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Biden weighs ambassador picks amid pressure to diversify

President-elect Joe Biden's team is in...

Posted: Dec 5, 2020 10:44 AM

President-elect Joe Biden's team is in the early stages of considering who to appoint as ambassadors around the world, with a handful of selections for high profile posts expected to come sometime in January, according to three sources familiar with the discussions.

Biden's team has keyed in on a few favorites for ambassador picks, two sources familiar with the discussions said, but they are keeping a tight hold on that as they concentrate on filling his Cabinet and wait to see whether Georgia's election will give Democrats a slim majority in the Senate, which confirms ambassadors.

Former New York Congressman Steve Israel, Disney's Bob Iger and seasoned diplomats like Bill Burns are among the names floated. Yet Biden's transition knows that there is nothing to gain by narrowing the field right now.

After rolling out diverse national security and press teams, Biden is now facing increasing pressure to maintain a focus on diversity. His team could likely face similar challenges, and new ones, when they turn to the complicated puzzle of picking ambassadors to represent Biden's administration around the globe and help to carry out his central policy goal of rebuilding US alliances.

'Looks like America'

The sheer number of policy professionals and donors that have been drawn into Biden's orbit over the last five decades, alongside Biden's commitment to reviving the morale and impact of career diplomats and to having an administration that looks like America, will make the ambassador selection process tricky.

"President-elect Biden's transition -- like his administration to follow -- prioritizes diversity of ideology and background in building a team of experts that looks like America. Building a diverse team leads to better outcomes and more effective solutions for the many crises our country is facing," said a Biden-Harris transition official.

But the reality is that a vast number of the donors and policy experts are white males.

"There are not enough jobs for all of these people," said one source familiar with the discussions, also noting that many of the people expected to be under consideration are not diverse candidates.

Already, the jockeying has begun.

"Anyone who supported the campaign and has a big name is in some conversations," said a source involved in the transition.

Those conversations are just beginning, people familiar with the process say, with contributors and loyal supporters making it clear they are interested in key diplomatic posts. Yet it's a careful balancing act, given the crush of Cabinet nominations and appointments that take priority over ambassadors.

The first wave of announcements is unlikely to come until January with the US ambassador to Israel expected to be on the list, a senior Democrat close to the Biden transition says.

Among those likely to be considered are Daniel Shapiro, who served in the post during the Obama-Biden administration; Michael Adler, a Miami developer and longtime supporter of Biden; former New York Congressman Steve Israel; and Tom Nides, a former senior State Department official.

"Israel will be a coveted, yet critically important, post after four years of the Trump administration," a Democratic official close to the transition told CNN, adding that several other names are also expected to be in the mix for that post.

Bold-faced names

Biden's pick for US ambassador to China is also expected to be on the list of early announcements. Longtime diplomats are expected to top the list of possible contenders for that job, according to a source familiar with the discussions. Three people who had senior roles at the State Department during the Obama administration -- Wendy Sherman, Kurt Campbell, and Bill Burns -- are expected to be on the list, the source said.

With Biden setting out to repair America's relationship with the world, after he has accused Trump of shattering alliances, many believe that experienced diplomats will be key to his success. Donors often have had little to no experience in the trenches of diplomacy, but they ae often handed plum posts such as London or Paris.

For any incoming administration, the roster of ambassadors is a list of bold-faced names, many of whom hail from the ranks of top campaign contributors. In this case, the top echelon of Biden donors includes more than 800 individuals and couples, who each raised at least $100,000.

"Not everyone on that list wants to be an ambassador," one top Biden fundraiser tells CNN. "But a lot sure do."

When Biden was asked about selecting political donors as ambassadors last year, he did not rule it out, but said the donations would not determine their role.

"I'm going to appoint the best people possible. Nobody, in fact, will be appointed by me based on anything they contributed," Biden said on a campaign bus in Iowa.

Conversations with several donors and Biden transition officials all made one thing clear: The fallout from the pandemic and recession will almost certainly slow down the traditional nominating process of ambassadors. Biden's support for the US foreign service, along with his belief in their diplomatic mission, is almost certain to mean that some key posts go to career officials over high-level donors.

Still, with each incoming administration, the "who's who" of potential ambassadors is one of official Washington's favorite parlor games.

Several prominent supporters who endorsed Biden or campaigned on his behalf are already stirring buzz among the chattering class, including: Cindy McCain, frequently mentioned as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom (UK) or France; David Cohen, a top executive at Comcast, possibly for a number of posts; and Hillary Clinton, as Ambassador to Japan.

A person close to Clinton dismissed the speculation as early conjecture. Another source familiar with the discussions said she was unlikely to seek a role that would force her to go through a confirmation hearing.

The Senate question

There are also big-time American businessmen who are interested in joining the diplomatic ranks -- with Bloomberg owner and co-founder Mike Bloomberg interested in the UK and Disney's outgoing CEO Bob Iger interested in China, a source familiar told CNN. Comcast executive David Cohen is also under consideration for an ambassadorship, according to the source involved with the transition.

Biden loyalists won't be left out of the conversations. People such as Ted Kaufman, a longtime Biden advisor and one of the chairs of the Biden transition, and Amos Hochstein, who worked closely with Biden when he was Vice President as the special envoy for international energy affairs, are also under consideration two sources said. But there are also many jobs in Washington that Biden still has to fill, and his close aides could land in those positions.

All nominees, of course, must be confirmed by the Senate after being vetted by the White House personnel office. No ambassadors are likely to be named before Jan. 5, the date of the Georgia run-off elections, when it becomes clear whether Republicans still maintain control of the Senate or if Democrats hold a narrow majority.

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