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By Olivier Knox.
This is why a future president might finally do away with the practice of nominating a top political donor to be an ambassador.
Here’s how the White House described wealthy executive George Tsunis when President Barack Obama nominated him to be the top U.S. diplomat in Norway in September 2013:
“George J. Tsunis is the Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Chartwell Hotels, LLC. From 1999 to 2009, Mr. Tsunis was of counsel at Rivkin Radler, LLP and served as partner since 2005. Mr. Tsunis was Special Counsel to the Town of Huntington Committee on Open Space Preservation as well as Counsel to the Dix Hills Water District from 2003 to 2009. From 1998 to 1999, he practiced law at Goldberg & Cohen in Brooklyn, NY. From 1996 to 1998, he was a Legislative Attorney at the New York City Council. Mr. Tsunis received a B.A. from New York University and a J.D. from St. John's University School of Law.”
But a trip to the website of the Center for Responsive Politics that tracks campaign donations might help to explain how Tsunis — and not, say, a career diplomat — got the nod.
In the 2012 cycle, Tsunis and his wife, Olga, are listed among the “top individual contributors” on the strength of having given $267,244, roughly 89% of which went to Democrats and 10% to Republicans. In all, he raised $988,550 for Obama and gave $300,000 to Democratic super PACs and $75,800 to the Obama Victory Fund.
Tsunis became a Democrat in November 2009 — after giving $50,000 to Republican Sen. John McCain’s 2008 campaign.
So it’s perhaps fitting that it was the tart-tongued Arizona senator’s questions that elicited his sloppy confirmation hearing performance last week (it starts at about 1:14 here).
To recap: Tsunis described Norway as having a president (“apparently under the impression that the country is a republic rather than a constitutional monarchy,” as the Local Norway's News notes dryly). And he characterized the anti-immigration Progress Party as being among “fringe elements” who “spew their hatred” and have been denounced by the government.
That prompted McCain’s disbelieving answer: “The government has denounced them? The coalition government — they're part of the coalition of the government.”
McCain, already flummoxed by the apparent inability of Obama’s choice to be ambassador to Hungary to list strategic U.S. interests there, closed his questioning with a bit of sarcasm: “I have no more questions for this incredibly highly qualified group of nominees.”
Obama did not start the practice of picking big donors to be ambassadors. And he (probably) won't be the last president to do so. But at a time when Americans mistrust their government and are cynical about their politicians, choices like these don't help.
It’s not irrelevant overseas, either: TheLocal.no targets English speakers living in Norway. And Norwegian media described Tsunis as having “trampled through the salad bowl.”
Oh: A search for “Tsunis” on the White House website does turn up evidence of a previous foray into the sensitive world of international relations: He and his wife were guests at the State Dinner the Obamas threw in 2012 to honor British Prime Minister David Cameron.