Throughout the opening months of the Trump presidency, and Rex Tillerson’s tenure as secretary of state, a major line of criticism against the administration was the slow pace at which it was filling key foreign policy positions, particularly the dozens of ambassadorships to important allies and trouble spots that had been left vacant. In the meantime, the ambassadorial roles in these embassies were carried out by career foreign service officers, but, the argument went, these officials were hamstrung by their inability to convey the actual policy preferences of the idiosyncratic and unpredictable new president.
Richard Grenell, who has served as U.S. ambassador to Germany since May, is an example of an ambassador who is fully in line with his boss’s thinking and preferences. He’s also an example of why Trump’s critics should sometimes be careful what they wish for.
As a highly partisan figure with a reputation as a Twitter troll, Grenell was a controversial pick to begin with, and his nomination was held in limbo for months with heavy opposition from congressional Democrats. As spokesperson for the U.N. mission to the United Nations, he was described by reporters as “rude,” a “bully,” and “unbearable.” When he was appointed spokesman for the Mitt Romney campaign in 2012, he had to delete hundreds of past tweets, many of them mocking the physical appearances of women including Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. (He lasted only a few days in the role due to both the Twitter controversy and objections from social conservatives to the fact that he’s gay.) He was also an early defender of Trump in his most recent role as Fox News contributor, which, as with his former boss at the U.N., John Bolton, was apparently enough to get him a job.
The Trump administration has had a strained relationship with Germany and its chancellor, Angela Merkel, from the beginning. It’s hard not to view it as an intentional provocation that Trump appointed a figure like Grenell as ambassador to a government with a near fetishistic attachment to diplomatic norms. Just hours after arriving in Berlin in May, shortly after Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, Grenell angered his hosts with a tweet stating, “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.” German officials and commentators tut-tutted that it was not a U.S. ambassador’s place to give orders to German companies.
A former German ambassador to the United States tweeted, “Ric: my advice, after a long ambassadorial career: explain your own country’s policies, and lobby the host country - but never tell the host country what to do, if you want to stay out of trouble. Germans are eager to listen, but they will resent instructions.” Grenell responded, not inaccurately, that the language he had used was nearly identical to that in the White House fact sheet about the withdrawal.
That fracas was just a preview of the uproar that followed an interview Grenell gave to Breitbart last weekend in which he said he wanted to “empower other conservatives throughout Europe” who are “experiencing an awakening from the silent majority.”
He said he had been contacted by conservative leaders throughout the continent and that “there is a groundswell of conservative policies that are taking hold because of the failed policies of the left.” The remark was interpreted as a show of support for the rising wave of right-wing populist parties throughout Europe, including Germany’s AfD, which has benefited from opposition to the immigration policies of Merkel’s center-right government. In the same interview, Grenell referred to Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz as a “rockstar.” Kurz has controversially formed an alliance with the far-right populist Freedom Party and vocally opposed Merkel’s immigration policies.
The German government called on Grenell to clarify the comments, and left-wing politicians are now calling for his expulsion. Grenell has denied that he was endorsing any particular party, though he added on Twitter, “I stand by my comments that we are experiencing an awakening from the silent majority—those who reject the elites and their bubble. Led by Trump.”
Ambassadors are traditionally supposed to stay neutral—publicly anyway—in the domestic politics of the countries to which they are appointed. And at a time when there’s growing concern about support from Vladimir Putin’s Russia to populist parties throughout Europe, the ambassador’s suggestion that these parties are part of a global movement led by Trump is not exactly helpful.
On the other hand, it’s no secret that Trump has sympathy for far-right parties in Europe—he came close to endorsing Marine Le Pen in the most recent French election—or that he views Merkel’s policies as “insane.”
A more traditional ambassador might respect all the norms of international diplomacy and do his or her best to translate the mixed signals and provocations coming out of Washington into something coherent; however, it wouldn’t change the fact that Trump himself is disrespectful and incoherent. Grenell is a convenient foil for German politicians and commentators, but it’s also apparent that the person they really want removed from office is his boss.