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Welcome to POLITICO’s West Wing Playbook, your guide to the people and power centers in the Biden administration. With Allie Bice and Daniel Lippman.
Ten months into JOE BIDEN’s presidency, the Senate has only confirmed two of his ambassador picks: KEN SALAZAR in Mexico and LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD at the U.N.
And while there are reasons for that delay — including Sen. TED CRUZ’s (R-Texas) hold on more than a dozen State Department nominees — some in the foreign policy world, including former diplomats and foreign service members, see it as an embarrassment for Biden.
“It’s starting to hurt us internationally. No other country in the world does this and increasingly the world is losing patience with our peculiarities, because in some cases we haven’t had an ambassador — for example, Singapore, for over five years,” a senior American diplomat with close ties to the White House told us. “Nobody really cares what our excuses are. It’s a sign of disrespect.”
For months, the White House has been hearing from concerned officials like the above about the backlog. The fact that they haven’t been able to get around the gridlock has led to a fair amount of finger pointing. And, more often than not, those fingers are being extended to the Texas senator.
He wants Biden to impose sanctions that would halt Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Europe. And he’s using his power to put a hold on nominees for State Department as well as Treasury jobs to make his point, frustrating the White House to no end.
While the New York Times earlier this month reported that Cruz was holding up “59 would-be ambassadors,” the Senate executive calendar shows he’s currently holding up seven ambassador nominations from advancing to a floor vote. Senate Democrats could still bring them to a vote, but the process would be much more time consuming, eating into an already packed Senate calendar. And Cruz can use the same stall tactics for dozens of other would-be ambassadors who are still working their way through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Behind the scenes, there has been at least one effort by the White House to reach out to Cruz about the holds, two sources with direct knowledge told West Wing Playbook.
According to a source familiar with the call, Cruz spoke with national security adviser JAKE SULLIVAN on Aug. 10. The discussion went “badly,” the source said. Sullivan asked the Republican senator if he would be willing to move the nominations, and Cruz responded that the Biden administration is legally mandated to impose sanctions. But the Biden administration made clear, the source said, that sanctions wouldn’t be imposed during his presidency.
But there’s also this sticky detail, reported for Insider by BRETT BRUEN, a frequent Biden basher and a former Obama State Department official: “According to senior officials I’ve spoken to at the State Department, Secretary Antony Blinken only this week advanced to the White House a long list of career diplomats set to take over ambassadorships,” Bruen wrote in a column on Sept. 26.
In an interview with West Wing Playbook, Bruen suggested that the Biden administration has prioritized political nominees over career diplomats, not just with respect to ambassadorships but senior jobs at the State Department and the National Security Council as well.
The American Foreign Service Association’s ambassador tracker shows that of the ambassador nominees the White House has announced thus far, 26 are career officials and 38 have political backgrounds. The AFSA counts retired foreign service officers and civil service staffers as political appointees.
We asked the White House about the notion that the administration has moved slowly to advance the nominations of career diplomats, and they did not immediately offer a response. But State Department spokesman Ned Price reached out to WWP later Wednesday night to push back on Bruen’s reporting. “The allegation that the Department only recently put forward career officials for senior postings, including Ambassadorships, is entirely false. We have done so routinely,” Price said via email, characterizing Bruen as “a source who routinely peddles inaccurate information.”
A White House aide noted that “obstruction by Senate Republicans” is causing substantially longer delays. Biden’s nominees for ambassadorships have been waiting 98 days on average since being nominated. Under Trump, nominees waited 77 days, and under Obama, nominees waited an average of 66 days.
The White House also said the administration has nominated more ambassadors in the first 100 days than its immediate predecessors — and the number of ambassadors nominated at this point in the first year is comparable to previous administrations — 69 compared to 51 under Trump and 81 under Obama.
“It’s long past time for Senator Cruz to get out of the way and let the Senate quickly confirm these national security nominees so they can advocate for the interest of the American people around the world,” White House rapid response director MIKE GWIN said in an email.
BILL GALSTON, a former Clinton administration domestic policy official who is a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, downplayed the ambassador vacancies, since the embassies are being temporarily led by very competent career employees.
“But that makes the representation of the United States less forceful and effective than it would be with a confirmed ambassador, who not only enjoys the trust and confidence of the president, but also of the United States Senate,” Galston said. “I don’t want to blow this up into a huge crisis for governing the country or relating to the world, but it is one more difficulty for a country that is already swimming in a sea of difficulties abroad.”
