Donors to Trump inaugural committee got ambassador nominations. But are they qualified?

Donors to Trump inaugural committee got ambassador nominations. But are they qualified?
Doug Manchester, nominee to become United States Ambassador to the Bahamas. Copyright Courtesy Manchester Financial Group
By Emily R. Siegel and Andrew W. Lehren and Brandy Zadrozny and Dan De Luce and Vanessa Swales with NBC News Politics
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"Trump's picks are less qualified than prior presidents'," said a law professor at Marquette who has looked at the qualifications of nearly 2,000 nominees.


When President Donald Trump's pick for ambassador to the Bahamas testified before Congress to make the case for his nomination, he incorrectly stated that the island nation was part of the U.S. It is an independent country.

For ambassador to the United Arab Emirates — a job so sensitive in the tense Middle East that every previous president gave it to a career diplomat — Trump picked a wealthy real estate developer with no diplomatic experience.

The ambassador to Morocco? A well-heeled car dealer. The nominee for Iceland? While well-traveled, he had never been to that Nordic country. For Melania Trump's native country of Slovenia? The founder of an evangelical charity who frequently reposted false far-right social media posts on her Facebook page.

None have diplomatic experience, but they share one trait: All were big donors to Trump's presidential inaugural committee, which is now under federal investigation.

An NBC News review of those who donated to the Trump inauguration found at least 14 major contributors to its inaugural fund who were later nominees to become ambassadors, donating an average of slightly over $350,000 apiece. Though the Trump administration says the business acumen of these nominees qualifies them to represent the U.S. abroad, six of the 14 nominations have languished for months in the Republican-controlled Senate. One nomination has stalled for about two years.

While it is not unusual for a president to offer plum posts to wealthy donors, the Trump administration is nominating a greater number of political appointees to top-level slots, and is seeing a larger share stall in the Senate, according to two diplomatic experts and a senior Senate staffer.

Since the 1950s, roughly two-thirds of confirmed ambassadors have been career foreign service officials and one-third have been political appointees. Presidents Obama and George W. Bush kept within that range, according to the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), which is comprised of current and former diplomats.

The Trump administration is different. Of its confirmed appointees, around 50 percent are career foreign service diplomats, and 50 percent are political appointees, according to AFSA.

There are also 52 vacant ambassadorships out of about 250. Two years into their presidencies, President Obama had 11 and George W. Bush had 15. There are also a large number of vacancies in critical countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The rate of confirmation is also quite different for Trump nominees. Two years into their presidencies, Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama had 96, 84 and 89 percent of their nominees confirmed. Trump is currently at 66 percent, according to a senior congressional staffer.

Why the lag in confirmations? R. Nicholas Burns, a former ambassador under George W. Bush and Clinton and a former undersecretary of state under Bush, points out that the Trump administration was unusually slow to submit nominations.

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But he also said it was possible "there may be questions about the qualifications of some of these people."

Burns, now a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, said the Senate has the right to hold up confirmation if there are such questions.

"What I don't know is if some of these people are being held up by the Democrats," said Burns. "That sometimes happens."

Marquette University law professor Ryan Scoville, who is about to publish a study analyzing the qualifications of nearly 2,000 ambassador nominees from the Reagan era onward, was less equivocal. "Trump's picks are less qualified than prior presidents'," said Scoville, though Trump is continuing a downward trend in which "the level of qualification has eroded while the amount of contribution to candidates has risen."

Presidents have long appointed deep-pocketed donors to foreign posts around the world. President Obama's ambassador to Singapore, Kirk W.B. Wagar, gave over $200,000 to Obama and Democrats during Obama's re-election campaign. Bush's ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, Mercer Reynolds, gave over $100,000 to Bush and the GOP.

Doug Manchester, nominee to become United States Ambassador to the Bahamas.
Doug Manchester, nominee to become United States Ambassador to the Bahamas.Courtesy Manchester Financial Group

But the rules for giving to an incoming president's inaugural fund were different in the past. According to Trevor Potter, president of the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center and a former Bush appointee to the Federal Election Commission, the Trump inaugural fund did not impose any donation limits, unlike those of past presidents. Some of Trump's nominees gave $1 million to that fund alone.


Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement to NBC News, saying, "I try to do all business on a bipartisan basis and hope that we can continue that going forward, but it requires both sides to be willing partners."

But Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, criticized the Trump administration, which, he charged in a speech last week in Senate, "either through negligence or incompetence, sends us un-vetted, unqualified nominees, incapable and often times offensive."

Under Senate procedures, even though the GOP controls the chamber, Menendez as the ranking Democrat can block a nominee's hearing or committee vote. Any senator can later delay a nomination when it comes before the full legislative body.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Menendez in October of playing "political football" delaying nominations. A spokesperson told NBC News this week that Pompeo "has made clear his commitment to putting together a talented workforce" and "hopes that the qualified people nominated by the White House, and now awaiting confirmation, can be voted on promptly."

Inaugural donors who are stalled

Among the nominations that have languished is that of Doug Manchester, a San Diego real estate magnate, chosen to go to the Bahamas. He gave $1 million via a trust to the inauguration. In his nomination hearing, he told senators the Bahamas was a U.S. protectorate. The Bahamas was once a British possession but has been an independent nation since 1972. While it lies just off the Florida coast, it has never been a U.S. territory.


When asked why he said the Bahamas was a U.S. protectorate, Manchester told NBC News, "I was incorrect in that statement."

In addition, theWashington Post reported that women who worked at a San Diego television station then owned by Manchester said interactions with him were "unsettling." Manchester apologized in an email to White House officials, saying, "I am terribly hurt to learn of these allegations and apologize to any employee who felt uncomfortable or demeaned."

But separately, in an interview, Manchester disparaged the Washington Post story as "a hit piece."

Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., introduces Alabama native Lynda Blanchard, the nominee for Ambassador to Slovenia, to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Aug. 16, 2018.
Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., introduces Alabama native Lynda Blanchard, the nominee for Ambassador to Slovenia, to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Aug. 16, 2018.Doug Jones

Asked why his nomination has stalled, Manchester said, "I don't think that the opposing party wants any Trump nominees confirmed." Of all the nominees who helped finance Trump's inauguration events, his bid has languished the longest, for close to two years.

Then there are the Blanchards.


John Blanchard, a Montgomery, Alabama, real estate magnate, donated $553,500 to Trump's inauguration fund under the name Joe D. Blanchard. He and his wife, Lynda "Lindy" Blanchard, have given more than $2.6 million to Republicans since 2015.

In January 2018, the Blanchards collectively donated $250,000 to the Trump Victory Political Action Committee, a joint-fundraising effort by Trump's re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee. The couple also wrote four separate checks for $2,700 to Trump's re-election campaign on the same day, the maximum permitted for individual contributions.

Five months later, in June 2018, Trump nominated Lynda Blanchard to become ambassador to Slovenia.

Lynda Blanchard, who founded and ran a charity called the 100X Development Foundation, dedicated to helping children and the poor, was an early Trump supporter who often shared stories on her Facebook wall that praised the future president.

"May God our Father paint this country Red with the Blood of Jesus!" she posted on Election Day 2016.


Many articles she shared on her Facebook page in 2016 were from now-defunct sites that peddled false stories about Democratic politicians. She shared a link to an article titled, "The Clinton 'Body Count' EXPANDS - 5 Mysterious DEATHS in the Last 6 Weeks," pushing a baseless decades-old conspiracy theory that alleges Bill and Hillary Clinton murdered former friends and enemies.

She shared "WATCH: Jaws Drop When Lib CNN Host Betrays Hillary With Shock Message on Live TV," an article which has since been taken down from the far-right Conservative Tribune, a website known for false news, for failing to meet its "editorial standards."

An article from "Conservative Outfitters" carried the headline, "Hillary caught on camera breaking North Carolina election laws?" In the post, Blanchard asked, "Did this really happen????"

