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Trump’s rumored pick for NATO ambassador doesn’t seem to agree with him about NATO

(Richard Grenell)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Richard Grenell, a well-known conservative communications professional, will reportedly soon be announced as the Trump administration’s ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It’s an important job given the alliance’s mission of standing up to Russia — and a tough one given President Trump’s harsh criticism of the organization.

Which makes it interesting that Grenell, unlike his potential boss, is a strong supporter of maintaining the NATO alliance and using it as a counterweight to Russia’s efforts to expand its influence in Eastern Europe. Grenell, who served as a foreign policy spokesperson in the George W. Bush administration, seems more aligned with the moderate wing of the administration (represented by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis) than the radical revisionist one (represented by senior strategist Steve Bannon).

“[It’s] confusing,” Steve Saideman, a professor at Carleton University who studies NATO, tells me. “As far as I know, Grenell does not hate NATO or want to burn it down.”

Grenell is also somewhat controversial in conservative circles, owing to the fact that he’s openly gay and a supporter of same-sex marriage. The Romney campaign picked him to be its foreign policy spokesperson in 2012, but a social conservative backlash ended his tenure very quickly. This time around, Grenell is less likely to get into trouble for who he is than what he’s tweeted: The tone of his comments about Trump during the primary, especially on Twitter, was highly critical.

“If you think Trump knows foreign policy issues then absolutely yes, you are stupid,” Grenell tweeted in March 2016.

He changed his tune during the general election, once referring to a Trump statement on NATO, where he said he refocused the alliance on terrorism, as “fantastic.” But past criticism of Trump has gotten potential administration nominees into trouble before. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly wanted former Bush administration official Elliott Abrams for his top deputy — but Trump nixed the pick, reportedly because Abrams had written harshly about Trump in the past.

The Grenell pick is thus an interesting test for the Trump administration: How much internal dissent can it tolerate, and what kind of dissent is acceptable? Washington’s closest allies, and Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, will be waiting anxiously for the answers.

What is the ambassador to NATO, and what would Grenell do with the job?

The US ambassador to NATO, also called the permanent representative, sits on the North Atlantic Council, the alliance’s decision-making body. The council is where NATO countries vote on key issues like whether to undertake collective military missions such as NATO’s involvement in the Afghanistan war. The ambassador votes on behalf of the US, and also plays a role in negotiating the text of any NATO-wide agreement.

These are important tasks, but typically the person doing them doesn’t have a lot of freedom. Historically, the ambassador’s job is more to do what his bosses tell him than make independent decisions. “The [ambassador] is both a very important position as the US representative in the room when big decisions are being made and also not so important since they are very closely guided/managed by DC,” Saideman explains.

That may be less true in the Trump administration, given its deep internal divisions over foreign policy and well-earned reputation for disorganization. In this environment, clear guidance could be lacking, leaving the ambassador with a lot more discretion. That would make Grenell’s personal background and views, if he’s confirmed by the Senate, a whole lot more important than those of previous NATO ambassadors.

Grenell does have a lot of experience in conservative foreign policy land. Prior to his job with Romney, he served as the spokesperson for the US mission to the United Nations under George W. Bush, holding that job longer than any other individual.

As you might expect from someone with this background, he holds fairly conventional conservative views on foreign policy — including on issues relating to NATO, which he has called “the world’s greatest alliance.” When Russia invaded eastern Ukraine in July 2014, he called for an immediate and forceful response.

“The US leads NATO ... they should have been on the ground in Ukraine immediately,” he tweeted. “We should sell Ukraine arms immediately.”

In a March 2016 appearance on the Fox Business Channel, Grenell defended the alliance against the fact that it’s not spending enough on its own defense — a charge that President Trump has made repeatedly. NATO countries are supposed to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, but only five countries hit that target in 2016.

In Grenell’s view, the issue is that the Obama administration has been too disengaged from the alliance, weakening it as an institution.

“You can’t blame NATO,” Grenell told host Charles Payne. “I would say the reason why we’re having this debate about NATO right now ... is because you don’t have US leadership.”

Grenell had also been a tough critic of Putin, attacking his intervention in Ukraine and meddling with foreign elections in a number of op-eds and numerous tweets published in the past several years. Once again, Grenell saw this as a product of Obama’s weakness.

“The Russian president has successfully used propaganda, natural gas, intimidation, money laundering, military hardware, corruption, and his opponents’ weaknesses to chip away at the West’s influence throughout Eastern Europe and the Baltic states,” he wrote in the conservative tabloid Newsmax last year. “Russia is calculating how best to continue its offense undeterred by the West and President Obama.”

The point, then, is that Grenell seems to have broadly conventional foreign policy views: He sees NATO as a vital alliance and bulwark against an expansionist Russia. His critique of the Obama administration was that it was too withdrawn, too disengaged from allies and unwilling to come to their aid when they’re threatened.

Trump, by contrast, has cast doubt on America’s commitment to NATO and described Russia as a potential partner. His critique of the Obama administration was that it was too beholden to outdated international institutions like NATO and too willing to use force when America’s direct national security interests were not at stake.

This kind of tension is becoming fairly normal in the administration. Secretary Mattis, for example, more or less disavowed past Trump statements on NATO and Russia in his confirmation hearing. During a trip to Brussels for a NATO summit, Mattis openly ruled out Trump’s proposal to cooperate with Russia on military matters. Vice President Mike Pence, during a speech in Germany, said that America “strongly supports NATO” and is “unwavering in our commitment to our transatlantic alliance.”

This kind of sub-presidential diplomacy can make it difficult to figure out what the administration’s actual position is — or would be in a crisis. Do Mattis and Pence speak for Trump, or will the president overrule them when their views come into direct conflict, especially over Russia?

Right now, it’s too soon to tell. But Grenell, if confirmed, will be thrown into the middle of this conflict — on one of the most important points of internal tension, the NATO alliance, inside the administration.

Grenell versus Trump

Grenell is not shy about expressing his opinions. He appears on Fox News regularly, and has attacked a fairly large percentage of the Washington press corps on Twitter.

“If Grenell gets the NATO job, half the reporters in DC (including me) will have to unblock him,” New York Times political reporter Glenn Thrush tweeted when the news of Grenell’s nomination first broke.

So it’s no surprise that Grenell has had a lot of things to say about Donald Trump. Since roughly last summer, most of those things have been positive — Grenell has vigorously defended Trump’s record both on foreign policy and LGBTQ rights.

But prior to Trump’s victory in the primary, Grenell’s Twitter tone was about as hostile to Trump as it was to reporters. He described candidate Trump as dangerously ignorant, and seemingly called on the Republican Party to block him from taking the nomination:

All of this raises the question of whether Grenell will go the way of Abrams, the Tillerson deputy who never was.

There is a key difference between Grenell and Abrams. Abrams was #NeverTrump, and never apologized or withdrew his attacks. Grenell, by contrast, appears to have recanted his anti-Trump faith after the primary, spending the past several months vocally defending the candidate and the new administration on Twitter and TV.

So what we’re about to see — assuming the reports of Grenell’s nomination are true — is a test of the loyalty component of a Trump nominee. How much criticism of the president and his policies is acceptable in a high-profile nominee? And is withdrawing the attacks enough to make things better?

If Grenell gets past the trial balloon stage, and is formally announced as the administration’s NATO ambassador pick, then we’ll have our answer. If he doesn’t get picked — well, then we’ll have learned something too.