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African Ambassadors Express Disappointment After Meeting with Kellyanne Conway

When the president's advisor didn't discuss Africa, some participants were confused.

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway during an interview at the White House on Aug. 3, 2017. (Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images)
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway during an interview at the White House on Aug. 3, 2017. (Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images)

African ambassadors attending a State Department-organized conversation with Kellyanne Conway left the event disappointed the White House counselor didn’t address the president’s alleged incendiary remarks about immigration from countries he considered undesirable, diplomatic sources told Foreign Policy.

Conway, a key architect of Trump’s presidential bid and one of his top surrogates, spoke to a group of ambassadors, including ones from Africa, on Tuesday morning at the prestigious Blair House near the White House. The event, organized by the State Department’s Protocol Office, was open to all ambassadors in Washington, and diplomats from 120 countries RVSPed.

Conway focused on Trump’s achievements during his first year in office and previewed his State of the Union speech. She said almost nothing on his priorities for Africa, leaving some participants confused and bewildered, according to two people in attendance and two sources briefed on the meeting.

One African ambassador, speaking on condition of anonymity, told FP that while Conway didn’t bring up African policy, the meeting was positive in that someone from Trump’s inner circle “actually met” with them.

The meeting was also unusual for Conway, who has appeared to step back from the limelight and rarely delves into the administration’s diplomatic dealings.

The gathering came just days after Trump sent a letter to the African Union, a 55-country bloc, that convened in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, this week. Trump’s recent comments dominated the backroom conversations at the union’s annual summit, African diplomats said.

The letter, obtained by FP, doesn’t mention the president’s alleged comments directly but appears to be an attempt to address the resulting diplomatic fallout. “The United States profoundly respects the partnerships and values we share with the African Union, member states, and citizens across the continent,” Trump’s letter reads.

“I want to underscore that the United States deeply respects the people of Africa, and my commitment to strong and respectful relationships with African states as sovereign nations is firm,” the letter continues.

Trump also met with Rwandan President and incoming AU Chairman Paul Kagame during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week.

Trump’s “shithole” comments, first reported by the Washington Post on Jan. 12, sparked a diplomatic firestorm in Africa and prompted African ambassadors to convene an emergency meeting to coordinate a response.

South Africa, Botswana, Senegal, and Ghana summoned top U.S. diplomats over the president’s remarks.

Two of the participants at the meeting said they thought the purpose was to alleviate growing concerns among African leaders that the administration wasn’t giving the continent enough attention. Despite Africa’s blossoming trade relationships with the United States, and several deadly conflicts and famines, the Trump administration has few appointees in place dedicated to dealings with the continent.

Over a year into Trump’s presidency, the administration still lacks an assistant secretary of state for African affairs and ambassadors in key posts including South Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Many posts are held by acting career professionals who are widely experienced and capable but don’t have the diplomatic clout of a presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed counterpart.

The African ambassadors in Washington will meet with senior State Department officials, including acting Assistant Secretary of State Donald Yamamoto, on Feb. 2, sources say.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to make his first visit to the continent next month. The trip’s schedule has not been formally announced, but it is expected to have stops in four to six countries, including Angola and Kenya.

 

Correction, Jan. 31, 2018: The original version of this article said that the purpose of the meeting was to address diplomatic concerns of African ambassadors, and described it as a botched effort; it was not. FP regrets the errors.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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