Democrats unexcited about Trump nominee for State Department’s top human rights job

Eric Ueland, Trump's former legislative affairs director and longtime GOP Hill aide, lacks much foreign policy experience

Former White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland talks with reporters in the Capitol in January. He is the nominee to be head of human rights in the State Department. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Former White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland talks with reporters in the Capitol in January. He is the nominee to be head of human rights in the State Department. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 22, 2020 at 4:01pm

Senate Democrats appeared underwhelmed but resigned Tuesday to the eventual confirmation to the State Department’s top human rights position of a longtime Capitol Hill staffer and GOP budget guru with scant foreign policy experience.

President Donald Trump this summer nominated Eric Ueland, his former White House legislative affairs director, to serve as undersecretary of State for civilian security, democracy and human rights. The position entails oversight of the State Department’s nine offices and bureaus that fall under the "J" rubric in the department's organizational chart — a broad policy portfolio that includes counterterrorism, international narcotics and law enforcement as well as global refugees, international religious freedom and combating human trafficking.

Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at today's confirmation hearing that he felt like the Trump administration has engaged in a long-running game of “musical chairs” when it comes to nominating individuals for senior jobs at Foggy Bottom.

“Mr. Ueland, my impression is that you’re an intelligent person, but that alone is not a qualification to be the undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights,” Menendez said.

The senior senator from New Jersey noted that the nominee, who also previously served as director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources at State, was originally nominated by Trump in 2017 to serve as undersecretary of State for management.

But then-Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., had problems with the nomination of Ueland, who was the former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. Ueland’s nomination then languished until it was withdrawn in 2018 when Mike Pompeo took over as secretary of State and wanted to have his longtime personal friend, Brian Bulatao, nominated instead for the management job.

At the same time, Trump’s first nominee to be undersecretary for human rights, Marshall Billingsea, saw his 2018 nomination stall in the committee because of bipartisan concerns about Billingsea's past advocacy for torture as an interrogation practice during his time at the Pentagon in the early years of the George W. Bush administration. Billingslea’s nomination was eventually withdrawn and he has since been nominated to the position of undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.

“There is an element of farce to this but I for one am not amused. These are serious jobs that require subject matter expertise and experience,” Menendez said. “I recognize that you are well-versed on budget matters including a short stint at the State Department but this is not a budget job. This is about enhancing our own security by helping others build more just, more humane and more democratic societies.”

Ueland said he believed his knowledge of the budget process (he is a former staff director of the Senate Budget Committee) and other appropriations and financial matters would be an asset if he is confirmed to oversee the roughly $6 billion in annual foreign assistance that goes through the J bureaus.

“The responsible stewardship of public funds has been a key objective of my career in government,” Ueland said in his opening statement. “The undersecretary must ensure that we are building partner capacity rather than dependency when we provide foreign assistance.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he felt sorry for the position Ueland will be in if he is confirmed.

“You have had a distinguished career and you have been nominated for a position that is a really important one,” Kaine said. “The United States’ ability to set an example on human rights issues is deeply compromised by the activities of the president and since he is the person who has the loudest microphone of any American, the work that you do to try to promote human rights around the world is something that is going to be very, very difficult.”

Almost four years through Trump’s first term, there has yet to be anyone confirmed to the position of undersecretary for human rights and democracy promotion, which Democrats say is emblematic of the low importance Trump places on human rights.

Depending on when the next committee confirmation vote is scheduled, Ueland is expected to have enough GOP support to advance out of the committee. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, has done away with the committee’s longstanding bipartisan practice of obtaining the consent of the ranking member before scheduling confirmation votes.

Republicans were in sparse attendance at Tuesday’s confirmation hearing and Ueland received scant questioning attention from them.