They wrote massive checks. They encouraged their deepest-pocketed friends to do the same. They sat through Zoom concerts with James Taylor and Zoom roundtables hosted by Diane Lane and helped pay for an inauguration they didn’t even get to attend.
Now, some of President Joe Biden’s most generous financial backers want what’s coming to them: an ambassadorship—both extraordinary and plenipotentiary, if possible.
And they’re getting sick of waiting.
“It’s bullshit,” one Democratic fundraiser vented. “The number of asks over the course of the campaign, and over the course of the transition, and let’s not even talk about the Zoom convention, and they can’t even remember to make a phone call to the people who kept the lights on.”
From a practical standpoint, delays in official nominations are understandable. Nearly two-thirds of Biden’s Cabinet secretary nominations are currently stuck in the confirmation logjam caused by the impeachment trial of his predecessor, and vacant ambassadorial positions are currently being minded by the career foreign service officials who generally do the real diplomacy work anyway.
Although Biden has not made any nominations to ambassadorial posts beyond career diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield to the United Nations, he is still on pace with former President Barack Obama, who did not name his first ambassadorial nominee until March 2009.
But in interviews with half a dozen deep-pocketed bundlers who helped Biden’s campaign shatter fundraising records, as well as two former ambassadors, The Daily Beast found that this explanation—and the lack of any communication from the White House about whether potential nominees might want to begin preparing financial disclosures or start brushing up on their French—is wearing thin.
“No one is owed an ambassadorship, let me be clear,” said one fundraiser who told The Daily Beast that they are not actively lobbying for a post. “But people are owed the courtesy of a phone call that it’s, you know, not happening.”
On top of that, a report from Axios last month that Biden may be looking into trimming the number of diplomatic posts for top fundraisers kickstarted a stampede of donors worried that if they didn’t call dibs soon, they might miss out on a posting entirely.
“All donors think that their other donor friends are withholding that announcements have been made, and there’s a feverish pitch that’s just trying to make sure that they just weren’t left out,” one party bundler said. “People are starting to second-guess whether or not they’re qualified, whether or not they overshot the countries that they’re qualified for.”
The bundler said that the silence is prompting a lot of introspection among people who are not frequently given to self-doubt.
“It’s good in the sense that Biden and his team are focused on getting rid of and purging a lot of the last-minute Trump appointments, and I think everyone appreciates that,” the bundler added. “But… that doesn’t mean that you have to ignore the people who helped get you into office.”
With traditional campaigning upturned by the coronavirus pandemic, almost all finance events were forced to be held virtually. This meant that Biden largely got to skip the worst part of running for president—walking around showplace mansions on Georgica Pond, Red Mountain, and Nob Hill, pretending to admire art collections and feigning absorption as billionaires lecture about how the American experiment was built on the carried interest loophole.
Biden’s campaign was able to raise vast sums of money with virtual events rather, with only a few glad-handing appearances at high-dollar fundraisers before social distancing measures rendered those untenable. Clearly, the move to Zoom finance events didn’t hurt the campaign’s bottom line: the list of people who brought in at least $100,000 for the president’s election tops 800 individuals and couples. But the transition to digital fundraisers did limit the chances for newer donors to build in-person relationships with the future president, a fact that many of them now fear could make their pitches for an ambassadorship seem too desperate.
Biden, who occupied a safe Democratic seat for most of his Senate career and whose previous runs for the president ended before top-caliber national fundraising operations could even begin, did not have the same built-in donor network as some previous nominees, which one fundraiser blamed for the poor communication on ambassadorships.
“Hillary Clinton was still doing sit-down fundraising dinners with donors, like, a month before the general election because they just didn’t have the small-dollar donors coming in… and then with Biden, it just didn’t matter,” the fundraiser said. “Biden never had to raise money before, and so there’s just not an institutional memory of cultivating and maintaining donor relationships.”
That means that bundlers with deeper ties to Biden’s shelved foundation and past campaigns for the White House have had their phones ring off the hook in recent weeks as newer donors angle for a kind word in support of a choice diplomatic posting abroad.
“Every president appoints a few of these, then has to make some sort of labored attempt to explain why the person who bundled $50 million for you and really is simply a hedge fund investor is appropriate,” one former ambassador said. “I don’t think he’s going to put himself in that position, given the challenge these ambassadors are going to face.”
Plum ambassadorships have a long history of being doled out as grace-and-favor appointments in exchange for donor support. Joseph P. Kennedy, investment tycoon and patriarch of the Kennedy political dynasty, was named ambassador to the United Kingdom after years of enormous contributions to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential campaigns, as well as loans and fundraising efforts on behalf of the Democratic Party. But even then, career diplomats cast a skeptical eye on those seen as having effectively bought ambassadorships to gain social prestige or international connections. (One member of parliament dismissed Kennedy as “a rich man, untrained in diplomacy, unlearned in history and politics, who is a great publicity seeker” who only wanted the job so that he could run for president, which, fair.)
