WASHINGTON – Let us consider the qualifications of President Donald Trump’s nominee to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Holy See: one Callista Gingrich of Virginia.
She is a former clerk on the House Agriculture Committee.
She is the author of children’s books about an elephant named Ellis.
She sings in the choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
She plays French horn in City of Fairfax Band.
And, she testified Tuesday, she has “looked at some of” Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change.
But really, Gingrich was receiving a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee because of one qualification: She is married to Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and a major backer of President Trump.
And now, for his support of Trump, he is getting the ultimate patronage: the chance to live in Rome on the taxpayer’s dime while his wife, the president of Gingrich Productions, enjoys a plum posting. Newt, who converted to Catholicism several years ago, set his wife up nicely for the job by co-hosting two videos with her about Pope John Paul II, produced with a Gingrich political ally.
But if it is good news for the Gingriches, it is an(other) insult to Francis from Trump, who has sparred with the pope over immigration and climate change. Newt carried on a six-year extramarital affair with Callista in the 1990s when she, 23 years his junior, was a House staffer and he, as speaker, led the impeachment of Bill Clinton over his extramarital affair with an intern. National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters called it “astonishing that a party that celebrates family values at every turn has a president who is on his third wife and who has bragged about his extramarital affairs and who is appointing an ambassador to the Vatican who had a six-year affair with her future husband while he was still married to his second wife.”
The nomination of Callista is also Trump’s beatification of Newt, who has done as much as anyone to coarsen American politics – and to pave the way for Trump – with his name-calling, demonizing and brinkmanship.
All presidents reward supporters with patronage. New York Jets owner Woody Johnson will be our man in London. On Gingrich’s panel Tuesday was George Glass, a big Trump donor, tapped to be ambassador to Portugal though he doesn’t speak Portuguese.
But the choice of Callista Gingrich is another category of cronyism for an administration populated by friends and relations rather than appointees of merit. This has fueled the Russia scandal, stalled the agenda in Congress and made the administration seem singularly incompetent – yet Republicans in Congress have been unwilling to say that this is unacceptable.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., introduced Gingrich on Tuesday by noting that she was valedictorian of her high school class.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who succeeded Newt in the House before moving to the Senate, declared that “one of her great, great persuasive talents is to not only convince Newt to marry her, but convert him to Catholicism.”
Gingrich, an uncomfortable smile fixed on her face, provided, in lieu of actual answers to questions, strung-together snippets of cliches.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., asked about refugee policy, on which Francis and Trump disagree. Gingrich responded with a bromide about “a deep commitment in this country to work to forward peace and stability.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., asked how she would work with the Vatican to counter extremism. Gingrich responded with a word salad about looking “forward to working on those issues of our shared policy opportunities.”
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., asked about the pope’s climate change encyclical. She responded with boilerplate about how “President Trump wants to maintain that we have clean air and clean water.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., asked if she had even read the encyclical.
“I have looked at some of it,” the witness replied.
“Are there pieces of it that particularly resonate for you?”
“Well,” Gingrich replied generically, “I think we’re all called to be stewards of the land.”
Staffers on both sides of the committee were now grinning at the pained responses.
Johnson, attempting to rehabilitate the witness, urged her to talk about her “study” of John Paul II and what she learned about U.S. and Vatican leadership. Gingrich retreated again to platitude: “It’s so important that we reach out to places like the Holy See to forward good in this world,” she said.
That was enough for Johnson, who pronounced her “perfectly suited for this position.”
Perfectly situated, at least.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.