Disney chairman Bob Iger; James Costos, a close friend of Barack Obama with ties to Hollywood; and Ted Kaufman, Joe Biden’s loyal aide, are emerging as the front runners for the coveted position of U.S. ambassador to London.
The appointment is the most prestigious in the president – and the Senate’s – gift: the ambassador lives in the 35-bedroom Winfield House, in Regent’s Park.
Its 12-acre garden is second only to the Queen’s at Buckingham Palace and has room for Marine One to land, while inside glittering reception rooms make an invitation from the ambassador a prize on London’s social scene.
Not that there is a shortage of invitations for the ambassador: the most glamorous of all when he or she presents their credentials at Buckingham Palace, riding there in a carriage and wearing a top hat and tails.
Given its benefits, the ambassadorship has been used by presidents of both parties as the ultimate reward to supporters for their loyalty or their fundraising – preferably both.
Now Biden is facing a three-way contest at the top of the list of names for the posing.
Jostling are former ambassador to Madrid James Costos, an openly gay mega fundraiser in Hollywood who is close friends with the Obamas; Iger, the former Dinsey CEO who has made no secret of his political ambitions; and one of Biden’s oldest friends Ted Kaufman, 81, DailyMail.com heard from Biden insiders and officials in the diplomatic world.
Prince Harry speaks with Disney Chairman Bob Iger about a job for his wife Meghan, who is hugging Beyonce, at the July 2019 London premiere of the ‘Lion King’
Michelle Obama holds James Costos’ book ‘El Amigo Americano’ while he holds her tome ‘Becoming’ – the former ambassador to Spain is close to the Obamas
Former Senator Ted Kaufman is one of Biden’s most loyal and longest aides, the two are seen walking in the Capitol together when Biden was vice president
The appointment to London is usually one of the first an administration makes, given the special relationship between the United States and United Kingdom.
COULD IGER GO FROM MAGIC KINGDOM TO UNITED KINGDOM?
Iger, 69, a longtime Biden supporter, has made it known he’d like an ambassadorial slot.
And he’s mulled a political career for some time, including considering making a presidential bid last year. He gave $500,000 to the Biden Victory Fund, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
Iger is scheduled to resign from his position as Executive Chairman of The Walt Disney Company at the end of the year and announced his retirement shortly before the coronavirus pandemic caused a worldwide shutdown that Disney’s theme parks, cruises and resorts, which depend on human interaction.
The Walt Disney Company went from the biggest media company in the world to struggling with its future. The company lost more than $7 billion and laid off thousands of workers.
But Iger, 69, is looking to his next steps after 45 years at Disney – and a troubled 2020 which saw him elevated from CEO to chairman only for the pandemic to devastate the company bottom line.
He’s touted his personal story in his memoir ‘The Ride of a Lifetime,’ where he revealed he joined ABC in 1974, where his first job was performing menial labor on television sets for $150 a week. He made his way up the corporate ladder, becoming chairman in 2005 where he oversaw the purchase of Pixar, Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd.
The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, in a story on his memoir, dubbed him ‘effortlessly elegant’ and part of a ‘cult of nice’ in Hollywood who is as relaxed hanging with staff as he is on the cocktail circuit. President Biden is known to read the Times’ op-ed page.
Iger has been married to Willow Bay, his second marriage, since 1995. Bay is a former correspondent at NBC, ABC, and CNN.
And Iger famously had an encounter with royalty – but one which may not play entirely to his advantage with the Queen.
At the Lion King premiere in London in July 2019, Prince Harry collared him and expressed his wife Meghan’s ‘interest’ in doing voiceover work for Disney.
During the conversation, caught on camera by a fan, the Duke of Sussex gestured to Meghan, who is chatting with Beyonce, and said to Iger: ‘You do know she does voiceovers?’
Iger can be heard replying: ‘Ah, I did not know that.’ Harry then responds: ‘You seem surprised. She’s really interested.’ The Disney chief then says: ‘We’d love to try. That’s a great idea.’
The Duchess of Sussex later signed a voiceover deal with the Walt Disney Company in exchange for a donation to Elephants Without Borders, a wildlife charity that helps to track and protect the animals from poachers.
That was before the two quit their royal duties and decamped to California, leaving behind a royal family in crisis and a rift with his brother Prince William.
Prince Harry’s soliciting for his wife turned out to be a harbinger of their Netflix deal – so raising the topic with the Queen might not be the best start to his diplomatic career.
