State Department Defends Trump’s Man in Berlin After Diplomatic Firestorm

Some German lawmakers are calling for Ambassador Grenell’s expulsion.

New U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell stands in front of a military honor guard during an accreditation ceremony for new ambassadors in Berlin on May 8. (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)
New U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell stands in front of a military honor guard during an accreditation ceremony for new ambassadors in Berlin on May 8. (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)

The State Department rallied to the defense on Tuesday of its recently appointed ambassador to Berlin, Richard Grenell, who infuriated Germans this week by telling the far-right website Breitbart that he wanted to encourage conservatives throughout Europe to rebel against the “failed policies of the left.”

But behind the scenes at Foggy Bottom, Grenell’s comments quietly drew ire from some seasoned diplomats, according to three State Department officials, with one senior official describing them as inappropriate and even arrogant.

The interview appeared on Breitbart Sunday and quickly prompted calls from German lawmakers on the left for Grenell’s ouster. It added yet more tension to relations between Washington and Berlin, already strained over U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and his repeated attacks on Germany for laggard defense spending and what he calls unfair trade practices.

“Ambassadors have a right to express their opinion,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters on Tuesday. “They’re sometimes opinions that people may or may not like. And there is a right to free speech as well.”

Grenell, a former George W. Bush administration appointee, is an outspoken Trump supporter and a former Fox News commentator. He has been the ambassador to Berlin for less than a month.

“I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders. I think there is a groundswell of conservative policies that are taking hold because of the failed policies of the left,” Grenell told Breitbart. He said Trump’s election had empowered people to “say that they can’t just allow the political class to determine before an election takes place, who’s going to win and who should run.”

He also praised conservative Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz — who has added a far-right party to his coalition — as a “rock star.” On June 13, Grenell will host Kurz at his Berlin residence in what is an unusual move for an ambassador to a different country.

Grenell did not mention specific parties by name, but some Germans took him to be referring to the far-right Alternative for Germany, which emerged in Germany’s 2017 elections as the largest opposition group.

Others viewed it as call to oust centrist Chancellor Angela Merkel from power, but Grenell said on Twitter his quotes were misconstrued. “The idea that I’d endorse candidates/parties is ridiculous. 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,” he tweeted Sunday.

His comments rubbed some veteran U.S. diplomats the wrong way. “To talk about your job being empowering any political forces, whether it’s anti-establishment conservatives or anti-establishment liberals, is not the job of the ambassador for one of our democratic European allies,” said one senior State Department official, who did not want to be named because he was not authorized to speak to press.

“He’s saying, ‘I’ve got a political agenda, and it isn’t just in Germany, it is in Europe.’ … He’s got a lot of hubris.”

In Berlin, the German Foreign Ministry asked Grenell to clarify his comments, and prominent left-wing German politicians have issued scathing rebukes, with some calling for his expulsion.

“If a German ambassador in Washington said, ‘I’m here to strengthen the Democratic Party,’ he would be thrown out immediately,” Martin Schulz, a former leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party and former president of the European Parliament told the German news outlet Tagesschau. Schulz called Grenell’s comments “unprecedented.”

In Washington, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and co-chair of a Senate group on NATO, said in a statement that Grenell should be “recalled immediately” if he does not stop making political statements.

Grenell served as a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations under President George W. Bush and as an advisor to Republican Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 presidential bid. He was among the most outspoken foreign-policy experts to support Trump during his presidential campaign — at a time when many other prominent Republican criticized the candidate.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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