Tsunis loses votes as US ambassador

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US President Barack Obama is seeing support wane for his stalled nomination of wealthy businessman George J Tsunis as the US’ next ambassador to Norway. Now a key senator from Obama’s own Democratic Party, representing the heavily Norwegian-American state of Minnesota, says he won’t vote for Tsunis when, or even if, the nomination comes up for confirmation by the US Senate.

George J Tsunis had a rough time during his US Senate confirmation hearing to be the US' next ambassador to Norway. PHOTO: US Senate

George J Tsunis blundered badly during his US Senate confirmation hearing and has now lost support from both US senators from Minnesota, home of the largest Norwegian-American community in the US. PHOTO: US Senate

US Senator Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, sent a letter to Obama’s US Secretary of State John F Kerry this week, informing him that he won’t vote in favour of Obama’s nomination of Tsunis as ambassador to Norway “because of broad and deep concern about the administration’s nominee” within his state’s Norwegian-American community.

“I am writing to inform you that I oppose his (Tsunis’) nomination should it come up for a vote,” wrote Franken, who is currently running for re-election in Minnesota. He went so far as to suggest in his letter that any appointment of Tsunis as US Ambassador to Norway “might unnecessarily damage our strong relationship with Norway.”

Tsunis set off a storm of controversy within both Norway and the US, when he exhibited startling ignorance about Norway during his Senate confirmation hearing last winter. His biggest blunder came after he had to depart from his prepared text and answer questions, not least from US Senator John McCain from the rival Republican Party: Tsunis ended up referring to members of Norway’s conservative Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp) as “fringe elements” who “spew hatred” but were quickly “denounced” by the majority of Norwegians. In fact, the Progress Party won enough votes in last fall’s election to share government power with the Conservatives, and the party’s leader Siv Jensen now serves as Norway’s finance minister. While Jensen seemed amused by Tsunis’ blunder, some of her party’s top politicians were deeply offended and demanded an apology.

Tsunis’ nomination also stirred up criticism anew over elected US presidents’ habit of rewarding major campaign contributors with ambassadorial posts. All of Norway’s ambassadors in recent decades have been such so-called “political appointments” by presidents from Ronald Reagan to George Bush Jr and, most recently, Obama, instead of coming from the ranks of career diplomats. That has raised questions over the ambassadors’ qualifications for the prestigious job as a top envoy, not least after Tsunis’ performance at his own confirmation hearing.

Meanwhile, Norway has remained without an ambassador from the US since Obama’s former appointment, Barry White, left last year. White had also been a major campaign fundraiser for Obama during his first election campaign, but after four years in the post, apparently had to turn it over to another Obama supporter. Obama tapped Tsunis, who had financially supported his reelection campaign in 2012.

US Senator Al Franken worries that George J Tsunis "deeply damaged" his own credibility during his embarrassing confirmation hearings to be the next US ambassador to Norway. PHOTO: US Senate

US Senator Al Franken worries that George J Tsunis won’t be able “to serve effectively” as the next US ambassador to Norway. PHOTO: US Senate

‘Damaged his credibility’
Tsunis has mostly remained silent since his embarrassing hearing in January, and Congressional action on his nomination has been delayed. Franken has now become the latest US Senator to oppose it, after heavy lobbying by Norwegian-Americans in his home state who have vigorously criticized Tsunis’ nomination.

“What I have heard from Minnesotans is that Mr Tsunis’ performance at his confirmation hearing and the controversy that followed it will make it impossible for him to serve effectively as our ambassador to Norway,” Franken wrote. “Many Minnesotans have expressed concern that Mr Tsunis’ remarks during the hearing have damaged his credibility with the government of Norway, the people of Norway and the American people.”

The Minnesota-based Star Tribune reported that the state’s other senator, Amy Klobuchar, also a Democrat, had already informed the White House that she wouldn’t vote in favour of Tsunis’ nomination either. Minnesota is home to the largest Norwegian-American community in the country.

T Michael Davis, a lawyer longtime member of the Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce in Minnesota, wrote a column in the Star Tribune expressing his own concerns over the Tsunis nomination earlier this year. He thinks Franken’s and Klobuchar’s opposition to Tsunis means that “other Democratic senators will also likely begin to move away from Tsunis.” There was no immediate comment from the administration on the status of Tsunis’ nomination.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund