Trump envoy’s remarks ignite outrage in Germany
President Trump’s top envoy in Germany has found himself in the middle of a diplomatic firestorm less than a month after being sworn in.
In an interview from his office in Berlin with the right-leaning Breitbart News, Richard Grenell made an acknowledgement unusual for a diplomat: he wanted to “empower other conservatives throughout Europe.”
“I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders. I think there is a groundswell of conservative policies that are taking hold because of the failed policies of the left,” Grenell said, adding that it was “an exciting time” to be serving as ambassador.
The blowback in Germany was swift.
The German Foreign Ministry requested that Grenell clarify his remarks; a top lawmaker with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives said he was at risk of becoming a “highly ineffective” envoy; and a cadre of left-leaning politicians demanded that Grenell’s credentials be withdrawn.
“What this man is doing is unheard of in international diplomacy,” Martin Schulz, the former leader of the Social Democratic Party, told Germany’s DPA news agency.
Sahra Wagenknecht, the leader of the left-wing Die Linke party, called on the German government to boot Grenell from the country, arguing that the ambassador’s comments amounted to a threat to Germany’s “democratic sovereignty,” according to Germany media.
Grenell’s comments — expressing support for a political faction in Europe – were unusual.
While it’s not uncommon for diplomats to be partisan back in their home countries, they rarely comment on the domestic politics of the countries in which they are posted.
“It is pretty clear that this is not ambassadorial, but this is being understood as political interference rather than voicing someone’s perspectives,” Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, the vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin, told The Hill in an interview. “That’s how it was constructed and how it was understood.”
Grenell’s remarks were also notable because they come as relations between the U.S. and allies in Western Europe grow increasingly strained.
Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, and his recent decision to impose steel and aluminum tariffs on the European Union, have sparked concerns that Washington is alienating some of its closest post-war allies.
Grenell’s arrival in Germany did not come with a honeymoon phase.
He angered many Germans last month when he tweeted that “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.”
The comment, made the day he arrived in Berlin, followed on the heels of Trump’s decision to back out of the Iran nuclear deal and impose sanctions on the Islamic Republic and those that do business in the country.
Grenell responded to criticism over that remark in an interview with KCRW Berlin, an English-language radio station, saying that it was not intended to be taken as an order to German companies. But he also stopped short of apologizing for the remark, and appeared to give companies a choice between doing business with the U.S. or doing business with Iran.
“What I said is that you should wind down, or you should not do business with the mullahs. It’s not a directive. Businesses get to choose,” he said. “But again — they get to choose. Either they’re going to do business in a very small market of Iran or they’re going to choose to do business in a very large market of the United States.”
The State Department defended Grenell’s comments to Breitbart on Tuesday, telling reporters during a press briefing that the ambassador was “merely highlighting that there are some parties and candidates in Europe who are doing well right now.”
“We’re not supporting any political party. That’s not what we do,” Heather Nauert, a spokeswoman for the State Department, said. “We support democracy, we support countries figuring out for themselves who they want to vote in for office.”
Grenell himself denied that he was expressing support for a political party. But he also doubled down on his claim that President Trump had led a global movement rejecting “the elites.”
“The idea that I’d endorse candidates/parties is ridiculous,” he wrote in a tweet last Sunday. “I stand by my comments that we are experiencing an awakening from the silent majority – those who reject the elites & their bubble. Led by Trump.”
Absurd. I condemn those comments completely. Don’t put words in my mouth. The idea that I’d endorse candidates/parties is ridiculous. I stand by my comments that we are experiencing an awakening from the silent majority – those who reject the elites & their bubble. Led by Trump. https://t.co/DjSX4SL3bf
— Richard Grenell (@RichardGrenell) June 3, 2018
Many Germans were taken aback by Grenell’s comments — and the website that he made them to.
The right-wing news outlet began eyeing an expansion across Europe in late 2016 around the time that Trump was elected. Germany, which has grappled with an ascendant right-wing movement in recent years, was among the countries on that list.
The company has not opened any new bureaus in Europe, and has failed to gain the same traction across the Atlantic. But Kleine-Brockhoff said that it was significant that Grenell chose to speak to Breitbart in the first place, and that the move is part of a wider pattern of behavior by the Trump administration.
“This all fits together into one composite picture,” Kleine-Brockhoff said. “It’s not that some ambassador misjudged his role in some formal terms or went across some formal line in the Vienna Convention.”
“If that was the case it would all be — as the German saying goes — a storm in the water glass,” he continued. “But that’s not the case here.”
Grenell’s comments may be a signal that Trump’s own bombastic style may be “infecting diplomacy in terms of what U.S. ambassadors believe is acceptable,” said Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served on former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s policy planning staff.
He said that deploying a strategy that so brazenly bends diplomatic norms — especially at a time when aspects of the transatlantic relationship appear somewhat frayed — would ultimately be counterproductive, and only inhibit Grenell’s ability to be an effective ambassador to Berlin.
“It’s highly counterproductive,” Stewart said, adding that “if the shoe were on the other foot, it would be seen as entirely unacceptable if the German ambassador was talking about the importance of empowering conservatives or nationalists in the United States.”
“What it is showing is there’s an estrangement with the United States under the Trump admin and its most enduring allies,” he added.
The German government almost certainly will not revoke Grenell’s credentials. Some German officials shrugged off his remarks as part of the cost of doing business with an American president known for bucking diplomatic and political norms.
Volker Kauder, the leader of Merkel’s center-right Union faction in parliament, told reporters on Tuesday that how Grenell handles his job is “up to him,” adding that he would not comment on everything the ambassador does or says.
“I assume that just as I’ve gotten to know the American president, and now the ambassador, there could be frequent occasion to comment, given what both of them are like,” Kauder said, according to an Associated Press report. “You have to take it how it is.”
Jürgen Hardt, the foreign policy spokesman for the conservative bloc in parliament, similarly waved off Grenell’s comments, saying that it’s “not my place to tell the new U.S. ambassador how to exercise his functions or which media outlets to speak to.”
It would not be the first time that the U.S. has weathered diplomatic spats in Europe, said James Carafano, the vice president for foreign policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He said that there is a lack of “proportionality” in the Germans’ response to Grenell’s comments, which he said were “actually pretty innocuous.”
Carafano said that internal insecurities over the populist movement in Europe may be driving the backlash to Grenell’s comments.
“What he actually said was really incredibly mild. He clarified it, the State Department clarified it,” he said. “The Germans are not going to kick the American ambassador out of the country for this.”
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