In September, the Foreign Relations Committee approved Blanchard's nomination. After the session ended in January, all pending nominations were brought back to the president. Trump then resubmitted her nomination and it is pending.

Blanchard has not responded to requests for comment.


Another posting that stalled is ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, a sensitive job that every previous president assigned to a career diplomat since the formation of the UAE nearly 50 years ago. Trump nominated John Rakolta, who has no diplomatic experience. Rakolta is the chairman and chief executive of Walbridge Aldinger Co., a large Detroit-based engineering and construction company. He donated $250,000 to the president's inauguration. He did not respond to requests for comment.

John Rakolta Jr. speaks at the Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island, Michigan on May 27, 2015.
John Rakolta Jr. speaks at the Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island, Michigan on May 27, 2015.Tanya Moutzalias

A senior Senate staffer said, "One would argue that, given the sensitivities with some of those countries right now, having a political (appointee) with a more direct connection to the president would actually help that relationship, rather than a career foreign service officer who has no connection to the president. "

Also pending is the nomination for David T. Fischer to represent the U.S. in Morocco. Fischer is the chairman and CEO of the Suburban Collection, which operates car dealerships in Michigan, Florida and California. He was nominated in December 2017. Fischer has contributed heavily to Republicans in the past, but according to public records his $250,000 to the Trump inaugural committee was his first contribution to Trump or any pro-Trump group. Fischer declined to comment about his stalled nomination.

Donald Tapia is a big Republican donor in Arizona and the former chairman of Essco Wholesale Electric Inc., a seller of electrical products. In May 2018, Tapia was nominated as the ambassador to Jamaica. He donated $100,000 to the inauguration, as well as over $100,000 to the Trump Victory PAC.

Jeffrey R. Gunter gave $100,000 to the Trump Victory PAC and $100,000 to the Trump Inaugural Committee. Gunter, a Los Angeles-based dermatologist, served on the Trump transition team's finance committee.


Testifying before the Foreign Relations Committee on why he should represent the U.S. in Iceland, he said he had never been there but had traveled extensively in Western Europe, and said his work running a medical practice prepared him to be an ambassador.

A representative for Gunter said he declined to comment on why his nomination has stalled.

The nominations for Blanchard, Tapia and Gunter are slated for a committee vote on Wednesday, April 3.

In addition to the inaugural donors whose nominations have stalled, there are 27 other vacant ambassadorships where Trump nominations have languished in the Senate or have been withdrawn.

Successful nominees

While six have seen their nominations stall, eight others who gave to the inaugural fund have become ambassadors. They contributed more than $3 million combined to the inaugural committee, some flowing through trusts and LLCs.


Trump appointed one of his bankruptcy lawyers to become ambassador to Israel. David Melech Friedman was a partner at the New York law firm Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman and did legal work for Trump's troubled Atlantic City casino ventures. The law firm donated $300,000 to Trump's inauguration.

Friedman, who had written articles against a two-state solution in Israel and contributed money to organizations favoring Jewish settlements on land claimed by Palestinians on the West Bank, served as an adviser to Trump's campaign. In his confirmation hearings, he apologized for harsh rhetoric.

The Trump administration's ambassador to the United Kingdom is Robert "Woody" Johnson IV, owner of the New York Jets football team, who donated $1 million to the inaugural eight months before he was nominated to the diplomatic post. The U.S. ambassador to the U.K. is typically a political appointee with business ties.

Like Trump, Johnson has starred in a reality television show — about being the U.S. ambassador in London. It aired on a UK television network and was promoted as offering an "unprecedented access to the American embassy, providing a behind-the-scenes view of diplomacy in the age of Trump."

He recently came under fire from a farm union and a trade justice campaign foran editorial he wrote in The Telegraph, a major British newspaper, defending U.S. companies that wash chicken with chlorine and inject beef with hormones. The agricultural practices emerged as a controversy because of a proposed trade pact to sell more U.S. meat to the U.K. once it leaves the European Union after Brexit.


