North America

'It could have been any of us': Disdain for Trump runs among ambassadors in US


Other diplomatic staff in the US reportedly share the same sentiments towards the Trump administration as the UK's former ambassador, Kim Darroch.

Ask members of the Washington diplomatic corps about the cables that Sir Kim Darroch, the British ambassador who resigned Wednesday, wrote to London describing the dysfunction and chaos of the Trump administration, and their response is uniform: We wrote the same stuff.

“Yes, yes, everyone does,” Gérard Araud, who retired this spring as the French ambassador, said Wednesday morning of his own missives from Washington. “But fortunately I knew that nothing would remain secret, so I sent them in a most confidential manner.”

So did Darroch, who alone and with Araud, tried to navigate the minefield of serving as the chief representative of longtime US allies to a president who does not think much of the value of alliances.

Darroch submitted his resignation the morning after Boris Johnson, who is likely to become Britain’s next prime minister, notably declined during a televised debate to defend the diplomat and also refused to criticise President Donald Trump.

Kim Darroch, the United Kingdom's former ambassador to the United States.
Kim Darroch, the United Kingdom's former ambassador to the United States.

In his resignation letter, Darroch said the furor over his characterisation of the Trump administration made it impossible for him to carry out his role.

“Although my posting is not due to end until the end of this year, I believe in the current circumstances the responsible course is to allow the appointment of a new ambassador,” he wrote.

He came to that conclusion after he found himself in the vortex of what for years has been the definition of a classic Washington gaffe: He was caught in public saying something that is widely believed. It would have been stranger, his diplomatic colleagues said, if Darroch had been writing cables describing the Trump White House as a smooth-running machine.

“It could have been any of us,” one ambassador, who is still serving and therefore spoke on the condition of anonymity, said on Wednesday.

US President Donald Trump.
US President Donald Trump.

Until Darroch’s confidential cables appeared in The Daily Mail over the weekend, none of the major ambassadors in Washington had been denounced by Trump as “wacky” or “very stupid’’ — descriptors that the envoy’s friends were quick to say hardly applied to one of Britain’s most sophisticated diplomats and former national security advisers.

Johnson’s failure to back the ambassador was met with withering criticism from opponents, including his rival in the leadership race, Jeremy Hunt, the current foreign secretary. Hunt called Trump’s comments “unacceptable” and said that he would keep Darroch in his job.

“The fact that Sir Kim has been bullied out of his job because of Donald Trump’s tantrums and Boris Johnson’s pathetic lickspittle response is something that shames our country,” said Emily Thornberry, the British opposition Labour Party’s shadow foreign secretary. “It makes a laughingstock out of our government.”

She added, “Just imagine Churchill allowing this humiliating, servile, sycophantic indulgence of the American president’s ego to go unchallenged.”

With a few exceptions — including the ambassadors from Israel and the United Arab Emirates, who have supported Trump’s every move — foreign diplomats in Washington these days describe living in something of a black hole.

Decisions that directly affect their nations’ trade relationships or troops are delivered with no notice. Their contacts in the State and Treasury departments as well as in Congress freely tell them they have little idea what decisions Trump may make.

And the Trump administration has almost reveled in keeping foreign diplomats in the dark. While Darroch, following in the tradition of his predecessors, hosted receptions in the British Embassy’s grand ballroom and weekend cocktail parties under tents on the lawn overlooking Embassy Row, few administration officials have attended.

There were occasional appearances by Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s elder daughter and son-in-law, who also serve as the president’s senior advisers and live with their children a few blocks from the embassy. A few other officials, like Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, showed up at Darroch’s famous New Year’s parties, held amid the embassy’s stunning art collection.

President Donald Trump chats with British Prime Minister Theresa May at the G20.
President Donald Trump chats with British Prime Minister Theresa May at the G20.

But those were rare occasions. Trump’s secretaries of state, Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo, did not appear to nurture the “special relationship” between the United States and Britain. Nor did Vice President Mike Pence, who lives next door to the British Embassy.

While Darroch often tried to reach out to the White House and the National Security Council, like most of the ambassadors from NATO nations, he never quite felt that he broke into the inner circle.

In December, when Trump announced on Twitter that the United States was withdrawing forces from Syria — where both the British and the French have deployed troops, some of them dependent on US forces for transportation and intelligence — Darroch was given no notice.

He called around the capital, reaching out to key members of Congress and national security reporters to glean information. To be fair, Trump’s own national security team was also taken aback, and the defense secretary, Jim Mattis, resigned in protest. (Trump later insisted Mattis was fired.)

Similarly, the White House barely gave allies notice last year of Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement, even though Britain, France and Germany had helped negotiate it. As one NATO ambassador noted, it took weeks for the administration to gather them and describe its new Iran strategy, which was composed largely of a series of 12 demands that Pompeo also announced in a speech.

“For me, as a foreigner, it was fascinating,’’ said Araud, who said he looks back at his tenure as French ambassador as a grand political science experiment. “It’s what happens when a populist leader takes command in a liberal democracy. These people don’t recognise or accept the idea that an ambassador or a bureaucrat could be of any use. They only want to deal with other leaders.”

Araud recalled a moment in 2017 when France’s foreign minister was planning a trip to Washington. The ambassador gave the State Department two months’ notice to try to get on Tillerson’s schedule. He did not hear back until a day before the event, Araud recalled and was told the meeting would last only 20 minutes.

“So the minister didn’t come,” Araud said.

Darroch was somewhat more successful. From his time as Britain’s national security adviser, he had deep contacts in US intelligence agencies and among the permanent class of national security specialists. But even in those conversations, officials often expressed mystification about how decisions in the Trump administration were made and policy was generated.

Traditionally, the British ambassador would be brought in for consultations with senior US officials about major decisions under consideration in the Middle East, or in dealing with Russia, where Britain’s the Government Communications Headquarters — the British equivalent to the National Security Agency also known as GCHQ — often takes the lead in gathering intelligence.

But not in the Trump era.

All are examples of the chaos that Darroch had described to his successor as national security adviser, Mark Sedwill, in a 2017 memo that leaked on Saturday, leading to Trump’s declaration that the ambassador from America’s oldest ally was, in effect, persona non grata.

Johnson, the front-runner in the prime minister’s race, said Wednesday that he regretted Darroch’s departure, and that whoever leaked the ambassador’s messages should be “run down, caught and eviscerated.”

There will be a new British ambassador, presumably appointed after Parliament selects a new prime minister to replace the departing Theresa May, and seats a new government. But under current conditions it is unclear whether that diplomat’s access will be much better.

A comment from the State Department about Darroch’s departure on Wednesday blandly repeated its commitment to the special relationship.

The two countries “share a bond that is bigger than any individual,” the statement said, “and we look forward to continuing that partnership.”

By David E. Sanger © 2019 The New York Times

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch