The Trump administration has appointed a controversial Republican donor and businessman to head the U.S. consulate general in Bermuda, bypassing bipartisan opposition to his nomination to be a U.S. ambassador.
Lee Rizzuto, heir to the Conair Corporation fortune, was nominated by President Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019 to be the U.S. envoy to Barbados and other Caribbean island countries, but his nomination was sunk by Senate Republicans and Democrats after his controversial tweets promoting a conspiracy theory about Sen. Ted Cruz's wife and trashing Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, and others came to light.
His new appointment has sparked criticism for the message it sends America's closest neighbors and the State Department's rank and file, many of whom were upset with the decision.
"Mr. Rizzuto was deemed unqualified to lead a U.S. mission overseas by the Republican-held United States Senate. President Trump's decision to install him at the head of the consulate general in Bermuda betrays a lack of respect for the Senate, for Bermudans and the broader Caribbean community, and for the crucial work of American diplomats," said Michael Camilleri of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington focused on the Western Hemisphere.
Rizzuto donated at least $454,400 to Trump's presidential campaign, other Republican candidates, and the Republican Party in several states in 2016, according to OpenSecrets, as well as $25,000 to Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Democratic Party. He also reportedly helped fund a "Trumpettes USA" gala at Trump's Mar-a-Lago club, just two weeks after he was first nominated to be ambassador to Barbados, according to the Washington Post.
Opposition to his original nomination centered on Rizzuto's Twitter account. The 58-year old executive at Conair, the appliance and beauty product company built by his father, retweeted messages that attacked Trump's political rivals at the time, including Sen. Ted Cruz, Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton.
The messages called Romney a "Dumb A**" and Clinton a "terrorist with amnesia," while accusing Cruz's wife Heidi of being a leader in the North American Union movement, "whose goal is to destroy the sovereignty of the United States," one message said, by merging the governments of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
A spokesperson for Sen. Cruz declined to comment.
When he was first nominated in January 2018, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, had a particularly pointed message in response: "Mr. Rizzuto should feel free to put on his tinfoil hat and visit our office with evidence for his salacious conspiracy theories and cuckoo allegations. While he's at it, the Senate probably needs to know his views on the moon landing."
"Cynics and nuts are probably going to have a hard time securing Senate confirmation," said the spokesperson for Sasse, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is required to first approve any ambassadors before they get a confirmation vote on the Senate floor.
Asked about Rizzuto's appointment as principal officer at the U.S. consulate general two years later, Sasse's spokesperson referred ABC News to the 2018 statement.
"Protecting U.S. citizens abroad is the first job of our diplomats. Appointing a conspiracy theorist and failed ambassadorial nominee to head a consulate currently led by an experienced, career foreign service officer can only weaken the State Department's ability to carry out that mission," said Camilleri, who served at the State Department under President Barack Obama and at the Organization of American States.
It is not the first time that a political appointee has been selected to lead the U.S. mission in Bermuda, a British overseas territory known most for being a vacation destination. President George W. Bush named Palm Beach investor Dennis Coleman to the role in 2003 and Texas author and businessman Gregory Slayton in 2006.
Slayton stayed on in the role through the first months of Obama's first term, authored a book on U.S.-Bermuda relations, and was awarded the Distinguished Foreign Service Award by the Congressional Black Caucus.
While the Senate must confirm a president's nominees for ambassadorships, the White House is entitled to appoint individuals to certain senior posts like this.
In announcing his appointment Wednesday, the State Department praised Rizzuto for his work as chairman of the Professional Beauty Association, director of the North American Beauty Events LLC, the producer of Cosmoprof NA, a beauty trade show, and creator of "Style Source Magazine."