Bob Iger, 69,, is looking to his next steps after 45 years at Disney; he is resigning from the company at the end of the year
Willow Bay, Bob Iger and actress Jennifer Garner at the Save The Children’s ‘Centennial Celebration: Once In A Lifetime’ gala in 2019
Bob Iger, to Mickey’s left, is also in the mix for Ambassador to China although he’s been criticized of placating leaders there in order to help Disney gain a foothold
London is in the mix for him but so is Beijing. It’s the China posting that could cause headaches for the Biden administration.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have criticized Disney’s efforts there. Iger, in an effort to get Disney in China’s door, apologized for a film that was sympathetic to the Dalia Lama as critics charge he placates the Chinese government for his company’s bottom line. He’s made numerous trips to China to court officials and has a long-running relationship with China’s President Xi Jinping. Disney was criticized for filming ‘Mulan’ in Xinjiang province, where the Chinese government is accused of human rights abuses with the mostly Muslim Uighurs, who are being detained in camps.
Iger’s work paid off – there is a Disney theme park in Shanghai (that shut down during COVID) and the company has made billions of dollars in box-office receipts before the pandemic hit.
ANOTHER AMBASSADORSHIP FOR THE OBAMAS’ BFF?
Costos, whose partner is Hollywood decorator Michael S. Smith, was a major fundraiser for Biden and has deep ties to Barack and Michelle Obama. He donated $50,000 to the Biden Victory Fund this year and $35,000 to the Democratic National Committee, according to FEC reports.
Costos, 58, was an executive at HBO when Obama named him ambassador to Spain in June 2013 and one source in the diplomatic world told DailyMail.com he excelled at the position.
His Instagram shows his curated, glossy life – photos of him and Smith spending time with Michelle Obama, hanging out with ‘Game of Throne’ creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss when the hit HBO show filmed in Spain, visiting President Obama in the Oval Office, and laughing with Gwyneth Paltrow.
He and Smith redecorated the ambassador’s residence in Madrid at considerable personal cost – bringing in items ranging from a John Singer Sargent painting to 12-panel Coromandel screen once owned by Coco Chanel – and then donated much of what they paid for to the home for future ambassadors to enjoy.
Smith also decorated the Oval Office and the private family quarters in the White House residence for Obama when he was president.
James Costos, while still ambassador in Spain, in October 2018 with his book ‘El Amigo Americano’
James Costos and Michael S. Smith with Joe Biden, Costos is a major fundraiser for Democrats
James Costos and Michael S. Smith meeting King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia of Spain
James Costos and Michael S. Smith with President Obama in the Oval Office, which Smith decorated along with the private family quarters in the White House
Then Ambassador Costos welcomes then first lady Michelle Obama to Spain in June 2016
In Spain, Costos and Smith were known for their see-and-be-seen parties: a ball for the Marine Corps, a Fourth of July celebration, and intimate dinners that served American cuisine like salmon from Alaska.
Obama was the first U.S. president to visit Spain in more than 15 years, which occurred during Costos’ tenure. Costos also hosted then deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken for an event with Google in Madrid in July 2015, part of his work to bring tech companies to Spain. He held an entrepreneurial summit that paired King Felipe VI with Google chief Eric Schmidt.
After leaving the White House in January 2017, the Obamas went to Palm Springs, where they were guests in the Costos-Smith home for several days.
THE 81-YEAR-OLD AIDE BIDEN TURNS TO IN A CRISIS
Kaufman, who replaced Biden in his Senate seat and led the presidential transition effort, is one of the president’s oldest friends and allies. Nominating him to the position would be the ultimate reward for loyalty.
He has strong ties to the United Kingdom. His daughter Meg and son-in-law Tom Hartley live in Hammersmith, west London, along with his three grandchildren.
Meg Kaufman is Project Manager for the Centre for Cities, an economic think tank.
But, at 81, Kaufman is older than the president.
Ted Kaufman’s daughter Meg works at a think tank in London; his daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren all live in London
Kaufman has been with Biden since the start of his political career. He joined the 1972 Senate campaign, when Biden was the long shot candidate but ended up with the victory. He joined his Senate office, eventually becoming chief of staff. He and Biden often commuted on the train together, riding the rails between Washington D.C. and Wilmington. In 1988, when Biden underwent surgery for two brain aneurysms that temporarily sidelined him from the Senate, Kaufman kept the office running.
Born in Philadelphia, Kaufman attended Duke University. A job with DuPont Company brought him to Wilmington, Delaware. He got involved with local Democratic politics, where he met then-county council member Joe Biden in 1970. He is married to Lynne Kaufman and they have three children.
After Biden became vice president, Kaufman was appointed to hold the Senate seat until Delaware could hold a special election.
He only sat in the Senate two years, but he used his time to advocate for federal employees – as he was a former one – and worked on the Consumer Protection Act.
