Despite warnings from two GOP senators, President Donald Trump moved forward with nominating a prominent career State Department official and top aide to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to become ambassador to Colombia.
Late last Tuesday, when most lawmakers were traveling for Thanksgiving break, Trump tapped Joseph MacManus, a 30-year veteran of the foreign service, to become ambassador to Colombia.
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MacManus's nomination has the support of both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Tom Shannon, a career diplomat who serves in the State Department as undersecretary for political affairs and is considered Tillerson’s right-hand man.
Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Mike Lee (Utah) had voiced their concerns that MacManus was too close to Clinton during her tenure and does not share Trump's "America First" agenda and other foreign-policy goals.
As one of Clinton's closest advisers, MacManus also was deeply involved in the State Department's initial response to the Benghazi attack and became entangled in the scandal over Clinton's use of a private email account, the senators argued.
MacManus also recently rebuffed Cruz, Lee, and four other conservative GOP senators who asked for an investigation into whether the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development were using taxpayer dollars to support liberal causes funded by George Soros that the senators view as having no clear national-security interest.
The senators cited several Soros-funded projects, including one in Colombia in which USAID funds support a Soros-owned media portal that has criticized Trump, capitalism, and "patriarchal society."
MacManus, in a written response to the senators, defended USAID's work without responding to the senators' concerns.
Some conservatives in the foreign-policy community reacted angrily to the MacManus nomination. They said the role of ambassador to Colombia, Washington's staunchest ally in Latin America, is a critical one and any candidate for the post should have extensive experience in the region.
Critics of MacManus have pressed Trump to choose a political appointee committed to Trump's agenda for the post, rather than a career diplomat entrenched in the State Department bureaucracy.
One expert on U.S.-Colombia relations who requested anonymity called the MacManus nomination "profoundly disappointing" and said it showed that Trump is "actually filling and promoting" the swamp instead of draining it.
"The MacManus nomination was Tom Shannon's choice all the way and shows the State Department bureaucrats are running roughshod over the White House political team who frankly ought to be embarrassed for allowing the nomination to be made," the source said.
"We can only hope that Sens. Cruz, Lee and [Marco] Rubio [of Florida] block his nomination," the source added.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. diplomatic post in Bogota carries new strategic importance given allegations of noncompliance of a historic peace accord signed in December between the Colombian government and FARC rebels.
However, over the last month the Trump administration has sent mixed signals about U.S.-led efforts to curb Colombia’s cocaine production, critics say.
The Trump administration praised Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos's efforts to fight illegal drugs at the same time the Drug Enforcement Agency faulted the Santos's administration's decision to halt aerial spraying, which it said led to the highest levels of Colombia production of cocaine ever recorded.
Vice President of Colombia Oscar Naranjo, after his mid-November trip to Washington, gloated that no U.S. government official asked him about aerial spraying during his visit. That same week, Santos himself effectively called the U.S.-led war on drugs a failure.
Before MacManus emerged as the top candidate, the current ambassador to Peru, Brian Nichols, was slated for the post. His advocates believe he has far more expertise in the region than MacManus and does not suffer from the Clinton baggage.
The outgoing ambassador, Kevin Whitaker, spent several years in Latin America, including serving in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, where he was deputy chief of mission from 2005 to 2007.
MacManus's experience in the region is limited to a few years in public diplomacy positions in Mexico and El Salvador for the U.S. Information Agency between 1986 and 2003, according to his bio.
The State Department didn’t respond to the latest criticism of MacManus. In September, State's press secretary Heather Nauert defended MacManus's qualifications for an ambassadorship.
"Secretary Tillerson does not agree that career ambassadors lack the vision to solve tough problems," she said in an emailed statement. "MacManus is highly respected for his leadership, collegiality, and professionalism. He has served his country in challenging posts across multiple administrations and has demonstrated his exceptional leadership."
"MacManus was sworn into office under President Ronald Reagan," she added.