October 29, 2019 at 6:43 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Trump’s gay ambassadorial pick handles questions on Russia’s hostility
Robert Gilchrist was queried on Russia’s hostility in his confirmation hearing. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Russia’s belligerence — which manifested itself during the 2016 election — was a key issue Tuesday during the confirmation hearing for President Trump’s pick to become the next U.S. ambassador to Lithuania.

Robert Gilchrist — who’s gay and a former president of GLIFAA, the affinity group at the State Department for LGBT employees — was skilled in drawing on his foreign policy expertise to answer the questions before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on Russia’s aggression.

The first question came from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who asked Gilchrist whether he sees Russia as a threat and what kinds of Russian actions would be of concern to Lithuania.

Although Gilchrist didn’t use the word “threat” to describe Russia, he did recognize the country is renewing its attention to countries it once controlled as part of the Soviet Union.

“Lithuania, I think, over the past decade has seen a number of challenges from Russia as the Russian government has increased military spending, and as they’ve increased their attention toward the Baltic states,” Gilchrist said.

For Gilchrist, one of the biggest challenges Lithuania is facing is Russian disinformation — which intelligence experts confirmed was in play during the 2016 election in the United States.

“The Lithuanians have been at the forefront in terms of countering that information, including through public private partnerships, but also working closely with us,” Gilchrist said.

Pressed by Shaheen on the efforts to counter the disinformation campaign, Gilchrist talked about U.S. engagement in training journalists and supporting the traditional media.

“I think if you look through, through some of the recent press, you’ll see how the Lithuanians really in a masterful way have gotten out ahead of an issue before it became an issue domestically,” Gilchrist said. “And so, they are indeed at the forefront in many ways I think there’s some things that we could possibly learn from them as well.”

Asked what specifically the United States could learn from Lithuania, Gilchrist emphasized the private-public partnerships throughout the Baltic region.

“I’ve seen it they have this very active public private partnership, where I think across the Baltic region are private citizens are actively looking at what’s showing up in the media and then working with the government on that,” Gilchrist said. “I think it’s something that’s interesting but also it’s been very productive in Lithuania.”

Although he was nominated by Trump in July, Gilchrist — who currently serves as director of the operations center at the State Department — is a career Foreign Service officer and not a political appointee like other ambassadors.

Gilchrist was previously deputy chief of mission of the U.S. embassy in Sweden, deputy chief of mission of the U.S. embassy in Estonia and the director of Nordic and Baltic Affairs in the State Department’s Bureau of European & Eurasian Affairs.  

As Trump continues to press NATO to increase its defense spending, Gilchrist pointed out Lithuania has increased it to 2 percent of GDP and has committed to increase it to 2.5 percent by 2030.

“We’re working closely with them to ensure that that additional funding is spent wisely, in terms of increasing interoperability and, in terms of increasing their preparedness,” Gilchrist said.

The hearing was underway in the aftermath of news the United States would move 500 troops to Lithuania for a six-month deployment — a movement Gilchrist said the country is happy to see.

“Although Lithuania doesn’t have a substantial Russian population per se, it is strategically located as a border country with Kaliningrad,” Gilchrist said. “And you know what we get from the Balts and they would they want greater U.S. engagement in any way possible.”

Questioning on Russia wasn’t solely directed to Gilchrist, who was one of four nominees at the hearing seeking confirmation for the role of U.S. ambassador. Others on the panel were Roxanne Cabral, tapped to become U.S. ambassador to the Marshall Islands; Kelly Degnan, tapped to become U.S. ambassador to Georgia and Yuri Kim, selected to become U.S. ambassador to Albania.

Kim acknowledged Russia has sought to engage in disinformation efforts in Albania, but added the disinformation campaign has been effective there.

“I think the key to the strength of NATO and its utility going forward for the United States relies on three things: Solidarity, integration and interoperability,” Kim said. “In all three of those respects, Albania could could not score higher. Thankfully, the Russian narrative does not get much traction in Albania and I think, as I said in my statement. It behooves us to hold friends like this, more closely at this time.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) echoed concerns about Russian hegemony in his own remarks during the committee hearing, saying Putin has reinvigorated the country as a geopolitical competitor.

“In the case of Russia, my perception is that they have a real problem, a shrinking population, a weak industrial base,” Romney said. “Yes, they have enormous natural resources — energy resources in particular — but they’ve got some real problems with smaller population and certainly a small population relative to us and relative to their other neighbor, China. So, I would anticipate them to continue to have their eyes set on their neighbors as a way to grab population, and to grab industrial base and to try and strengthen their hand.”

Gilchrist is at least the fifth openly gay person President Trump has selected for a position as U.S. ambassador. Others are U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell; U.S. Ambassador to Nepal Randy Berry; U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia Eric Nelson and U.S. Ambassador to Cabo Verde Jeff Daigle.

No questions on LGBT issues came up during the confirmation, nor did any member of the committee express any objections to confirming an openly gay ambassador. (In the 1990s, when Bill Clinton had to appoint Jim Hormel as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg through a recess appointment because of anti-gay sentiment in the U.S. Senate, that wasn’t the case.)

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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