His editorial was titled "Don't let smears about U.S. farms trap Britain into the EU's Museum of Agriculture," and Johnson opined that the restrictive E.U. "prizes history and tradition over innovation and science."

Nominees who supported other candidates first

Many of the Trump nominees who have been approved as ambassadors were early supporters of Trump's primary opponents or were critical of Trump when he was a candidate.

George Glass was an early Jeb Bush supporter, but as the 2016 Republican primary tightened, the Oregon real estate developer converted. In 2016, Glass gave $5,400 to the Trump campaign and sent another $77,500 to Trump Victory. In December 2016, Glass gave $22,500 for Trump's inauguration. Six months later, Trump nominated Glass to the post of ambassador to Portugal.

On social media, Glass follows almost everyone who follows him. The result is that the ambassador follows dozens of accounts dedicated to pushing the QAnon conspiracy theory, which falsely maintains Trump is in a secret war against the "Deep State" and a cabal of Satan-worshipping Democrats who run a child sex cult. Glass is also a prolific "liker," who has "liked" tweets from QAnon fan accounts and other incendiary tweets from far-right figures, including Bill Mitchell and Candace Owens. In 2017, hetweeted at conspiracy theory media king Alex Jones suggesting every voter should be required to show an ID.

Glass was confirmed in August 2017.


Oregon hotelier Gordon Sondland was vocally critical of candidate Trump.

During the campaign,the Willamette Week reported that his company, Provenance Hotels, was listed as a sponsor for a Trump fundraiser, and Sondland told the newspaper that this occurred without his approval. He then refused to participate in the fundraiser and his spokeswoman said at the time that Trump's statements did not align with Sondland's personal beliefs.

After Trump's election, Sondland donated a total of $1 million to the inauguration through four different LLCs. These were the first donations on record he made to any Trump-related cause.

He's now the ambassador to the European Union.

Kelly Craft, U.S. ambassador to Canada, speaks about NAFTA and Canada-U.S. relations at an Empire Club meeting in Toronto on April 4, 2018.
Kelly Craft, U.S. ambassador to Canada, speaks about NAFTA and Canada-U.S. relations at an Empire Club meeting in Toronto on April 4, 2018.Chris Donovan

Kelly Knight Craft, Trump's ambassador to Canada, is now the president's pick to become UN ambassador. Previously she was a UN alternate delegate for President George W. Bush. Her husband, coal-mining executive Joe Craft, donated $1 million to the inauguration through JWC REV Trust.


As ambassador to Canada, Craft attracted controversy when, duringan interview with the CBC, she was asked whether she believes in climate change, and responded, "I believe there are scientists on both sides that are accurate."

Craft's nomination to become UN ambassador is pending before the Senate.

Carla Sands, a former chiropractor and an actress on the soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful," is ambassador to Denmark. Sands has supported Republicans, gave $100,000 to the inaugural committee, and held a high-priced fundraiser for Trump at her mansion. She also gave $5,400 to Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., and $250,000 to Trump Victory.

Jamie McCourt, ambassador to France and former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, has supported both GOP and Democratic candidates. She gave $50,800 to Trump's inaugural committee and $349,000 to Trump Victory.

William Robert Kohorst, a real estate developer, donated $250,000 to Trump's inauguration and another $194,000 to Trump Victory. He was nominated to be ambassador to Croatia in September 2017 and assumed his post in January 2018.


NBC News sought comment from the State Department and sent questions to U.S. embassies to seek comment from confirmed ambassadors referred to in this article. A spokesperson from the State Department responded with a statement on the appointees.

"Our Ambassadors are proud to represent the United States of America to some of our most important partners across the globe as they carry out the goals of the Trump Administration," the statement said. "These ambassadors' financial contributions have long been a matter of public record. They are honored the President bestowed this trust upon them, and they hold their service in the highest regard."

Dan De Luce reported from Washington.

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