Ambassador Sondland donated 1 million dollars to Trumps inauguration, and then was appointed to a high profile ambassadorship. He never worked in the government previously, has no credentials, no experience in international diplomacy, but somehow found himself in a high value role in the state department.

Why has this not been investigated and treated as a Pay to Play appointment? This seems like the easiest of all charges that Democrats could be charging against Trump.

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    Can we simplify this questions to "Why is it ethical..."? Commented Nov 21, 2019 at 15:43
  • Is the question 1) Why is this considered ethical as your Title asks, or 2) Why has it not been investigated?
    – BruceWayne
    Commented Nov 21, 2019 at 18:14
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    @Issel Please DO NOT add irrelevant commentary in the text of your question. This site is collaboratively edited, and you are free to roll back edits you disagree with. But using your post to call out people, for whatever reason, is not acceptable. For more information see: Why can people edit my posts? How does editing work? and our Code of Conduct.
    – yannis
    Commented Nov 22, 2019 at 8:49
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    In addition to @yannis's utterly correct comment - your complaint is mistaken. Your initial title was "Why is not unethical for ...", the first change was to "Why is it not unethical.." (until the double negative was removed). Commented Nov 22, 2019 at 11:34
  • Comments deleted. Please don't use comments to answer the question. If you would like to answer, please post a real question. For more information on how comments should and should not be used, please review the article on the commenting privilege in the help center.
    – Philipp
    Commented Nov 22, 2019 at 20:58

5 Answers 5


This has a long tradition in the US. Before World War II, most ambassadors were actually political appointees rather than career diplomats. Trump might be marginally worse than Obama and reverted back to a level of political appointment last seen under FDR but everybody is doing it. Consequently, using this as a charge would promptly backfire for Democrats.

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    One of those few actual instances where an action is both unethical and undertaken by both political parties in equal measure.
    – Michael W.
    Commented Nov 21, 2019 at 17:00
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    "Marginally worse" being 42% political appointees by Trump vs. 30% by Obama: qz.com/1555392/us-ambassadors-are-less-qualified-under-trump Commented Nov 21, 2019 at 17:48
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    While this helps provide background, it doesn't answer why it's not generally considered unethical. (Albeit that's a tricky question to answer...)
    – BruceWayne
    Commented Nov 21, 2019 at 17:50
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    @BruceWayne This may not answer the question in the title, but it does address the question in the body -- why are the Democrats not investigating this. Commented Nov 21, 2019 at 17:57
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    @jeffronicus - Ah, true. I'll ask OP to clarify the question(s).
    – BruceWayne
    Commented Nov 21, 2019 at 18:14

The practice of giving ambassadorships purely in exchange for (large) campaign contributions was seen as somewhat problematic even in the US, which passed a law in 1980 attempting to mitigate this. But that law was apparently very easy to circumvent, with the practice of large donors becoming ambassadors exacerbated (again) under G. W. Bush and Trump. (Do note that this practice of an apparent quid-pro-quo with large campaign contributions is different from merely political ambassadorship appointments, which have a broader tradition in the US, even though that tradition in itself is less common in other countries.)

Some but not all Democratic candidates for the 2020 election have pledged to substantially curtail the practice.

More interestingly perhaps, from the paper that Relaxed linked, it's also been a bit of a tradition to appoint ambassadors to "friendly countries" like Canada, Japan, and some Western European countries, but also to Mexico, in part based on campaign contributions. The paper also has some stats on campaign contributions from future ambassadors.

While noteworthy that 73 percent of political nominees donated, it is perhaps more surprising that 27 percent did not. The common assumption seems to be that those who become ambassadors without first entering the Foreign Service must have paid their way into office. The surprise largely dissipates, however, upon closer scrutiny. A clear majority of the 27 percent are individuals with high-level experience in the executive branch or Congress—such as Deputy Chief of Staff at the White House, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and members of the House or Senate—all of whom appear capable of using their influence or personal connections to the president, rather than financial support, to secure a nomination. [...]

The picture for career nominees is much different. From 1980 to 2019, only 5 percent personally contributed, and their contributions averaged only thirty-three dollars. [...]

Another way to think about the role of money is to examine whether campaign contributions affect bilateral relationships to different degrees. Figure 4 addresses this issue by depicting, for each state, the percentage of the nominees who made financial contributions to the nominating president, with values ranging from 0 percent (white) to 100 percent (black). The data establish that donors were most common among nominees to politically stable and economically developed countries, particularly in Western Europe.

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This doesn't, of course, answer whether this is ethical or a good idea, other than to justify it with tradition.

