not be willing to broker exceptions or waivers, requests to extend. I can’t speak to that. That’s really for them. [And] it’s for them to determine whether they’d be willing to accept or deny individual requests to extend.”
That’s the thing. Incoming presidents have frequently made exceptions to allow individual ambassadors to wrap up diplomatic business and personal affairs until their successors are confirmed- a process that often takes months. It’s doubtful that Trump will have decided who all of his foreign envoys will be, given that there are 188 ambassadorships available according to the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA). According to Kirby, roughly 30% of these individuals have been asked to resign, while the remaining 70% are AFSA representatives and will presumably stay on; CNBC estimates there are around 50 ambassadors packing up their desks in their latest report.
AFSA officers are viewed as “career diplomats” i.e. public servants who work for their country's foreign ministries. Political appointees, however, are people from non-government backgrounds and serve due to their relationship with the president. Typically, they fill the less glamorous ambassador postings- in places like Afghanistan or Sudan- and it’s expected that these individuals will step in and take on the roles of running the embassies until replacements are found. Considering that this will leave the US without official representation in critical countries like Germany, Canada, France, Sweden, etc., it sends a pretty negative message on how the new administration plans to work. Trump’s regard for other countries can be called into question.
It’s silly too, since it doesn’t need to be that way. Peter Cianchette, for instance, became the American ambassador to Costa Rica through President George W. Bush in June 2008, and President Obama allowed Cianchette to remain in his position until July 2009. Similarly, Diane E. Watson, who was appointed an ambassador of Micronesia by former President Bill Clinton, remained at her post long after George W. Bush assumed office. There are more examples of presidents allowing ambassadors appointed by their predecessors to remain at their posts past Inauguration Day for every presidential transition dating back to 1977, when Jimmy Carter succeeded Gerald Ford.
So why? Derek Shearer, a professor of Diplomacy at Occidental College and a former US ambassador to Finland, said to the New York Times that it was difficult to see a rationale for the decision. “It feels like there’s an element just of spite and payback in it. I don’t see a higher policy motive.”
It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for these individuals. Ambassador Stafford Fitzgerald Haney in Costa Rica is house hunting because he doesn’t want to move his four school-age children and his wife, who is battling breast cancer, back to the US in their current circumstances. Ambassador Andrew H. Schapiro is searching for a place in Prague, while attempting to lobby a Chicago-based school to break with their policy and accept his kids midyear. Both Ambassadors Denise Bauer (Brussels) and Pamela Hamamoto (permanent representative to the United Nations) are attempting to find ways to keep their daughters from having to move just five months before high school graduations.
One of the main reasons listed for why Melania Trump and her son, Barron, were staying in New York was to keep Barron’s life disruptions to a minimum. Considering how supportive she is to her family and how devoted she is to Barron, you’d think Trump would extend the same courtesy to our oversea representatives, especially in regards to having their kids finish out the school year in their current schools like Barron is. Ronald E. Neumann, the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, agreed with the strangeness of his refusal to even discuss exceptions.
“When you have people out there who’s only reason for being an ambassador is their political connection to the outgoing president of a different party, it’s pretty logical to say they should leave. But I don’t recollect there was ever a guillotine in January where it was just, ‘Everybody out of the pool immediately.’”
Apparently, this is what we can expect from the Trump administration now. Exceptions for his own family must be made, even when New York and the NYPD have asked for a full $35 million reimbursement of federal funds (read: taxpayer money) for the cost of protecting Trump, Melania and Barron in the Trump Tower. And his lack of concern for families is disheartening. He can’t even have one talk or thought about helping to minimize disruptions in other children’s lives? What kind of message is that sending on a global scale, if the leader of a country doesn’t care what happens to American representatives and their kids overseas? They’re getting tossed out the door, even though previous administrations provided the opportunity to at least consider alternatives.
An exception for ambassadors will not be entertained in any way, shape, or form by Trump’s White House. The fact that the mandate from the White House does not even open the door for discussion is a dangerous indication of future proceedings. This is something small in the grand scheme of things- so until Trump appoints one of his associates to the position, keep the current Obama friends in place to properly handle diplomatic issues. It would offer a bit more time for them to get their visas in order and find different living accommodations. Eventually, all positions will be filled with Trump’s friends- if he hasn’t already packed them into his cabinet- so what’s the harm is providing some leeway for those representatives and their families? But nope, that’s not the Donald’s way apparently. What’s ironic is how Trump’s more considerate to Russian Ambassadors than the current American ones, even going so far as to invite them to his inauguration- despite the fact that Obama kicked them out just a few weeks ago. In case you’re curious: yes, one is attending. So Trump will have at least one friend at his lackluster party.
Proper governing involves considerations and deliberations, especially when it involves multiple groups and parties- compromise tends to be a healthy way to ensure the majority of populations are satisfied with the outcome. Instead, with this declaration, President-elect Trump is already demonstrating his lack of concern for families and willingness to confer over possibilities to help others. He can’t even be bothered to at least let these ambassadors try. I wonder what’s going to happen over the next four years when Trump needs to actually talk and examine different perspectives and details for important policy decisions. Is he going to shut down any opportunities to discuss those as well? His word is just going to be the final say, the law of the land? That’s not how a democratically-elected leader is supposed to govern.
It’s going to be an interesting and tumultuous four years.