Inside the Big-Donor Scramble for a Biden Ambassadorship

Ambassadoring is a posh gig. Photo: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images

Four months into the Joe Biden administration, it’s hard for the president’s top aides to scroll through their inboxes without finding dozens of unsolicited letters of introduction and recommendations pinged in from increasingly agitated corners of East Hampton, Beverly Hills, and Miami Beach. Inside the emails — described to New York by multiple Democrats familiar with the deluge over the past few weeks — are résumés, memos, and pitches from donors, celebrities, and occasional influencers. They don’t all say it explicitly, but most of them want the same thing: some sort of overseas posting.

“Ambassadorships are the closest things we have to somebody being declared a lord or a lady,” explained one Biden-friendly former elected official turned top lobbyist whose phone won’t stop ringing with wannabe ambassadors on the line. “It’s a title, but it’s tombstone shit for a lot of people. It’s in their New York Times obituary, which is especially attractive for somebody who hasn’t served in government.”

The problem for petitioners is that most of their lobbying is at best ineffective right now, though hardly an unreasonable thing for them to try. For decades, presidents have doled out embassy assignments to campaign fundraisers and influential political allies who helped them get to the White House — a practice that almost everyone in D.C. could agree was at least slightly unseemly but also the cost of doing business, especially since some of the lower-stress ambassadorship jobs sometimes felt more like party-planning roles than diplomatic assignments in the best of times. But the Biden team has been sending signals that it intends to play the game a bit differently this time.

Without clear guidance from the White House on how to register interest in the gigs, some donors have been pitching themselves to, and asking for recommendations from, high-ranking current and former government officials who they suspect have Biden’s ear — people like Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Chris Coons. But even when they do successfully get their information in front of the people running the process — top White House aides like Biden counselor Steve Ricchetti, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, personnel-office director Cathy Russell, and chief of staff Ron Klain — they seldom receive anything back.

There are a few reasons for today’s specific radio silence. For one, the members of Biden’s team care about some of the most obvious options a lot less than they’d like right now. This dates back to 2019, when several liberal magnates who had spun their donations into ambassadorships in the Obama years met in Chicago and D.C. to try to coalesce around a 2020 presidential contender. Implicit in that effort was their belief that Primary Candidate Biden wasn’t cutting it — a conviction they flipped in time for the ex-VP to beat Trump but also late enough for him to notice their absence.

The new American embassy in London. Photo: Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty Images

Some Obama-era ambassadors were with Biden from the start, to be sure: Former ambassador to Belgium Denise Bauer helped him raise money early, and ex-Obama 2012 finance director and onetime ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford backed him after considering other candidates ahead of the Iowa caucuses, then later became a deputy campaign manager. But more went elsewhere early, so Biden may be less likely to reward them with new gigs. For months, he barely had big-money donors to speak of at all. Some ex-envoys, like former ambassador to the U.K. Louis Susman, backed Beto O’Rourke. Pete Buttigieg, meanwhile, had support from a wide range of ex-diplomats, including Don Beyer, who was Obama’s first ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein before he was elected to Congress, and the former envoys to the Netherlands, Italy, Slovakia, Canada, and Austria. (David Jacobson, who’d been in Canada, and John Phillips, in Italy, were among the organizers of such donor gatherings in 2019.)

But payback is not the only motive at play.  Biden World also believes the rest of the globe is sufficiently on fire to deserve actual diplomatic pros or government veterans on the front lines. For nearly a year now, Biden and his inner circle have signaled to anyone who cared to listen that he would much rather reward high-stature former Senate colleagues, longtime aides, and elected allies with plum jobs than stack the diplomatic corps with donors — many of whom were somewhat new to his orbit anyway.

The president and his team also took notice of how how out of control the process had gotten. Trump’s donor-ambassador picks were world-historically awful. Remember the envoy to Iceland, who fired seven deputies, insisted on carrying a gun, and preferred to do his job from California? Or the one in France who refused to hold staff meetings for fear of eavesdropping by the “deep state”?  But some of Obama’s were casually embarrassing, too, like his 2014 nominee for Argentina, a campaign bundler who had never visited the country.

Biden’s early signals were clear: His pick for ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, was a universally respected career diplomat, whereas the D.C. rumor mill had been convinced Buttigieg was a shoo-in for the job. Already, Biden has nominated career diplomats to a handful of nations requiring expert care.

