Trump Dumps Colombia Ambassador Pick as Region Simmers

Trump Dumps Colombia Ambassador Pick as Region Simmers
AP Photo/Ronald Zak
Trump Dumps Colombia Ambassador Pick as Region Simmers
AP Photo/Ronald Zak
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As the Trump administration increasingly relies on its partnership with Colombia to help shake Nicolas Maduro’s hold on power in Venezuela, President Trump has quietly dropped his original nominee for the ambassador role in Bogota, according to foreign-policy sources familiar with the matter.

Conservative senators, led by Republicans Mike Lee and Ted Cruz, for more than a year have blocked the confirmation of career Foreign Service officer Joseph Macmanus to become ambassador to Colombia.

Their opposition originally had little to do with the current crisis in Venezuela. But the spillover effect of the political and economic upheaval in the region took on more significance as 1 million refugees have fled to neighboring Colombia over the last year, placing additional pressure on the government in Bogota to house and feed them.

When the crisis in Venezuela erupted, the Colombian government was already struggling to stop the lawlessness and violence fueled by narco-terrorist groups working to undermine Colombia’s peace process and disable the democratically elected government.

That government in Bogota faces constant challenges to keep the country from de-stabilizing under multiple strains. A Jan. 17 suicide bombing killed 22 police officers in the capital and was attributed to the National Liberation Army, which goes by the Spanish-language acronym ELN. Venezuela is harboring members of the ELN, while its leaders are operating out of reach in Cuba.

With all of these factors in play and political uprising in Venezuela the focus of intense international concern, the Colombia ambassador post has taken on new strategic importance for the U.S., leading White House officials to abandon Macmanus in search of a more likeminded and trusted candidate, said sources familiar with the decision.

Lee and Cruz have faulted Macmanus for having little recent experience in the region and doubted his ability to hold the government in Bogota accountable for curbing cocaine production and developing serious plans to shut down narco-trafficking networks.

They also cited his close ties to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and questioned whether he played a role in spreading misinformation in the aftermath of the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, a charge he vigorously denied.

Lee has used a Senate procedural rule known as a “hold” to prevent any vote from taking place on Macmanus’ nomination and had shown no signs of releasing it so far this year in the new Congress.

"At a time when we should be cleaning up the State Department and realigning our foreign-policy priorities to reflect those of the current administration, an Obama-era diplomat is not the right person to head our embassy in Colombia, a critical U.S. ally in the region," Lee said of Macmanus last year. Neither Lee’s nor Cruz’s office responded to a request for comment on the news that Trump is switching gears and trying to find a new candidate for ambassador.

Now that the fight over Macmanus appears to be over, a Capitol Hill GOP aide told RealClearPolitics, it’s important that Republicans work together to install as many of Trump’s nominees as possible into key State Department positions that have remained vacant for the first two years of his presidency.

A separate conservative foreign policy expert also urged Trump to name a new nominee for the Colombia post quickly and prodded the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to swiftly move all outstanding nominees.

“They are holding the president’s foreign policy hostage by not giving him the people he needs to execute his agenda,” the source said, noting that the committee under Sen. James Risch has yet to hold a business meeting on nominees.

With former Sen. Bob Corker, a harsh Trump foe, out as the chairman of the committee, Trump supporters and those supporting his “America First” agenda see an opportunity to push through more State Department nominees.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly pledged to fill key posts as a way to help the department get its “swagger back.”

Corker worked with Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the panel, to block the confirmations of several key Trump nominees for months. Risch, an Idaho Republican, is now leading the committee and is viewed as having a more favorable stance toward Trump, his agenda and choices for key posts.

Macmanus served as Clinton's executive assistant for several years and was part of her inner circle of three top aides. During the first years of the Trump administration, he was a top adviser to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who strongly supported his nomination and was able to push it forward despite some early opposition from some White House officials.