There are also some stats over time on contributions by would-be ambassadors:

enter image description here

This pattern (of contributions) is a bit different than merely looking at the percentage of political appointees. G. W. Bush and Trump are clearly outliers here with much larger campaign contributions (from would-be ambassadors) than the rest of the presidents since Reagan.

Also Sondland is not actually the largest such example from the Trump era:

United Nations ambassador Kelly Craft and her husband contributed over $2 million to Trump’s election campaign and inauguration. She also gave generously to over half the Republican senators on the Foreign Relations Committee that had to approve her nomination.

Some but not all Democrats do seem to see as unethical the appointment of large donors:

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren has said she will appoint no big donors as ambassadors — period. But when I have contacted the campaigns of every other person seeking the nomination to ask if they would make a similar pledge, I have been met with silence. That is because, in Washington, money does the talking.

And according to a 2017 study cited by the Washington Post, the US is indeed an outlier with this practice of politically-appointed ambassadors, compared to other countries:

A 2017 study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin said the United States was an “extreme outlier among foreign services in the number of political appointees as ambassadors, even in key posts.”

The researchers noted that in the other countries they studied (Brazil, Britain, China, France, Germany, India, Russia and Turkey), ambassadorial posts were almost entirely reserved for career diplomats.

And the newspaper also quotes some quid-pro-quo examples of appointments in exchange for donations:

Herbert Kalmbach, an attorney for President Richard M. Nixon, once testified under oath that he had spoken to a wealthy political donor about an ambassadorship. “Well, you know, I am interested in Europe, I think, and isn’t $250,000 an awful lot of money for Costa Rica?” Kalmbach recalled the donor, Ruth Farkas, complaining about one potential destination.

Farkas eventually donated $300,000 to Nixon’s reelection campaign. She was ambassador to Luxembourg from 1974 to 1976.

That appointment caused its own quid pro quo scandal. The Foreign Service Act of 1980 attempted to address it, stating a chief of mission should “possess clearly demonstrated competence to perform the duties of a chief of mission,” including language ability and knowledge of history and culture. “Contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor in the appointment of an individual as a chief of mission,” the act states.

Despite the Foreign Service Act, political appointees, many of them big-dollar donors, have continued to be placed in embassies since 1980.

So yeah, there was an apparent attempt to mitigate the practice in the US by at least requiring some qualifications from ambassadors with that 1980 law, but apparently it was easily circumvented thereafter.

The fact that the Senate confirms ambassadors has not proven much of check in practice:

In theory, an ambassador requires Senate confirmation. This can weed out some picks. Though the Senate has not voted down a White House ambassadorial pick in decades, just appearing before the Senate can sometimes cause weak candidates to crumble: Hotel magnate George Tsunis withdrew from the nomination to become ambassador to Norway in 2014 after questioning revealed his lack of basic knowledge about Norway.

But, in general, the Senate does little to hold things up. The ever-ballooning cost of U.S. electoral campaigns, which surged to $6.5 billion in 2016, according to OpenSecrets, may add to the problem. Many wealthy presidential donors who harbor ambassadorial ambitions also donate to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

I'm not sure there are stats on the latter kind of donations (i.e. from would-be ambassadors to Senators).

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    Is there any distinction between campaign contributions and inaugural contributions? Other than the contributor waiting to be sure who to pay off?
    – DJohnM
    Commented Nov 22, 2019 at 4:25

The USA has a long history of doling out top Federal government jobs to political supporters, going back to Andrew Jackson (a very Trump-like figure, I might add). It is a common and accepted part of the system, which has been regularized by limiting it to the top jobs at embassies and government departments, and creating a non-partisan professional civil service corps underneath that level to perform the actual work. The political appointees are just there to be the department's interface to the POTUS, expressing the executive's leadership desires, and communicating the department/embassy's needs back up to his boss.

There is (very arguably, I realize) some benefit to the nation (and the host nation) in this practice.

The most useful ambassador for a country to have is a person who the President trusts, and who in a pinch can get the presidents' ear. Particularly when the POTUS in question might be otherwise reluctant to listen. In fact this is so important that it is common for foreign governments to judge where they fall on a new POTUS' international pecking order by how close to the POTUS their new ambassador is.

Under the current US election system, there is nobody who can command the time of a US politician as easily as their big donors and bundlers. We might prefer it if things weren't that way, but they are. So, if said person is willing to take their responsibilities seriously, landing one of them as head of your department or embassy would actually be the ideal for getting your concerns paid attention to.

