There are plenty of reasons why you might criticise Donald Trump. His fanboyish attitude to Vladimir Putin, his undermining of NATO and his attitude to women present themselves as obvious examples. But the response to his choice of US ambassador to London has been ridiculous.
Some commentators seem to think it somehow absurd or scandalous that Woody Johnson has been named as Washington’s representative at the Court of St James. Shock – he’s a billionaire who owns an American football team. Horror – he’s a personal friend and political ally of the incoming president.
To be surprised by either of these things you either have to know nothing at all about American ambassadors, or be willing to put aside the facts about them in order to fabricate an opportunity to have a go at Trump.
US ambassadors are not like Foreign Office diplomats – they are personal, political appointees of the White House rather than career diplomats. This has its upsides (under such a system Downing Street wouldn’t have to contend with a diplomatic corps which has long been ideologically wedded to the EU project) and its downsides, in that sometimes they find that diplomatic life doesn’t suit them and other times they turn out not to be well-suited to diplomacy.
As a result of this very different system, it would be a surprise if any US ambassador to the UK turned out not to be a) wealthy and b) a personal ally and friend of the President.
Matthew Barzun, the previous ambassador, was a very nice bloke who was well-regarded in the job. He was also a rich businessman (he’s married to the Jack Daniels heiress) and a former intern for John Kerry who led sizeable fundraising efforts for Obama in 2008. Barzun’s predecessor, Louis Susman, was a former managing director of Citibank who also led fundraising efforts for Obama and for Kerry before him.
Susman’s predecessor was Robert Tuttle, son of an automobile magnate and a former Reagan staffer who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for George W. Bush’s campaign. Before Tuttle came William Stamps Farish, a leading racehorse trainer and grandson of a Texas oil baron. He was a lifelong friend of Bush and donated $100,000 to his campaign for the presidential nomination.
Clinton’s ambassadors had only slightly more mixed credentials – Philip Laden was a millionaire businessman and close friend of the President, but his predecessor William Crowe was a former admiral who chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Reagan and Bush senior, before converting to endorse Clinton in 1992. Crowe’s reward was the job in London.
I could go on – but suffice to say that Johnson’s CV and political links are entirely normal for US ambassadors. It’s absurd that there is such arch disapproval of his appointment when predecessors with exactly the same records arrived in the job without the raising of an eyebrow. Indeed, Obama appointed almost a carbon copy when he made Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, as ambassador to Ireland, but strangely no-one suggested this was out of keeping with promises of either hope or change.
The inconsistency of this faux shock makes it hard to avoid the conclusion that the response is really about dislike of Trump. Disapprove of him all you wish on the grounds of things he has actually got wrong, but Johnson’s credentials are the wrong target.