Sen. Marco Rubio also at times has questioned whether Macmanus is the right person for the position. The Florida Republican chairs the Western Hemisphere subcommittee on the Foreign Relations panel and was in Colombia over the weekend tweeting first-hand reports on the violent clashes at the border with Venezuela.

It was Rubio who pressed Macmanus during his March 2018 confirmation hearing on exactly when he knew Benghazi was a terrorist attack. Macmanus said he determined that the attack was a result of terrorism within minutes of learning about it. He said he used the term “terrorist attack” because that’s what he judged it to be, but that he never intentionally misled the American people about the nature of it as the Obama administration sold the narrative that the assault resulted from of a spontaneous uprising triggered by an anti-Islamic video.

Latin America policy experts have been waiting to see if Trump will re-nominate Macmanus this year, as required to keep the nomination alive in the new Congress.

U.S. government sources now say that the nomination is dead, and the administration is scrambling to find a candidate who has more regional expertise. Trump also wants someone who would back his more confrontational approach with Maduro while cracking down on the flow of cocaine and opioids from Colombia into the United States.

Trump, the sources say, will likely consider Macmanus for a different ambassador post. As a 30-year State Department veteran, Macmanus remains well-liked and respected among his peers and establishment Republican foreign-policy types. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for whom Macmanus briefly worked, had supported his nomination early in the Trump administration.

The current Obama-selected ambassador, Kevin Whitaker, has remained in place while Macmanus’ confirmation was held up. Even though he is a career Foreign Service officer, some conservatives have given Whitaker high marks for keeping a steady hand on the wheel during the impasse over Macmanus’ nomination. Others on the right are renewing their call for Trump to name a political, non-career appointee who has a direct line to the State Department and White House leadership on Venezuela matters. They also are pushing for someone with a deep knowledge of the region’s drug and trade problems who is also committed to fighting for U.S. business interests there.

Over the weekend, Colombia’s border with Venezuela served as a staging ground for the U.S. to force humanitarian supplies into the troubled nation, sparking violent clashes with Maduro’s armed forces. The embattled Venezuelan leader has insisted that humanitarian supplies aren’t needed and spent the weekend celebrating and dancing with his supporters while the United States and other regional and international leaders stepped up their calls for him to step down.

Vice President Mike Pence, during a visit to Colombia Monday, extolled the virtues of “our friends, Colombia and Brazil,” praising both countries for stepping forward “to help the Venezuelan people in their hour of need.”

Besides Venezuela, the Trump administration in its first two years has focused on slashing the export of Colombian cocaine products, which have reached record levels, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. The increased supply and exports into the U.S. have led to record drug use and more overdose deaths, U.S. officials argue.

The increase in drug production has also led to more violence in Central America and Mexico, Rubio wrote in a recent op-ed, noting that the Colombian government had recently agreed to reduce coca production by half.

As a part of a 2000 pact between the U.S. and Colombia to try to eliminate illicit drugs in exchange for security support, the U.S. has doled out more than $10 billion to Bogota.

Trump made headlines in the fall of 2017 by threatening to stop sending the money and to decertify Colombia as a partner in the war on drugs if the country’s leadership didn’t do a better job eradicating coca.

The previous Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, agreed to stop aerial eradication of coca crops as a concession to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The Trump administration has viewed current President Ivan Duque as a stronger ally in the war on drugs, U.S. counter-terrorism efforts and its clash with Venezuela. Trump was only slightly critical of Duque’s record on cocaine eradication when the two met in the Oval Office in mid-February to plot Venezuela strategy.

“We’re working together so that Colombia eradicates some of what they’re growing in Colombia. I wouldn’t say at this moment you’re ahead of schedule, but hopefully you will be sometime in the near future,” Trump said.

Duque defended his record, arguing that the country has eradicated more coca in the first four months of his administration than his predecessor’s government had done in the preceding six months.

“We have a goal and we will commit to that goal, because it is our moral duty to have Colombia free of illegal drugs and free of [drug trafficking],” he said.

Susan Crabtree is a veteran Washington reporter who has spent two decades covering the White House and Congress.

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