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    Some benefit... You could argue that there is some benefit in murdering your ex wife in that you don't have to pay spousal support, but it wouldn't mitigate how terrible that is.
    – Issel
    Commented Nov 21, 2019 at 16:46
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    @Issel - I look at it more as a Dexter-type thing. If you're going to be letting serial killers run loose anyway, best to aim and harness them in a way that they'll be doing some good. The ideal obviously would be to lock up all the serial killers, but if for some weird reason that's not an option...
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Nov 21, 2019 at 19:28
  • I believe the first paragraph is the true answer to the "why is it ethical" question: they're just a figurehead, not doing the actual work.
    – bta
    Commented Nov 21, 2019 at 19:43
  • @bta: I don't think that makes it ethical. After all, you wouldn't consider it ethical for the president to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom preferentially to donors, would you? If an ambassadorship is something people want, then it shouldn't be awarded on the basis of giving money to the president.
    – ruakh
    Commented Nov 22, 2019 at 18:49
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    @ruakh - Since you bring it up, Trump has so far given out 4 Presidential Medals of Freedom to his donors and public political supporters. (Laffer, Adelson, Meese, and Hatch). Adelson in particular is pretty much solely known for being a big Republican donor. I believe that works out to about 29% of the medals he has so far awarded.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Nov 22, 2019 at 19:10

Ambassadors are different from a lot of other appointments, in many cases they serve as a representative of the state rather than of the government; their role is largely ceremonial. In the US having a particular posting being a purely political appointment (rather than a professional from the USDOS), is actually pretty common, though Trump has cranked up the number compared to recent presidents.

Still a lot of depends on the posting, critical posts that actually require someone competent usually get someone who knows what they're doing, and a donor isn't usually going to want to get posted near a warzone. For example, ambassador Yovanovitch who was posted to Ukraine is a professional ambassador, while Sondland was the the ambassador to the EU. One posting is at war with Russia, the other isn't even a traditional state actor and I'm unsure how "the EU" would conduct a coherent foreign policy. (Note that Ukraine is not part of the EU, why Sondland was involved at all is outside the scope of your question).

  • The EU is striving for a foreign policy role. It is struggling to have a comprehensive foreign policy but if nothing else, it is in charge of trade negotiations, which is more than enough to justify a diplomatic mission. There are actually many such missions, Brussels wouldn't be one of the cities with the most diplomatic representations in the world if it wasn't for the EU.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Nov 21, 2019 at 22:47
  • There are a fair few international government organizations which have diplomatic missions established. The UN is probably the best known and almost every nation's voting U.N. member is an Ambassador, despite the UN being even less effectual than the EU.
    – hszmv
    Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 14:57

It is unethical to appoint individuals to any role for their personal benefit in return for political or financial gain. This practice is usually called cronyism, graft, or other variations of corruption in public office. It is also illegal in most jurisdictions of the world, though it should be remembered that the people passing the laws that allow exceptions tend to be the same people who are using those exceptions for their own political or personal benefit.

  • You cannot lump political gain in the same breath as financial gain. Two very different things. Commented Nov 22, 2019 at 20:26
  • @JamesReinstateMonicaPolk - That is like saying I can steal to feed my family but I can not steal to feed myself. Both are stealing, both are wrong, one has stronger mitigation then the other. The going rate for an ambassadorship in Luxemburg is quarter of a million dollars. The cronyism has already happened regardless of whether the funds are used for campaign finance or used for lavish holidays, and that was the original question.
    – Paul Smith
    Commented Nov 22, 2019 at 21:40
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    Ask Kieran Mullen commented yesterday, there are 2 questions in this post; one in the title and a very different one in the body of the post. @PaulSmith is the only one to address the former, and he is correct. Such behavior absolutely IS unethical and the fact that it's tolerated does not change that. So, in my view, it is deeply unfair to penalize Paul Smith for correctly answering what one could argue (and use StackExchange's own rules as evidence) is the primary question in the OP.
    – DaveInAZ
    Commented Nov 22, 2019 at 22:23
  • @DaveInAZ: He is merely stating his opinion with little to support it. If one looks at his first two sentences, they boil down "It's unethical to appoint individuals because ... it's corruption". The original question was very specific to Trump's appointment of Sondland. As Sondland is already very wealthy the ambassador salary was almost certainly a huge pay cut and a drop in the bucket for his wealth. So it's impossible to argue that Sondland received personal benefit from his campaign contribution. And since the donation was to Trump's election campaign, again no personal benefit to Trump. Commented Nov 22, 2019 at 23:30
  • @JamesReinstateMonicaPolk "...impossible to argue that Sondland received personal benefit..." why did he want the job if he didn't receive a personal benefit? It might be a pay-cut in terms of short term salary, but his future wealth will benefit from all the connections he makes and adding "ambassador to the EU" to your CV would boost anyone's value as a business director, consultant etc... also how can you argue that Trump's election campaign doesn't personally benefit Trump?
    – craq
    Commented Nov 23, 2019 at 0:33

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