WASHINGTON >> The State Department spent $52,701 last year buying customized and mechanized curtains for the picture windows in Nikki R. Haley’s official residence as ambassador to the United Nations, just as the department was undergoing deep budget cuts and had frozen hiring.
The residence, in a new building on First Avenue in New York, has spectacular views, and Haley is the first ambassador to live in it. For decades, her predecessors lived in the Waldorf Astoria hotel. But after the hotel was purchased by a Chinese insurance company with a murky ownership structure, the State Department decided in 2016 to find a new home for its top New York diplomat because of security concerns.
The government leased the apartment, just blocks from the delegation’s offices, with an option to buy, according to Patrick Kennedy, the top management official at the State Department during the Obama administration. The full-floor penthouse, with handsome hardwood floors covering large open spaces stretching nearly 6,000 square feet, was listed at $58,000 a month.
While ambassadors around the world are given residences, there are only two such residences in the United States — one for Haley and the other for her deputy.
Haley’s residence is particularly grand since it is used for official entertaining. But her deputy’s is also very nice, having served as the location for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s intimate steak dinner in May with Kim Yong Chol, North Korea’s top nuclear weapons negotiator. During the dinner, Pompeo used its sweeping views to point out various features of New York City’s skyline to the senior official from the world’s most reclusive country.
A spokesman for Haley said plans to buy the curtains were made in 2016, during the Obama administration. Haley had no say in the purchase, he said.
The curtains themselves cost $29,900, while the motors and hardware needed to open and close them automatically cost $22,801, according to the contracts. Installation took place from March to August of last year, during Haley’s tenure as ambassador.
Haley’s curtains are more expensive than the $31,000 dining room set purchased for the office of Ben Carson, the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That purchase became so controversial that President Donald Trump considered firing Carson, though the spending rules covering agency chiefs are different from those for ambassadors.
While Haley’s curtains were being ordered and installed, Rex W. Tillerson, the administration’s first secretary of state, had frozen hiring, pushed out many of the department’s most senior diplomats and proposed cutting the department’s budget by 31 percent. In embassies around the world, projects were eliminated, jobs were left unfilled and the delegation to last year’s U.N. General Assembly meeting was slashed.
“How can you, on the one hand, tell diplomats that basic needs cannot be met and, on the other hand, spend more than $50,000 on a customized curtain system for the ambassador to the U.N.?” asked Brett Bruen, a White House official in the Obama administration.
But Kennedy defended the purchase, saying that it would probably be used for years and that it was needed for both security and entertaining purposes.
“All she’s got is a part-time maid, and the ability to open and close the curtains quickly is important,” Kennedy said.
Pompeo will soon receive government housing himself, after the Defense Department agreed to rent him a flag officer’s home on a military base in the Washington area. The State Department said the unusual move would save on security costs. Pompeo is one of the few members of Trump’s Cabinet of modest means.
While the State Department would not say where Pompeo’s house would be located, a U.S. official and a former top State Department official said he would live at Fort Myer, a small Army post near Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.