John Rakolta Jr.—AP
John Rakolta Jr.—AP

WASHINGTON: When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in the United Arab Emirates on Friday, no US 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 high-level 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 Republican 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 scrutinised 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 authorised 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 high-profile 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 US 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 US troops and Washington’s main listening post for Iran is located in Dubai, the largest city in the Emirates. The UAE remains a key defence ally to America.

Rakolta is chairman and CEO of Walbridge Aldinger, a construction firm headquartered in Detroit. He said he’ll resign from the company if his nomination clears the Senate. He’s pledged to recuse himself from issues in which he may have a financial interest although he will continue to be a “passive investor” in Walbridge, according to documents filed with the US Office of Government Ethics.

In addition to giving $250,000 to Trump’s inaugural committee, Rakolta also contributed $150,000 to the Republican National Committee, according to Federal Election Commission records. His wife, son and daughters have contributed more than $281,000 since 2016 to Trump Victory, a joint fundraising committee for the presidential campaign and other Republican organisations.

Walbridge formed a joint venture with the Abu Dhabi-based Amana Investments and “successfully performed certain construction work together” between 2003 and 2013, according to Jad Aoun, a spokesman for Amana. Although the partnership has not been dissolved, Aoun said the joint venture has “no plans to pursue work”. Terry Merritt, a spokeswoman for Walbridge Aldinger, said last year that the company has no active contracts in the Emirates or elsewhere in the Middle East.

Information on Builtforgood.com, a Walbridge Aldinger website, described the company’s involvement in Masdar City, a government-backed clean energy campus just outside of Abu Dhabi that hosts the International Renewable Energy Agency. Initially estimated in 2006 to be built for $22 billion, officials later decided to scale back Masdar City amid a drop in crude oil prices and after Dubai’s financial crisis in 2009.

Masdar is run by Mubadala, the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund estimated to have assets of around $250 billion. Merritt said Walbridge Aldinger has not been involved in the Masdar project since 2011.

Accepting a senior-level government job may require a nominee to sell off assets or agree to recuse themselves from matters that directly involve their financial interests. Several of Trump’s prior nominees from the business world eventually bowed out after they deciding that the transition didn’t make financial sense for them and their families.—AP

Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2019