The GOP Senate candidate whose Trump ambassador stint is coming back to haunt him

Even the State Department stint that Gunter plugged in launching his campaign last week, describing himself as an “America First” diplomat, is a potential liability. A 2021 report by the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General found that Gunter had created a “threatening and intimidating environment” at the embassy, and that his successors had to work to rebuild U.S.-Iceland relations after Gunter’s tenure.

Bolstering those allegations, four Trump-era State Department officials said in interviews that the dermatologist performed his ambassadorial job poorly and tried to work from his California home during the pandemic, a critical period for U.S. diplomacy. Eventually, those four officials said, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo personally instructed Gunter to return to Iceland as the coronavirus raged — citing the moment as further evidence that Gunter is not fit to be a senator.

“When Jeff served as United States ambassador, he completely failed to execute his duties in some of the most important times for the country. He was in Los Angeles, not at his post, when he needed to be there to lead his organization,” said one former senior State Department official during the Trump administration, who was granted anonymity to discuss Gunter’s job performance given the sensitivity of the topic.

“That says all you need to know about his ability to lead and whether he ought to be a United States senator or not,” that official added.

The cold reception for Gunter is just the latest sign that Republicans are moving aggressively to filter out unpredictable candidates in critical states that will determine the Senate majority next fall. Republican leaders are pulling for Army veteran Sam Brown to win the nomination in Nevada amid a crowded field of upstarts that includes former state Rep. Jim Marchant, former lieutenant governor candidate Tony Grady, a couple of other lesser-known candidates — and now, Gunter.

“It is no surprise that Mitch McConnell and the D.C. elites would be opposing a strong pro-Trump America First fighter like myself,” Gunter said in a statement. “Like President Donald J. Trump, I am a puppet of no one, and I will never stop fighting for America and the people of Nevada.”

The scathing inspector general’s report cited Gunter’s “frequent failure to respect diplomatic protocol or to coordinate with the Icelandic Government” as severe enough to prompt the State Department to operate around him.

Gunter spokesperson Erica Knight, asked about his alleged poor performance on the job, disputed that Pompeo ever had to take action against the former ambassador: “Pompeo did not order Ambassador Gunter anywhere — U.S. ambassadors answer to the President of the United States.”

“He is a physician, he and his embassy staff worked remotely during the pandemic onset and thanks to his leadership the team had zero U.S. embassy infections and zero U.S. embassy deaths,” the spokesperson added.

Pompeo declined to comment on the Gunter spokesperson’s response.

The former ambassador to Iceland seems to be vying for a Trump endorsement that could reshape the race. Gunter also has apparent deep pockets given his history of GOP political donations. A photo of him next to a beaming Trump leads his website, a previous version of which once boasted of getting a retweet from Trump.

Even so, Gunter will have to raise significant money to catch up to Brown, whose primary bid also has backing from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, NRSC Chair Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and GOP Conference Chair John Barrasso of Wyoming.

Though Nevada is challenging ground for Republicans, Nevada GOP Gov. Joe Lombardo did oust a Democratic incumbent last year — a sign that with the right candidate and circumstances, Republicans can win in the fast-growing and diverse state.

A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about Gunter. Lombardo has not endorsed anyone in the Senate race and is focused on his policy agenda, according to a person close to him.

Gunter has not voted from his Nevada address and was a registered Democrat with an active California voting record for years, according to public records and documents obtained by POLITICO. His business is based in California, where he was registered to vote in early 2021, according to public records.

In recent decades, Gunter has also been a prodigious donor to GOP causes. He sent $100,000 to Trump Victory, a joint fundraising committee, in 2016 and showered Republican Senate candidates with thousands of dollars. Most of Gunter’s donations list a California address, though some of his recent donations list his home state as Nevada, where he is also registered to vote.

In other words, despite his past California voter registration as a Democrat, Gunter’s been a reliable GOP supporter — often a prerequisite for an ambassadorship.

Gunter claimed that, while he was ambassador, his “old voter residence registration was fraudulently changed to my medical clinic” and also claimed that his broader registration status in California was fraudulently altered.

“I have never supported or given a single penny to Democrats and have been a staunch supporter of President Donald J. Trump and his brilliant America First policies since Day One,” Gunter said. “Anyone peddling this bogus narrative is complicit in covering up voter fraud.”

Knight, the spokesperson for Gunter, cited “many inaccuracies” in public documentation of his voting history documentation and added that Gunter was “fully vetted by a Republican Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2018 and confirmed unanimously by the entire U.S. Senate.”

A spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk said it could not immediately comment on claims by Gunter and his spokesperson.

The post of U.S. ambassador to Iceland is not typically high-profile, but Gunter made national headlines in 2020 after CBS reported on his demands for a firearm on the job, his refusal to return to Iceland during the pandemic and alleged poor working conditions at the American embassy.

Gunter further rankled career diplomats by calling the coronavirus the “China virus,” mimicking Trump’s attacks.

“Every time you heard the word ‘Iceland,’ there was a collective groan,” said the second official who worked at the State Department when Gunter was ambassador. “This guy, I think, confused being ambassador with being a Maharaja. You’re here to represent the country, but you don’t need 24/7 security.”

Pompeo’s department, according to all four former officials, did not anticipate having to police the ambassador to a nation with less than a half-million people at the height of the pandemic. What’s more, the officials said, Gunter’s tenure made managing diplomacy with the island nation even more challenging.

“To have the secretary call you to tell you to do your job? I’ve never heard of that,” said the third former State Department official.

Christopher Cadelago contributed to this report.

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