Several Republican senators are determined to blunt a State Department effort to fast-track the Senate confirmation of a career State Department official who served as a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to a key ambassador post.
Three Republicans—Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Mike Lee (Utah), and Ted Cruz (Texas)—have publicly decried the nomination of Joseph MacManus, a 30-year veteran of the foreign service who was close to Clinton during her tenure, to become ambassador to Colombia.
The State Department is not backing down and is trying to push other senators to take up the MacManus nomination and quickly confirm him before the end of the year, according to GOP congressional sources.
At least one senator will place a hold on MacManus's nomination if he overcomes what is expected to be a rough committee confirmation hearing, Senate aides confirm.
The senators, along with conservatives in the foreign-policy community, are perplexed by MacManus's nomination and view it as a microcosm of the larger tensions between the White House and the State Department.
Those strained relations boiled over into public view Thursday with reports that President Donald Trump plans to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo in the coming weeks, a scenario that has been circulating in Washington for months.
Tillerson changed his public schedule and headed to the White House to meet with Trump. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Thursday did not deny reports that Trump is considering replacing Tillerson but said he remains on the job.
"When the president loses confidence in somebody, they will no longer serve in their position," she said.
The White House and the State Department have repeatedly clashed on numerous major foreign policy issues over the course of Tillerson’s first turbulent year as secretary of State, including the Iran nuclear deal, the escalating confrontation with North Korea, and how best to work with Arab allies.
Conservatives on Capitol Hill also say Tillerson is ceding too much control of the State Department to top career bureaucrats, who largely reject Trump's "America First" agenda.
The Colombia ambassadorship is a perfect example of this control, they say. MacManus's nomination was strongly supported by both Tillerson and Tom Shannon, a career diplomat who serves in the State Department as undersecretary of political affairs and is considered Tillerson's right-hand man.
However, Lee and other senators have argued that an Obama-era diplomat is not the right person to head the embassy in Colombia, especially "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."
"This was always a Tillerson-organized, targeted request," said one GOP congressional aide, referring to the MacManus nomination.
Another Republican source argued that the nomination shows that the State Department bureaucrats are continuing to "roll" the White House political team and suggested that State's insistence on the nomination is a contributing factor in the ongoing feud between Trump and Tillerson.
Trump has made the fighting the opioid epidemic and the war on drugs one of his signature issues, elevating the importance of the role of ambassador to Colombia. Colombia is responsible for 90 percent of the world’s cocaine production even as it remains Washington’s staunchest ally in Latin America.
The need for a political appointee committed to Trump's agenda, rather than a career diplomat, is critical right now, GOP critics argue.
The Drug Enforcement Agency earlier this month faulted Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos's administration decision to halt aerial spraying, which the DEA said led to the highest levels of Colombia production of cocaine ever recorded.
Moreover, McManus's ties to Clinton and his role in the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks should have been enough to disqualify him from such a key ambassador post in a Trump administration, Republican critics argue.
After President Barack Obama won reelection, MacManus was promoted to the plum post of U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations in Vienna and to the International Atomic Energy Agency, where he played a key role in trying to hold Iran accountable for its promises to curtail its nuclear activity.
At MacManus's nomination ceremony, Clinton heaped praise on MacManus and said his departure for such a key diplomatic post was bittersweet because she had built up such a trusting and enjoyable relationship with him.
"It was clear from the start that Joe is a special kind of person—calm, collected, [with] impeccable judgement, just the kind of person you want for the non-stop blur of activity that is our office," she said.
MacManus responded by thanking Clinton for her leadership and guidance and wrapped up his remarks by offering "a very special word of gratitude" to Clinton's top aides Cheryl Mills, Human Abedin and Jake Sullivan.
"It was a challenge to keep up with you, it was a success to get a word in edgewise, and what a benefit you were to me and my work," he said. "I hope that benefit was returned."
Pointing to Clinton, he then concluded: "It was always intended for the same good cause."