Trump’s UAE am­bas­sador nom­i­nee still in limbo

The Commercial Appeal - - Viewpoint - Richard Lardner AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

WASH­ING­TON – When Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo ar­rived in the United Arab Emi­rates on Fri­day, no U.S. am­bas­sador was there to wel­come him.

The post has been va­cant for nine months. The Repub­li­can donor Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump chose for the job, John Rakolta Jr., hasn’t been ap­proved by the Se­nate.

Trump has fre­quently ac­cused Se­nate Democrats of us­ing the cham­ber’s com­plex web of rules to sab­o­tage his nom­i­nees. But Rakolta’s se­lec­tion il­lus­trates the chal­lenges of fill­ing a high­level gov­ern­ment po­si­tion with a can­di­date from the cor­po­rate world who has no prior diplo­matic ex­pe­ri­ence.

Rakolta, a con­struc­tion com­pany CEO, con­trib­uted $250,000 to Trump’s in­au­gu­ral com­mit­tee. His wife and chil­dren do­nated tens of thou­sands of dol­lars more to Trump’s cam­paign as well as to other GOP causes. Rakolta is re­lated by mar­riage to Ronna Rom­ney Mcdaniel, the chair­woman of the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee. Rakolta’s wife is Mcdaniel’s aunt.

His nom­i­na­tion moved so slowly in the Se­nate that it was sent back to the White House ear­lier this month – one of more than 270 of the pres­i­dent’s picks re­turned be­cause they weren’t acted on be­fore the end of that ses­sion of Con­gress. It’s not un­usual for a White House to re-nom­i­nate many of the same peo­ple, but the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion hasn’t said yet whether it would re-sub­mit Rakolta’s name.

Rakolta’s qual­i­fi­ca­tions and busi­ness back­ground, which in­cludes a dor­mant part­ner­ship with a firm head­quar­tered in Abu Dhabi, the UAE’S oil-rich cap­i­tal, was still be­ing scru­ti­nized by the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee when the ses­sion ended.

At that point, noth­ing that would de­rail his chances of con­fir­ma­tion had emerged from the re­view. A Capi­tol Hill aide fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter de­scribed it as the back and forth that comes with “com­plex nom­i­nee files,” a ref­er­ence to the care­ful check­ing re­quired to en­sure there are no con­flicts of in­ter­est. The aide wasn’t au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly and re­quested anonymity.

It has long been a pres­i­den­tial tra­di­tion to re­ward gen­er­ous po­lit­i­cal donors and cam­paign sup­port­ers with am­bas­sador­ships. The po­lit­i­cal money web­site Open Se­crets found that Pres­i­dent Barack Obama named two dozen high­pro­file Demo­cratic Party donors to diplo­matic posts dur­ing his first year in of­fice.

Still, Trump up­ended decades of State Depart­ment prac­tice in tap­ping Rakolta in May. If he’s re-nom­i­nated and even­tu­ally con­firmed, Rakolta would be­come the first po­lit­i­cal ap­pointee to serve as am­bas­sador to the Emi­rates, a small yet am­bi­tious na­tion aim­ing to ex­pand its re­gional clout. The job has been filled ex­clu­sively by ca­reer for­eign ser­vice of­fi­cers since 1972, when the United States and the UAE es­tab­lished for­mal diplo­matic re­la­tions.

The U.S. am­bas­sador’s of­fice has been va­cant since late March when Bar­bara Leaf re­tired from the State Depart­ment after a 33-year diplo­matic ca­reer. By com­par­i­son, Leaf was con­firmed as am­bas­sador in Novem­ber 2014, about four months after she was nom­i­nated.

The UAE is host to about 5,000 U.S. troops and Wash­ing­ton’s main lis­ten­ing post for Iran is lo­cated in Dubai, the largest city in the Emi­rates. The UAE re­mains a key de­fense ally to Amer­ica.

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