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Trump’s ambassador to Germany talked to Breitbart — and started an international incident

He suggested he wants to “empower” the European far right — but diplomats aren’t supposed to get involved in domestic politics like that.

ric grenell, trump ambassador, breitbart
Ric Grenell.
Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images
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.

Prior to becoming Trump’s ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell was a Republican operative with a history of making bombastic — one might even say “undiplomatic” — statements. Over the weekend, this habit got Ambassador Grenell in trouble when he gave an unguarded interview to Breitbart in which he seemed to imply that he would actively work to topple the current centrist German government.

“I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders,” Grenell told Breitbart’s Chris Tomlinson. “I think there is a groundswell of conservative policies that are taking hold because of the failed policies of the left.”

The key word there is “empower.” It suggests that Grenell views his job not merely as representing America’s policies to the German government but also working to actually strengthen German — and other European — factions that he and the Trump administration approve of.

In the interview, Grenell singled out Sebastian Kurz, the young Austrian chancellor who has opposed refugee resettlement and banned Muslim women from wearing burqas in public, as an example of the kind of politician he likes and wants to encourage. On Monday, Germany’s Der Spiegel reported that Grenell had invited Kurz to lunch.

Given that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is widely seen as part of the moderate political establishment, and is the most significant champion for keeping the European Union’s borders open, a number of analysts saw this as a suggestion he wanted to “empower” her far-right opponents in the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) Party.

“He says he will personally intervene in internal politics of Europe to empower anti-establishment conservatives,” tweeted Tom Wright, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe. “The American ambassador in Germany has just implied that he would like to unseat the current German government,” wrote Anne Applebaum, a professor at the London School of Economics and Washington Post columnist.

This was a very bad time for Grenell to be saying such things. Around the same time Grenell’s Breitbart interview went public, Alexander Gauland, one of the AfD’s leaders, gave comments at a party meeting that amounted to minimizing the Holocaust. “We have a glorious history and it, dear friends, lasted longer than those blasted 12 years,” Gauland said over the weekend. “Hitler and the Nazis are just a speck of bird shit in more than 1,000 years of successful German history.”

Grenell, in a tweet, disavowed the Gauland comments — saying he condemned them “completely” — and said he had no plans to support any European political candidates.

“The idea that I’d endorse candidates/parties is ridiculous,” Grenell tweeted. “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.”

It’s hard to square this walkback with Grenell’s original comments. He not only said that wants to “empower” conservatives, which implies picking favorites, but he literally singled out a political figure for his endorsement, Austria’s Kurz.

Moreover, there are plenty of ways to “empower” European right-wingers without formally endorsing their candidates. President Trump has done that himself: During last year’s French election, he never formally endorsed far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen — but said enough complimentary things about her to make clear where his sympathies lay.

Wright, the Brookings scholar, said he welcomed the qualification to Grenell’s original statement. But he also said that “it’s not enough.”

“The outlet [Breitbart], the word ‘empower,’ and his general diagnosis all strongly suggest he meant he wants to actively help conservative populists,” Wright told me.

This mess was eminently predictable

The German government is demanding that Grenell clarify his comments in a Thursday meeting at the foreign ministry. We’ll see if he manages to allay their concerns. But this points to a broader problem with Grenell — and, in some ways, the Trump administration as a whole.

Prior to being tapped as ambassador to Germany, Grenell was famous for a habit of writing inflammatory, sometimes even cruel, tweets. He had repeatedly insulted women based on their physical appearance, as the Advocate has documented:

Grenell once tweeted that Rachel Maddow “needs to take a breath and put on a necklace.” He said she looked like Justin Bieber in another tweet. Other women he insulted included Calista Gingrich, who he accused of having hair that she “snaps on.” He insulted two women and former secretaries of State with one tweet: “Hillary [Clinton] is starting to look like Madeleine Albright.”

This isn’t exactly the kind of language you expect from a diplomat, especially an ambassador to a country with a female leader. The fear, expressed by Senate Democrats during his confirmation hearings, was that Grenell wouldn’t be capable of stopping himself from saying insulting things.

Within hours of being confirmed, Grenell proved them right, tweeting comments about Iran sanctions that were interpreted in Berlin as a threat to punish German corporations doing business with Iran:

US ambassadors typically aren’t expected to threaten the country they’re assigned to, especially when it’s one of the United States’ closest and most important allies. Combine that tweet with the weekend’s Breitbart fiasco and it’s clear that the fears that Grenell would prove an undiplomatic diplomat have been vindicated.

In a normal administration, Grenell’s behavior in the past month would be grounds for firing. But in Grenell’s defense, he’s not the only person in the Trump administration who says and tweets insulting things — about both women and American allies. It’s hard to imagine Grenell being punished for acting just like the president.

Therein lies the bigger problem: The president sets the tone for the way his representatives to other countries act; what’s acceptable in an ambassador is determined by the people in charge of them. So long as Trump is president, American diplomacy will continue to be remade in his image.

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