In modern times, roughly one-third of ambassadorial nominations are political appointees—that is, political allies of and donors to the president—with two-thirds coming from the ranks of career diplomats with the State Department. Donor ambassadors are typically relegated to posts where longstanding national ties with the United States—and an extensive support staff of career foreign service officials doing the real work—make it difficult to muck things up too badly.
Under President Donald Trump, however, the percentage of non-career diplomats serving as ambassadors rose to nearly half, and relations with even some of the nation’s oldest allies began to fray. Woody Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson consumer products fortune and co-owner of the New York Jets, was investigated by the State Department for making racially offensive comments to embassy staff during his time as ambassador to the United Kingdom. Coal billionaire Kelly Craft irritated Canadians by spending more than half of her term away from her ambassadorial post in Ottawa. Trump’s ambassador to Iceland, dermatologist and fundraiser Jeffrey Ross Gunter, demanded the right to carry a gun in a country where even police officers don’t do so, and tried to work remotely from his California mansion during the coronavirus pandemic, 4,200 miles from Reykjavik.
Criticism after the Trump era, as well as his campaign promises to rebuild America’s relationship with its allies overseas, has put increasing pressure on Biden to reform the grace-and-favor system.
“Four years of Trump, who was extraordinarily dismissive of the value of ambassadorships at all, and who nominated some extraordinarily inappropriate people… that may have changed the thinking,” one former ambassador told The Daily Beast, who added that while career foreign service officials often express wariness of the bona fides of political appointees, ambassadors usually end up proving themselves competent in the roles.
“The dynamic, I think, with a good number of political appointees is they’re not serious about the job because they don’t know what the job is,” they added.
Although he did not follow the example of some Democratic presidential hopefuls and commit to ending the practice entirely, Biden did pledge in December 2019 to “appoint the best people possible” as ambassadors, regardless of past contributions to his campaign.
“Nobody, in fact, will be appointed by me based on anything they contributed,” Biden told reporters aboard his “No Malarkey” bus tour in Iowa at the time. “You have some of the people out there... that are fully qualified to head up everything from being the ambassador to NATO to be ambassador to France... who may or may not have contributed.”
A White House official told The Daily Beast that the president holds the career diplomats at the State Department in the highest regard, and noted that Biden has outpaced his predecessors in appointing key support staff to senior positions throughout the government.
But of those set to take the top jobs in missions across the world, many are likely to come from his time as a major player in the foreign policy sphere. Biden, who spent 36 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one-third of that time serving as either chairman or ranking member, has a long list of close advisers and allies from political and policy backgrounds who might jump the queue ahead of some well-intentioned donors.
“His instinct is to rebalance after Trump—not just because the Trump people were uniformly ridiculous, but because one of the most serious parts of Trump’s legacy is the way he shredded and deconstructed and otherwise impaired not only our reputation and standing abroad, but actual infrastructure, including in embassies and multilateral organizations,” the former ambassador said. “We’re no longer riding high and looking to maintain—we’re actually in a deep well, looking to crawl out. And somebody who was a daytime soap producer is unlikely to be equipped for that.”
Some names come up more than others in conversations with the donor class about those likely to make the cutoff: Denise Bauer, the former ambassador to Belgium, is seen as a near-lock for a top posting; Disney head honcho Bob Iger is another. Rufus Gifford, who served as one of Biden’s deputy campaign managers, made his fondness for Denmark—where he previously served as ambassador under President Barack Obama—extremely clear on his Instagram account before he was reportedly picked to serve as the State Department’s chief of protocol.
“There are many people who have their hands up for positions even though they did very little for the campaign or have the required credentials,” said John Morgan, a prominent Florida lawyer and high-level bundler for Biden’s campaign. “It’s going to be slow… Priority positions need to be filled first. The ambassador to Brazil is not a priority. I don’t even know what the fuck most ambassadors do all day.”
That said, Morgan added, “I’d like to be Ambassador to Maui.”
Others, however, are worried that they may be left out in the cold, and warn that while the president may feel less beholden to fundraisers now, two can play at that game. Some donors have already told each other that they might not be so charitable the next time Biden—or Vice President Kamala Harris—comes asking for cash.
“Kamala’s brand now is tied to Biden’s fundraising,” the party bundler said. “Some donors see this as damaging to Kamala because they’ll be shy about wanting to help—not because people entirely just fundraise to get posts and ambassadorships and commission appointments, but it obviously, for some, is a motivator.”
Or, in the words of one top fundraiser as they wheedled the bundler for a tip on how to make inroads on a potential ambassadorship: “Good luck raising money for your fucking presidential library, Uncle Joe!”