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White House: Ambassadorships for Donors Don't Violate Swamp-Draining Pledge

President Trump talks with former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, his ambassador to China, as they depart Air Force One at Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on June 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON — The White House today said it’s natural that President Trump would grant ambassadorships to political supporters and financial backers because they’ll support Trump’s agenda abroad.

There are currently 53 vacant ambassadorships for which there is no nominee, according to the American Foreign Service Association, including Afghanistan, ASEAN, the European Union, France, Germany, Australia, Italy, NATO, OAS, OSCE, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.

The Senate has confirmed former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as ambassador to China, bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman to Israel, former Sen. Scott Brown to New Zealand and Samoa, and Nikki Haley for the United Nations. Trump also continued an exit appointment from the Obama administration and named Tulinabo Salama Mushingi, a career diplomat and former envoy to Burkina Faso, to serve as ambassador to Senegal and Guinea-Bissau.

Pending nominations are Callista Gingrich for the Vatican; Doug Manchester, a San Diego hotelier and early Trump campaign financial supporter, for the Bahamas; Kelly Knight Craft, a 2016 RNC delegate, GOP fundraiser and wife of coal magnate Joseph W. Craft III, for Canada; Sharon Day, former co-chair of the Republican National Committee, for Costa Rica; Michael Raynor, a career diplomat, for Ethiopia; William Hagerty IV, a private equity firm founder and veteran of the George H.W. Bush administration, for Japan; George E. Glass, a manager of rental properties and Trump donor, for Portugal; K.T. McFarland, who briefly served as Trump’s deputy national security advisor, for Singapore; and Jay Patrick Murray, a retired U.S. Army colonel and commentator who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2010 and 2012, for UN/Political Affairs.

On Wednesday, Trump announced nominations for John P. Desrocher, a career diplomat, to serve as U.S. ambassador to Algeria and Kelley Eckels Currie, a senior fellow with the Project 2049 Institute and former State Department official, to be the UN/Economic & Social Council ambassador.

Belarus, Bolivia, Eritrea, Sudan, and Syria are vacancies for which the U.S. does not currently have an ambassador-exchange relationship.

The balance of the 188 ambassador positions are still filled by career State Department diplomats confirmed during President Obama’s second term. Trump’s January blanket order for Obama’s ambassadors to leave only applied to political appointees.

At a rally with supporters Wednesday in Iowa, Trump praised his ambassador to China, Branstad.

“He’s a fantastic guy. You know I told the story today. I said, I come here to make a speech. We have a big crowd in Iowa. And Terry would come and say — at that time he didn’t call me Mr. President. He called me Donald. I said, that’s OK. I didn’t think about. Now if he called me Donald I’d be very angry with him, right?” Trump said. “But he said, Donald, could you do me a favor? Don’t say anything bad about China. We do a lot of business with China. I like China a lot. I’ve known President Xi for a long time. I really like him. And he also, by the way, likes Terry a lot.”

“So, when I was thinking of who am I going to make the ambassador to China, after you know, having a good, retentive mind. I said you know I remember about a year ago when Terry Branstad was saying all of these great things, your governor. So, I called him up and I said listen, you’ve been doing this for 24 years. You want to do something else? Like how would you like to be ambassador to China? And I didn’t think he’d really do it,” he added. “It’s a long trip. Twenty-one hours? That’s a lot of plane time.”

Today at the daily briefing, a reporter asked White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, “Is it consistent with the president’s pledge to drain the swamp that he’s giving so many of these first wave of ambassadorships to political supporters and campaign donors?”

“Look, I think it’s pretty traditional that you would have somebody supportive of you and your agenda to go out and be an ambassador to speak on behalf of the administration,” Sanders said.

“And Terry Branstad is somebody who has, I think, some of the best qualifications that you could have to send there,” she added. “He’s got a personal relationship with senior-level members of the Chinese administration, as well as a very strong understanding of trade practices given his background. And I think he’s a perfect fit for that role.”

UPDATE 7:30 p.m. EST: This evening, Trump announced additional ambassador nominees: Maria Brewer, a career diplomat, to Sierra Leone; Jamie McCourt, former co-owner of the L.A. Dodgers and a Trump transition team member who hosted a Bel Air fundraiser for Trump, as ambassador to Belgium; and New York Jets CEO Woody Johnson, a longtime GOP donor, to the UK.