Biden apparently believed it was bad luck to think about the presidential transition before he won the election, which was why he entrusted it to his longtime aide Kaufman, who worked behind the scenes to be ready for a Biden victory.
The two men have been described as essentially twins, said to be the same in values and outlook, which cements their bond.
SPECULATION OVER CINDY MCCAIN AND MIKE BLOOMBERG
Other names have been mentioned as Biden officials make their list of who could be appointed where – like a game of international chess.
Cindy McCain was talked about after she endorsed Biden and campaigned for him in Arizona. Her blessing helped him win the state, the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so since 1996.
Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg also reportedly has expressed interest in the London job.
He already has a glittering home in the city, on Chelsea’s prestigious Cheney Walk – the $25 million house was once Victorian novelist George Eliot’s – and an honorary knighthood.
Bloomberg’s ex-wife is British and his children Georgina and Emma both hold British passports, while his company has a large presence in London’s financial district.
And pressure is on to have the new ambassador in place this summer, ahead of the G7, the meeting of the leaders of seven most powerful nations in the world. The United Kingdom is hosting the summit in Cornwall, the southwest part of the country, this summer from June 11 through 13.
Plans are moving forward to hold it in person although that could change depending on the coronavirus pandemic. Prime Minister Boris Johnson personally asked Biden to make the trip over when the two leaders spoke on the phone in late January.
It would be a tour de force for the new ambassador to be at Biden’s side during the event, which includes high-profile sit downs with world leaders and a reception at Buckingham Palace with the Queen.
‘From the administration’s perspective it would be nice to have the new ambassador in place for that event,’ Lew Lukens, former US Deputy Chief of Mission in London, currently Senior Partner with Signum Global Advisors, told DailyMail.com. ‘And what a great sort of debut for the new ambassador.’
Biden has yet to name a single ambassador to a country – he named Linda Thomas Greenfield as UN Ambassador, which is a different kind of posting entirely.
It’s unclear when he’ll name his first tranche of picks – which would likely include ambassadors to London, Paris, Beijing, the EU, and Israel.
President Donald Trump named Woody Johnson as his choice for ambassador to the Court of St. James at his inauguration lunch on January 20th. President Barack Obama named his first round of ambassadors – to London, Paris, New Deli and Beijing – in May 2009, about five months after his inauguration.
The current coronavirus lockdown in the United Kingdom shouldn’t affect the timing or a new ambassador coming on board. The ambassador would be a resident of London and would be able to quarantine upon arrival, meeting British requirements. Additionally, the Senate confirmation process can take months, meaning the lockdown may end before an ambassador is ready to take charge.
Ted Kaufman served in the Senate for two years after Biden was elected vice president and until Delaware could have a special election
Then-Senator Joe Biden with his staffers Ted Kaufman (center) and Wes Barthelmes in 1974
The U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James lives at the 35-bedroom Winfield House, which sits on 12 acres in Regent’s Park
Winfield House decked out for a dinner with Prince Charles during Trump’s state visit to the UK
Then-First Lady Melania Trump, right, with Suzanne Ircha, wife of the then-American Ambassador to the United Kingdom, at Winfield House during the Trumps’ July 2018 visit
The ambassador is presented to Queen Elizabeth II, as President Trump’s ambassador Woody Johnson was in November 2017
Marine One landing at Winfield House during President Trump’s June 2019 state visit
The process of becoming an ambassador is time consuming and arduous. Johnson may have been named – albeit informally – on January 20 but he wasn’t confirmed by the Senate until August 3.
And before Senate confirmation, a nominee has to go through a lengthy background check and fill out numerous disclosure forms, including a financial vetting that checks tax records and investments. Johnson had 119 pages of disclosure forms for his Senate confirmation hearing.
Additionally, before a president names an ambassador, the name is given to officials in that country as part of an agrément – a head’s up on who is being considered, giving the country a chance to veto the choice before the person is formally announced.
Given Democratic control of the Senate and friendly relations between the U.S. and the U.K. an ambassador could, theoretically, be in place by the G7. But time is of the essence.
Costos and Kaufman will likely have an easier time with the paperwork and background check given their previous government service.
Iger could find it more time consuming given his extensive business record.
It’s unclear how many ambassadorships Biden will give to political patronage and how many will go to career officials. The president has vowed to boost morale at the State Department, which took a heavy beating under President Trump.
In remarks there on Thursday, Biden told career staff: ‘I want the people who work in this building and our embassies and consulates around the world to know: I value your expertise and I respect you, and I will have your back. This administration is going to empower you to do your jobs, not target or politicize you. We want a rigorous debate that brings all perspectives and makes room for dissent. That’s how we’ll get the best possible policy outcomes.’