Trump ambassador qualifications: Wrote a cookbook, sang in a church choir

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Following in his predecessors’ footsteps, President Trump has tapped generous political supporters to join the ranks of America’s ambassadors. Among their official, administration-vetted qualifications: church choir singer, cookbook writer, and Fox News punditry.

Big donors and political figures can make fine American diplomats. A top Obama donor, Charles Rivkin, served first as ambassador to France and later as assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, a post to which he won Senate confirmation in a 92-6 vote.

And some political picks bring thoroughly relevant experience to the job. It’s too early to judge Terry Branstad’s tenure as Trump’s envoy to China, but the former Iowa governor made frequent trips there and regularly welcomed officials from Beijing to the Hawkeye State as part of his efforts to boost his state’s exports. He notably hosted Xi Jinping in the 1980s, when the future Chinese president was merely a minor functionary.

Trump isn’t the first president whose “ambassadonors” have boasted of sometimes curious qualifications for the job. As Yahoo News documented in 2014, the Obama administration underlined that its nominee to be ambassador to Hungary, soap opera producer Colleen Bell, “speaks conversational Spanish.” (The Senate confirmed her to the post).

Still, the “Certificates of Competency” that the Trump administration is required to produce for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee can make for interesting reading. The mini-biographies are designed to be formal explanations for why a nominee deserves confirmation. But they sometimes reach well beyond standard diplomatic skill sets or typical professional achievements in a way that adds a personal — though not necessarily relevant — touch.

Businesswoman Jamie McCourt at a recent art museum gala in Los Angeles. (Photo: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for MOCA)

Former Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Jamie McCourt has spread her political donations around over the years — giving to Democrats as well as Republicans. Trump nominated her to be ambassador to France and to Monaco in early August. Nestled among the long list of her private-sector achievements and stints as an adjunct business school professor is this: “She has written a cookbook, to be published later this year.” (It had, in fact, come out a few months before her nomination. A blurb for “Jamie’s Road: Cooking in a Crowded Life,” notes that she studied cooking in Provence, France, and learned to appreciate its “buttery classics.”)

Callista Gingrich, nominated to be the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, is “the author of the New York Times bestselling Ellis the Elephant children’s series.” And “she has sung for over 20 years at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.” Gingrich’s certificate plays up her Catholic faith, a reflection not just of her presumed posting but of concerns among some in the administration about sending someone to the Vatican whose husband’s marital history — she is former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s third wife — is not especially in line with Catholic doctrine.

Financier Richard Duke Buchan III — Trump’s pick to be ambassador to Spain and Andorra — speaks Spanish and (a far rarer qualification) has “a working knowledge of Catalan,” the language spoken in the northeastern region that includes Barcelona. He has studied in Spain and supports Spanish-language instruction, according to his certificate. But the document also notes that Buchan, “his wife and their children continue family traditions and manage a farm that grows over 60 varieties of organic heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables. They run a farm stand, develop new varieties of tomatoes and donate fresh produce to local charities.”

Richard Duke Buchan III (Photo: Hunter Global Investors via WikiCommons)

Former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown’s certificate notes that “he is also a contracted contributor and analyst for Fox National News.” Brown has begun his post as ambassador to New Zealand. K.T. McFarland, nominated to be ambassador to Singapore, “was a freelance national security commentator on Fox News in New York City and the District of Columbia (2013-2016) and occasionally made public appearances as a guest on other television networks (2007-2013),” according to her certificate. Fox, a network watched avidly by Trump, is the only one named in the document.

The State Department did not reply to an email asking who writes the certificates, or who decided to include the cookbook, the choir and the Fox News appearances.

Correction: This article originally described Colleen Bell as a soap opera actress. She was a producer. 

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