A month ago the nomination of former Fox News personality K.T. McFarland to become ambassador to Singapore was dead in the water, a casualty of the Russia probe. She had been caught in a lie, declaring in writing to a Senate committee she knew nothing about contacts between former national security adviser Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador, only to have The New York Times publish her exchange of emails with Flynn that showed she was in the loop.
Republican Bob Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee charged with vetting McFarland, has a reputation for parsing his words very carefully. In December, after Democrat Cory Booker released his written exchange with McFarland together with her false answer, Corker described the nomination as “pretty frozen,” adding, “she has to know this is a problem.”
Everyone assumed that was the end of McFarland’s ambassadorship. But she popped up again in early January, her nomination re-submitted by the White House in a show of chutzpah that a committee aide called “basically a middle finger to Congress.”
McFarland was deputy national security adviser working directly with Flynn when she got cashiered after Flynn’s abrupt dismissal from the White House. Awarding her an ambassadorship and dispatching her across the world seemed like a tidy way to handle a messy situation.
But then it turned out that she’s mired in the Russia maelstrom, and Trump, instead of backing away from her nomination, did what he does when cornered. He doubled down, tossing Corker the political hot potato. “There’s just no political sensitivity to know when it’s time to say, ‘K.T., it just didn’t work out,’” says a Senate aide.
Why is the White House going to the mat to secure an ambassadorial post for McFarland? She’d come to Trump’s attention through Fox News, where she spouted off on foreign policy, advocating the bombing of Iran, denouncing the nuclear deal, and praising Russian President Putin. She had foreign policy credentials, but they went back to the Ford and Reagan administrations when she was mainly a speechwriter.
She had been approved by the Foreign Relations committee and was awaiting a vote on the Senate floor when the Russia revelation hit. Now the onus is on Corker to either put up a roadblock, or do the president’s bidding. “He could kill it [her nomination] with one word,” says a Senate aide, adding that he either doesn’t want to or else is biding his time.
A statement provided to The Daily Beast by Corker’s spokesman said nominations that have been re-submitted will be handled “in a timely fashion.” Nominees will not be subjected to a second hearing, but will be voted on again in committee before they can be considered by the full Senate.
Death by stalling is a common tactic on Capitol Hill. First nominated as ambassador to Singapore in May of last year, McFarland could be waiting a whole lot longer. Corker’s on again, off again bromance with Trump is the X-factor. After blasting the president last year as incompetent, and saying he would not vote for a tax cut that blew up the deficit, Corker supported the tax bill after learning it included a provision that benefited people like himself with large real estate holdings.
A former Senate aide suspects that Corker lining up with Trump on the tax bill is “not only about making him richer. I don’t really think he would do a complete legacy destruction to get another 20 million. It’s geared to his next step eventually,” meaning Corker wants to preserve his electoral viability should he decide to run for governor.
Corker joins a lengthening list of politicians who have concluded it’s not healthy for their political survival to be at war with Trump. He flew recently with Trump on Air Force One, and he appears to be back on good terms with the president, or at least nickname free for the moment.
Democrat Ben Cardin, ranking member on the Foreign Relations committee, has said that McFarland’s nomination can’t move forward until she clears up the discrepancy between her written statement and her emails. A spokesman for Cardin said she has made no effort to do that.
Democrats are going to press for another hearing, and the prospect of what she might say and how much embarrassment she might cause the White House in discussing her working relationship with Flynn should be reason enough for Corker to deep six her nomination.
Any one of a hundred senators can put a hold on a nomination, and last year, Democrats Cardin and Booker each had holds on McFarland’s nomination. Traditionally, an administration respects this senatorial courtesy, but it’s not a rule, and some Republicans want to, “blow the hold,” when it doesn’t suit them.
Why McFarland, who is now 66, should merit all this maneuvering is the real question. Democrats are not going to wave her through the process, and Republicans must be having second thoughts about getting her confirmed if that means eating up valuable time that Senate leader McConnell doesn’t have, and has indicated he’s not willing to waste.
McFarland’s name has not yet surfaced publicly as someone special counsel Robert Mueller might want to interview. One theory, advanced by a former Senate aide, is that the idea is to get her out of the country and feeling good about Trump rather than have her sidelined and looking to even scores:
“Better to have her across the world where it’s more difficult to be invited by Mueller, and more difficult to go on TV. Make her happy enough so she doesn’t release her own book. There’s probably a lot she could say to Mueller they [the White House] wouldn’t like.”