Do you work in the Biden administration? Are you in touch with the White House? Are you MYLES MANN, associate director of confirmations?
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This one is courtesy of JOY GOULD — who was the first president born a citizen of the U.S., following the Declaration of Independence?
(Answer at the bottom.)
FIRST IN WEST WING PLAYBOOK — PAIGE HILL is leaving the White House where she has served as senior regional communications director, three people familiar with the matter told DANIEL LIPPMAN. She led an office which has so far facilitated more than 1,000 interviews of White House and administration officials with local and regional outlets. One source said Hill is heading to SKDK to be a VP in their Washington office.
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE WANTS YOU TO READ: Chief of staff RON KLAIN retweeted New York Times columnist PAUL KRUGMAN, who argued that inflation appears to be transitory rather than permanent.
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ: The head of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, JASON FURMAN, saying that Krugman’s argument was “strange” since he switched inflation indicators in a way that made inflation look like less of a threat.
CHASER: While the White House publicly says things are under control, Bloomberg’s JENNIFER JACOBS and ANNMARIE HORDERN reported today that Cabinet officials including Energy Secretary JENNIFER GRANHOLM, Agriculture Secretary TOM VILSACK and Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN “gathered as they try to align on how to confront the problem of high energy costs and rising inflation.”
KLAIN’S POLL OF THE DAY: Klain retweeted JOHN HARWOOD, who pushed out a new CNN poll showing Biden’s approval rating at 50 percent.
COLD SHOWER: FiveThirtyEight’s polling average has Biden’s approval at 44.6 percent and disapproval at 49.6 percent.
BIDEN [TRIES TO] SAVE CHRISTMAS — President Biden is rushing to relieve congestion across the country’s complex shipping supply chain as it threatens to disrupt the holiday season for millions of Americans, STEVEN OVERLY reports. Biden met virtually today with industry leaders before delivering a speech on the administration’s efforts to address the bottlenecks.
“With just over 10 weeks until Christmas, the White House is leaning heavily on port operators, transportation companies and labor unions to work around the clock unloading ships and hauling cargo to warehouses around the country,” Overly writes.
Vice President Kamala Harris is scheduled to speak at 3:25 p.m. ET tomorrow at the “2021 Global Inclusive Growth Summit” hosted by Mastercard and the Aspen Institute.
Biden administration plans wind farms along almost entire U.S. coastline (NYT’s Coral Davenport)
Biden asks food makers to crack down on salt (POLITICO’s Hannah Farrow and Helena Bottemiller Evich)
Washington’s Most Powerful Women 2021 — including lots of Biden administration folks (Washingtonian’s Jane Recker)
Biden administration leans into Abraham Accords (Axios’ Barak Ravid)
He signed into law H.R. 2278, which formally designates the September 11th National Memorial Trail Route, a route that connects the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Flight 93 Memorial; and S. 848, which modifies the service obligation verification process for TEACH Grant recipients and extend the service obligation window due to Covid-19.
In the afternoon, he met with officials to discuss global supply chain issues, and following that meeting, delivered remarks on the issue. Transportation Secretary PETE BUTTIGIEG, National Economic Council director BRIAN DEESE, Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force port envoy JOHN PORCARI, International Longshore and Warehouse Union President WILLIE ADAMS, Port of Long Beach Executive Director MARIO CORDERO and Port of Los Angeles Executive Director GENE SEROKA attended Biden’s speech.
She met with Barbados Prime Minister MIA AMOR MOTTLEY.
CUFFE BIDEN OWENS isn’t the only one who’s been associated with a prominent reality TV show star.
JOHN MCCARTHY, a special assistant to the president who works for STEVE RICCHETTI, played piano at the 2015 wedding of “Jersey Shore” star JENNI “JWOWW” FARLEY, he told Daniel Lippman back in 2018.
JWOWW posted a picture of the band on Instagram — which included McCarthy on the piano — writing in a caption that she “couldn’t have asked for more beautiful music for our ceremony.”
The music couldn’t have been that good — the couple finalized their divorce in 2019.
MARTIN VAN BUREN was born in 1782.
AND A CALL OUT — A big thanks to Joy for sending over this question! Do you have a harder trivia question about the presidency? Send us your best one and we may use it: [email protected].
We want your trivia, but we also want your feedback. What should we be covering in this newsletter that we’re not? What are we getting wrong? Please let us know.
Edited by Emily Cadei