WASHINGTON — Former Nassau County Republican leader Joseph Mondello testified Wednesday that if confirmed as U.S. ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago he would try to boost regional democracy and seek to reduce a surprisingly high rate of ISIS recruiting in the islands.
Mondello, 80, also said he would address sex and drug trafficking and support human rights and women’s empowerment. He faced no awkward political questions and easily handled policy issues in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“Being considered for the post of ambassador of the United States to the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is an extraordinary high point in my life,” Mondello said in his opening statement, thanking President Donald Trump for nominating him to the post.
Trump named Mondello ambassador to the two-island nation, with a population of 1.2 million, after Mondello as GOP leader endorsed him at a time when few thought he could win the nomination, much less the presidency.
Following the hearing, senators on the committee will submit written questions to Mondello for the record. The panel then will vote on his nomination, and if it’s approved the full Senate will take a final vote.
New York’s Democratic senators, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, have not decided how they will vote, aides said.
In the hearing chaired by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and other Democrats aimed their sharpest questions at one of the other two nominees, Kimberly Breier, named as assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs.
Senators pressed Mondello on ISIS recruitment in Trinidad and Tobago. Rubio said Trinidad and Tobago “produces more ISIS fighters per capita than any other country in the western hemisphere.” He said ISIS is trying to rebuild as an insurgency instead of controlling large swathes of territory.
“As we were talking about in our meeting,” Rubio told Mondello, “there are numerous daily nonstop flights between Trinidad and Tobago and Miami and Kennedy Airport. So we should care a lot about what’s happening there. It’s very close to home.”
Mondello said ISIS has recruited 135 members of Trinidad and Tobago’s small Muslim community to fight elsewhere. He said the problem overshadows all the other issues he expects to face, and that he would employ federal agencies to help the local government grapple with it.
“There is poverty there. There [are] social and economic problems despite the fact they have a very high” gross domestic product, Mondello said. “We have to have some messaging going on there, to let people understand what we believe, what we are.”
Mondello also promised to urge the government of Trinidad and Tobago to drop its support in the Organization of American States for Venezuela, an increasingly unstable country just 6.7 miles from the island nation, led by Nicolás Maduro.
Asked by Menendez if he had ever been to Trinidad and Tobago, Mondello said, “Never.” Menendez said in his view that did not disqualify him for the post.
In his opening statement, Mondello thanked his wife of 54 years, Linda Crabtree Mondello, and his daughters, Elizabeth and Lisa, who attended the hearing. He also highlighted the “modest circumstances” of his childhood in Brooklyn and his pride in his Spanish heritage, noting his mother’s family came from San Germán, Puerto Rico.
Mondello brought reinforcements from the Long Island political ranks; Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), new Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Cairo and Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic national committeeman from Great Neck.
Menendez took note.
“Mr. Mondello, having Congressman King here is an asset. It would even be a bigger asset if you were being nominated to Ireland,” said Menendez, drawing laughs. Menendez and King have known each other since being elected the same year.
“And bringing Mr. Zimmerman with you is a bipartisan effort,” Menendez said. “So I realize that you can bring together people in a common cause. That’s a good thing.”