Trump expected to nominate former Virginia congressman as Qatar ambassador

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WASHINGTON -- The White House is expected to pull the nomination of an experienced career diplomat for US ambassador to Qatar and instead tap former one-term Virginia congressman Scott Taylor, multiple sources familiar with the situation tell CNN.

Molly Phee, a career State Department official and former US ambassador to South Sudan, was nominated by the Trump administration in late 2018. However, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did not act on the nomination before the end of the last congressional session and it and other nominations expired.

The White House is expected not to resubmit her nomination for the Qatar post and will instead put the former Republican congressman and Navy SEAL forward.

Fraud allegations against Taylor's unsuccessful midterm election campaign are currently under investigation by a special prosecutor in Virginia, although Taylor himself is not under investigation.

One source familiar says the decision to change nominees was made by President Donald Trump himself.

Another source familiar with the situation said Taylor is someone whom "the White House obviously wants to look after."

The White House declined to comment. However, a White House source told CNN that a number of ambassador nominations are due to be submitted to the Senate on Monday.

Taylor served in the House of Representatives for one term, but narrowly lost his re-election bid to Democrat Elaine Luria in November 2018. His campaign was plagued by allegations that his staffers had helped to fraudulently collect signatures to help get a third-party candidate onto the ballot. A special prosecutor's investigation into the allegations is ongoing according to the prosecutor's office.

"The investigation continues at this time," according to Don Wolthuis, Chief Deputy to the Commonwealth Attorney for the City of Roanoke, Virginia.

Taylor's spokesperson told CNN that he is not personally under investigation and Taylor has denied in multiple media reports that he had any knowledge of the situation.

Separately, a source close to Taylor stressed to CNN that the former lawmaker is not without foreign policy experience. Following his time as a Navy SEAL, Taylor spent four years traveling in and out of Yemen as part of his work for a US oil company.

"He was running a critical security apparatus with other former SEALs," the source said. "They would negotiate with armed tribesman in the desert."

The source said that Taylor "has a deep understanding of the customs and culture" of the region and speaks some Arabic. He traveled to Qatar and met with the Emir, prime minister and foreign Minister at the end of 2017, according to a post on Taylor's Facebook page.

According to a June 2018 report from Foreign Policy, Phee was one of several career officials driven out of the Bureau of International Organization Affairs by Trump political appointee Mari Stull, who allegedly led a quiet campaign of vetting career diplomats for "disloyalty."

The State Department Inspector General is investigating allegations of retaliation against career officials, including by Stull, according to State and legislative sources.

Phee is now working with State Department Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconstruction Zalmay Khalilzad.

If confirmed, Taylor will become ambassador during a tense period in the Gulf region. A stalemate is continuing between Qatar with neighboring countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen. They severed ties with Qatar in 2017 over its alleged support for terrorist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

The State Department's special envoy tasked with helping to resolve that dispute, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, resigned on Tuesday. Two State Department officials told CNN that Zinni left because he felt he had reached a dead-end, believing there was no forward movement on resolving the rift.

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