In an unusual step, President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team has decided not to let U.S. ambassadors who are political appointees of President Barack Obama stay on for a grace period beyond Inauguration Day, a source confirmed Thursday.
The decision has left some of the diplomats, who represent the United States in countries such as Britain, Saudi Arabia and Japan, scrambling to figure out new living arrangements, visa rules and what options they have for their children’s schooling. It also could mean some top U.S. embassies are left without an ambassador for months as Trump finds his footing.
In typical presidential transitions, politically appointed ambassadors have at times been allowed to stay on the job for weeks or months after the new president has taken office. It’s partly been done this way out of personal courtesy for their family situations, but it can also help allow for some continuity as the new administration moves to fill a vast number of postings stateside and abroad.
Following tradition, President Barack Obama has directed all political appointees in his Democratic administration to submit their resignations effective on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, making room for the new Republican president’s appointees.
When asked about ambassadors requesting extensions, the Trump transition team informed the State Department that it was not making any exceptions, a State Department official told POLITICO. The department began sending cables at least as early as Dec. 21 to individual ambassadors telling them that they would have to quit their posts on time.
News of the Trump team’s decision was first reported by The New York Times. Trump aides did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Thursday. It was not immediately clear exactly how many ambassadors were affected.
“Some of the ambassadors really thought they could stay, so there’s a little bit of a scramble now,” said the State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They’re mostly resigned to it now.”
According to the American Foreign Service Association, a union representing diplomats, there are 188 ambassadorships available, a figure that has varied over the years.
During his two terms, Obama named hundreds of people to the posts, roughly 30 percent of whom are political appointees, which generally require Senate confirmation. That figure is roughly in line with other presidents in recent decades.
As presidents of both political parties have done before him, Obama handed out many of the ambassadorships to campaign donors or other supporters.
The more dangerous, less glamorous ambassador postings — countries such as Sudan, Afghanistan or Russia — tend to go to career Foreign Service officers, who are not required to step down by Inauguration Day.
Within the Foreign Service, there has been tremendous speculation over who Trump will nominate for what postings. Trump has already named Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as his ambassador to China and bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman for the post in Israel.
But it’s highly unlikely that the Republican president-elect will have decided who all of his foreign envoys will be by the time he takes office.
In the absence of the ambassadors who now must leave by Jan. 20, the affected U.S. embassies will likely be run by the highest-ranking career employee until Trump nominates someone new and that person is confirmed by the Senate. The process could take months.