USA Foreign Policy

Trump denies grace periods to Obama’s ambassadors

A blanket edict from Trump's transition team mandates that all US ambassadors who were politically appointed by President Obama step down by Jan. 20. 

President-elect Donald Trump talks to reporters at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., in December 2016.
Evan Vucci/AP
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With two weeks until Inauguration Day, President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team has issued an unusual order in the history of US foreign service: a blanket mandate that all politically appointed US ambassadors step down by Jan. 20, with no exceptions, as several US diplomats told The New York Times and Politico.

While being told to pack their bags at the end of an administration is par for the course, the lack of a grace period, or case-by-case exceptions, could prove worrisome, diplomacy experts say, if it left top US embassies without ambassadors for months.

“It is clearly understood among American ambassadors that when there's a change in the administration, they do not automatically stay on as ambassadors,” Alan Henrikson, a retired professor and former chair of the diplomatic studies program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “But the abruptness of insisting that by Inauguration Day they leave their posts, especially in the present context when there's a result of the American election – there's widespread anxiety about dramatic changes in the American foreign policies and relationships. It just simply increases the concerns abroad.”

The New York Times reports that the State Department informed all political appointees the day after the election to submit their resignations effective Jan. 20, but the directive still sent diplomats scrambling to figure out their next steps.

“Some of the ambassadors really thought they could stay, so there's a little bit of a scramble now,” an anonymous State Department official told Politico. “They're mostly resigned to it now.”

According to Nicholas Burns, a retired career diplomat who is now a professor of diplomacy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, it has been a tradition for all presidents to ask political appointees to leave their posts.

But most presidents and secretaries of State have made exceptions, he tells the Monitor.

“That [there would be no exception] struck me as a little bit peremptory and a little bit unwise,” says Ambassador Burns, who also serves on Secretary of State John Kerry’s Foreign Affairs Policy advisory board. “It seems in the interest of the Trump administration to have the highest level of representation in some of our key diplomatic posts.”

There are two types of ambassadors – politically appointed and career diplomats – but their responsibilities are the same: to represent US interests and values abroad while interpreting the policies of the host countries.

“Every ambassador, politically appointed or a career person, serves at the will of the president,” Dr. Henrikson says. “These are presidential appointments which have to be confirmed by the Senate.”

Henrikson says the only distinction between the two is that some political appointees win their appointments largely through contributions to the political campaigns of the president in power – a common practice for presidents from both parties. Mr. Obama, for example, has named at least 29 campaign bundlers to ambassadorships, according to Slate.

Yet there is not necessarily a difference in political appointees’ competence compared to a career diplomat's, Henrikson says. They usually come to the position with related experience and knowledge, from business ties to language skills.

Mr. Trump has so far chosen lawyer David Friedman as his ambassador to Israel, a pick some have criticized for his doubts about a two-state solution, and Iowa governor Terry Branstad, who has a longstanding friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, as his pick for China. Neither nominee has diplomatic experience.

But with many observers anxious to see whether Trump will make changes to policy in key regions, from Eastern Europe to the Pacific, the Trump administration's interests could be better served if they were a little bit more flexible about offering a grace period, Burns says. 

“We have a politically appointed ambassador to China, and China is perhaps our key relationship around the world – it's a problematic one,” Burns says. “So to go months without an ambassador to China is probably not a good idea.”

A chargé d’affaires, a role usually held by a designated senior career foreign service officer, will maintain the functions of the embassy while the nominated ambassador goes through Senate confirmation. But this arrangement is not ideal, Henrikson says.

“A charge-d'affair, they're usually not in the position to do anything other than to maintain continuity,” Henrikson says. “That is to say, they're very unlikely to be given themselves, individually, any kind of instructions to negotiate something new. They really want just to maintain, I wouldn't say the status-quo necessarily, but to maintain things progressing as they have been.”