As of this writing, it has been 593 days since an American ambassador has inhabited the Villa Taverna, their official residence in Rome. Ever since the financier and Republican donor Lewis Eisenberg moved out at the end of Donald Trump’s administration on January 21, 2021, no one has replaced him. President Joe Biden never nominated anyone, which raised eyebrows both in American foreign policy circles and in Italy. The Romans I’ve spoken to are furious and see it as a sign of unprecedented disrespect, especially at a time when Washington is asking its European allies—including countries dependent on Russian gas, like Italy—to hold the line on anti-Russian sanctions. “It’s the only G7 country with no U.S. ambassador,” one American diplomatic insider told me. “I know the Italians are unhappy and they should be, given the situation politically and what’s going on with Russia.” Given that Russia is rumored to have had a hand in the collapse of Mario Draghi’s sanctions-friendly coalition government this summer, the fact that Washington doesn’t have a representative on the ground is more than embarrassing. It’s downright negligent.
Currently, the United States is represented in Italy by Shawn Crowley, who is the chargé d’affaires. That’s fine, but a chargé doesn’t have the same rank and status as an ambassador, and receiving countries have all kinds of protocols and rules about who can meet with whom. Usually, a chargé has a much lower ceiling for whom they can meet than an ambassador; the rank itself can be quite limiting. “The Italians,” noted the diplomatic insider, “are very protocol conscious.” As are the Ukrainians—so much so that, despite all the aid the U.S. has poured into his country, President Volodymyr Zelensky refused to meet with the American chargé d’affaires until a real American ambassador, Bridget Brink, arrived in Kyiv this May.
Why has Biden left the post in Rome unfilled for so long? It’s been an open secret in Washington that the president is holding the spot for Nancy Pelosi, the first Italian-American Speaker of the House and a minor celebrity in Italy. The idea, apparently, was to give her a nice, cushy retirement gig after Republicans take over the House. But why not nominate someone, like a career foreign service officer, to serve in the post, and then shoo them out once Pelosi ripens to the idea? All ambassadors, after all, serve at the pleasure of the president. I asked spokespeople at both the State Department and the White House about this, but they wouldn’t—and couldn’t—explain to me, even off the record, what the hell is going on there, not even after Fox News published its own story about the Pelosi rumors on Tuesday.