President Donald Trump’s multiday attack on British Ambassador Kim Darroch is a classic example of Trumpian diplomacy: The president throws a bomb on Twitter and leaves others to interpret what it all means. It’s also the latest example of the president inserting himself into British politics on behalf of the forces promoting Brexit.
The controversy started on Saturday when the Daily Mail published excerpts of confidential diplomatic cables in which Darroch, who’s served in Washington since 2016, called Trump “inept,” his administration “dysfunctional,” and compared the president’s ability to withstand scandals to Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. In contrast to Trump-era ambassadors like France’s extremely outspoken Gérard Araud, Darroch has generally kept a low profile and spoken respectfully about the administration in public. Darroch was doing his job: being outwardly respectful and cooperative while giving his unvarnished opinions to his superiors back in London. But not surprisingly, the U.S. president doesn’t see it that way.
Trump tweeted about Darroch on Monday, saying he was “not well liked or well thought of in the U.S.” and that “we will no longer deal with him.” On Tuesday, he followed up, writing, “The wacky Ambassador that the U.K. foisted upon the United States is not someone we are thrilled with, a very stupid guy.”
If Trump wants to get rid of Darroch, he has options. Under international law, a government has the right to declare a foreign diplomat persona non grata and expel them for any reason. Banished envoys are usually given about 72 hours to leave the country. It’s a dramatic step that usually comes amid a wider breakdown in diplomatic relations, which is not the case with the U.K. and the U.S. right now. The U.S. did this with 60 Russian diplomatic staffers last year in response to the alleged poisoning of a former Russian spy in the U.K. In a closer parallel to Darroch’s situation, countries including Malawi and Ecuador expelled ambassadors over disparaging comments quoted in diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2011.
But despite Trump’s tweets, Darroch has not been formally “PNG’d,” to use the diplomatic shorthand, so it’s not clear exactly what “we will no longer deal with him” means. Both the State Department and the White House have been referring requests for comment to the other.
Instead, the administration seems to simply be giving Darroch the cold shoulder. He was disinvited on Monday night to a dinner at the White House for the visiting emir of Qatar. The closest parallel to the situation may be Carlos Pascual, the former U.S. ambassador to Mexico who resigned rather than being formally expelled in 2011 after comments he made in a WikiLeaked cable about the Mexican government’s anti-drug efforts prompted then President Felipe Calderon to publicly criticize him. In that instance, the Obama administration decided to remove Pascual for the sake of the U.S.-Mexico relationship.
Prime Minister Theresa May has not reached that conclusion. A statement from her office, which may have set off Trump’s second round of tweets on Tuesday, said that while the prime minister doesn’t share all of Darroch’s sentiments, it is still important that an ambassador be allowed to “provide honest, unvarnished assessments of the politics in their country. Sir Kim Darroch continues to have the Prime Minister’s full support.”
But as Trump correctly noted, May will only be in office for another two weeks. The leak comes as the U.K. is in the midst of a contest to replace May as leader of the Conservative Party and as prime minister. The two finalists currently vying for the support of party members are front-runner and arch-Brexiteer Boris Johnson and current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. One of those men will need to figure out what to do with Darroch next month.
The timing of this diplomatic dust-up is more than a little coincidental; the release of Darroch’s cables to pro-Brexit journalist Isabel Oakeshott could be intended to embarrass Hunt. Amanda Sloat, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies British politics and Brexit, notes that unlike the vast troves of documents put out by Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, the leak “appears to be a very limited number, very specifically targeted at Kim Darroch’s assessment at Trump. It’s hard to conclude that this is anything other than politically motivated.”
Regardless of who or what caused Darroch’s predicament, it’s harder to discern how it will play out politically. Hunt is standing his ground, responding to Trump on Twitter by calling his comments “disrespectful and wrong.”
Some observers are also speculating that the leak was calculated to give Johnson, the expected winner, a pretense to replace Darroch with someone more to Trump’s liking. The U.K. is anxious to negotiate a post-Brexit trade deal with the United States. This explains why May always seemed desperate to avoid clashes with Trump, despite the constant abuse coming her way. Johnson may have an easier time—Trump has always made it clear that he thought the former London mayor would be a better prime minister than May—though a goodwill gesture surely wouldn’t hurt.
Who might such a replacement be? Speculation has naturally turned to Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, who served as an informal Trump campaign surrogate in 2016. Trump suggested he would be a great ambassador to the U.S. just after he took office. (Oakeshott reportedly has ties to Farage.) Johnson and Farage aren’t exactly chums, but sending Farage off to Washington could be one way for Prime Minister Johnson to keep him out of his hair.
For what it’s worth, Farage said on Monday that he’s “not the right man for that job” (though he also claimed he would leave politics after the Brexit referendum).
Still, the notion that this is all being orchestrated on behalf of Johnson and Farage feels a little neat. Johnson will certainly want a good relationship with Trump, but he also probably doesn’t want to be seen as a complete patsy for a deeply unpopular U.S president. Johnson, who was foreign secretary from 2016 to 2018, also used to be Darroch’s boss, so he likely understands that the ambassador did nothing wrong.
“Boris Johnson is really going to be in a bind,” says Sloat. “On one hand, he’s really going to want to get off to a good start with President Trump. On the other hand, he’s also going to have a domestic audience that he’s going to have to respond to as well as a very serious morale issue within the Foreign Office about how you handle a veteran diplomat who’s just doing his job.”
And if Johnson or Farage’s supporters think this will be enough to win Trump’s unwavering support or get favorable terms in a trade deal, they may have another thing coming. As leaders from France’s Emmanuel Macron to Japan’s Shinzo Abe to even May have learned, flattery isn’t actually a great way to get Trump to do what you want. No matter who’s in office in Downing Street or the British Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue next month, the next bombshell for the special relationship will still only be one tweet away.