The latest leaks about the next likely nominations really got the rumor mill churning among hopeful donors. Most of the nominations show the Biden team means what it has been saying. The gigs, it seems, will go to old political or bureaucratic hands who’ve been at Biden’s side for years — just not friendly tycoons. According to Democrats close to the process, that likely includes former undersecretary of State Nick Burns for China, former deputy secretary of State and banker-slash-fundraiser Tom Nides for Israel, ex-Biden aide and former ambassador to Romania Mark Gitenstein to the European Union, former senator and Interior secretary Ken Salazar for Mexico, former senator Chris Dodd for Ireland, Cindy McCain for the World Food Program, former L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti for India, and former Chicago mayor and onetime Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel for Japan. Other longtime senior Biden aides like Michael Carpenter are rumored to be up for jobs, too, and some other political allies — Caroline Kennedy, ex-senator Jeff Flake, Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms — have been included in the conversation about potential postings.

Still, though that list is stacked with government experience, it hasn’t been without controversy of its own: Emanuel was initially considered for Transportation secretary before Biden faced significant pushback from progressives, who again raised red flags when he was floated for the China ambassadorship. Garcetti, too, was knocked out of contention for a Cabinet position thanks to reporting that he knew of his top political adviser’s sexual misconduct. Both are still likely to be confirmed, as is Nides, who was the subject of a back-and-forth with lefties who preferred former representative Robert Wexler for the job. (While Nides is a well-known party fundraiser, he was previously a veteran aide to a series of top-tier Democratic officials, and he was Hillary Clinton’s deputy at the State Department.)

At least some of the donors might have reason to be hopeful though. Biden wouldn’t pledge outright to ban them from ambassadorships when Elizabeth Warren pressed the issue during the 2020 campaign, and he is likely to tap David Cohen, a Comcast executive who hosted the first fundraising event of his campaign, for a job. Then again, Cohen isn’t just a donor: He’s a longtime government operative in Philadelphia, a former aide to Biden’s buddy the former mayor, governor, and DNC chair Ed Rendell. Biden, while historically bad at donor schmoozing, is hardly averse to straightforward transactional politics. He has plenty of low-stress, high-résumé-power domestic commission and panel seats yet to hand out, like dozens of presidents before him. And surely some countries will still be sent a fundraiser or two, once the first round of operatives and ex-pols are installed around the globe. What’s unclear is how many slots that will amount to, especially as lefty Democrats who’ve been happy with Biden but wary of his centrist tendencies keep a close eye on the assignments.

“You’ve got the money people who were helpful to Biden, but then you’ve got the diverse group of people who put him into office, and that includes progressives and democratic socialists,” explained Orlando attorney John Morgan, one of the Democratic party’s leading fundraisers. Morgan has refused to be considered for foreign postings under both Obama and Biden, and he’s recently found himself explaining the White House’s political calculus to donors eager for a gig overseas. “His balancing act is to try to please big-ticket donors and the grassroots that got him there. And where they’re leaning is taking care of the diverse group of people who put him in office. It doesn’t make the fat cat from Chicago happy, but then again those progressives and democratic socialists don’t like the fat cat, so they don’t care.”

One question is the timeline: Even some of the people who have been told they would be nominated aren’t sure when that will actually happen, let alone when the Senate will consider them. If that doesn’t happen by the Senate’s August vacation, it’s possible some of the jobs won’t be filled until 2022. That makes it unlikely that each embassy could be occupied by two different people in succession for two years each during a presidential term, as is usually the case.

Another common question is more basic: How does this process work? Even some of Biden’s longtime friends have struggled to get through to his braintrust to make recommendations. As a result, some have resigned themselves to waiting another two months before they hear anything more solid about embassy assignments. If nothing else, a few told me, they figure they will at least get good gossip when they see the rest of the Democratic elite for the first time in a year and a half on the Vineyard for Obama’s 60th-birthday party in August.

In the meantime, multiple hopefuls have narrowed the map to the remaining top-tier gigs they could still reasonably hope for. In addition to the Caribbean nations, it’s widely accepted that the best places to be sent are Western European allies: the U.K. and France are top prizes, and Germany is a common request, as is Italy. Switzerland, the Vatican, and the Czech Republic top the list, too.

Then again, not everyone who might be considered for these jobs finds the prospect particularly exciting. “Someone told me a guy was going to be ambassador to Belgium. I don’t think I’d want to be in Belgium for more than three days. Belgium?! Fuck, I’d want to come back immediately,” Morgan told me. “You can put the big-money donors in those b.s. ambassadorships.”

Inside the Big-Donor Scramble for a Biden Ambassadorship