WASHINGTON – The White House dug in Wednesday for President Donald Trump’s pick for a plum Caribbean diplomatic post, despite concerns that he’s a “tinfoil hat” conspiracy theorist who smeared Ted Cruz and other Trump rivals in 2016 with unfounded, tabloid-style allegations.
“The President looks forward to Leandro Rizzuto’s swift confirmation by the Senate, and is confident he will be a great Ambassador to the Barbados, St. Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, the Commonwealth of Dominica, Grenada, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines,” said deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters.
Trump named Rizzuto, a senior executive at Conair, a family-owned beauty supply company, a month ago.
CNN discovered that during the 2016 campaign, Rizzuto had spread smears about a number of Trump’s GOP rivals, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
He promoted allegations that Cruz had cheated on his wife, Heidi Cruz, and that she “was a leading member in an effort to combine the governments of the US, Canada and Mexico,” CNN reported.
The Texas senator has yet to weigh in on the nomination.
On Tuesday, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a conservative Republican who has at times been openly critical of Trump, lambasted the pick.
“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,” said James Wegmann, a Sasse spokesman. “I’m sure Senator Sasse will be willing to evaluate the specific evidence for his claims — but it’s got to be more than a stack of National Enquirers. People who want to serve Americans as our diplomats and spokespeople abroad should know that words and truth matter, even during campaigns. Cynics and nuts are probably going to have a hard time securing Senate confirmation.”
One more GOP defection would doom the nomination, which requires Senate approval. Also Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert faced tough questions about Rizzuto, which she deflected.
“I’ve not had the opportunity to meet him at this point,” she said. “He hasn’t been through the Senate yet, hasn’t been through confirmation. And when there is a nominee who’s named, we try not to comment on that because that person is a nominee.”
Asked if the nominee should have been vetted more carefully, she said, “I can just refer you back to the White House for some of its nominees.”
Rizzuto’s tweets were also aimed at Trump critic Mitt Romney, the party’s nominee for president in 2012. The day Romney delivered a blistering attack on Trump, he retweeted a tweet that called Romney a “dumb ass” and asserted that “Satan has a hold of you.”
Nauert declined to address that and how it would reflect on U.S. interests if Rizzuto is confirmed. “I don’t have everybody’s tweets under the sun in front of me,” she said.
Rizzuto, a Florida resident, has served as chairman of the Professional Beauty Association.
Presidents often pick campaign supporters and friends for cushier and less sensitive diplomatic postings.