Trump Administration Blocks Another Critic from Speaking Abroad

The Denmark incident reveals how skittish the U.S. State Department has become when engaging with experts who have criticized the president’s policies.

U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands attends a reception in Denmark.
U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands attends a diplomatic reception in Denmark on Jan. 3. Philip Davali/Ritzau Scanpix via AP

The decision to block a prominent NATO expert from speaking at a conference in Denmark because he has spoken critically of U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies highlights a growing trend in which the State Department has quashed engagement with Trump critics, prompting public relations gaffes for U.S. embassies. 

Stanley Sloan told Foreign Policy he was on his way to Copenhagen to give a keynote address on NATO at an event when he received word from the organizers that Trump’s ambassador to Denmark pressured them to quash his speaking engagement. The U.S. Embassy in Denmark helped fund the conference, and the U.S. ambassador was also scheduled to speak at the conference. 

The head of the Danish Atlantic Council, a think tank, told Sloan in a letter on Dec. 7 that the organization was “instructed that Ambassador Carla Sands does not want [his] presence at the Conference” because of his past criticism of Trump’s policies on NATO. Lars Bangert Struwe, the head of the council, said in the letter to Sloan the he strongly objected to the decision but given the embassy was the major funder of the conference, it “has the last word.” A day later, Struwe announced on Twitter he was canceling the conference on NATO’s 70th anniversary altogether. 

Sloan, who is currently a visiting scholar at Middlebury College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, previously served as a CIA intelligence analyst and specialist at the Congressional Research Service.

Sloan, who has frequently spoken at conferences funded by the U.S. government in the past, said he was disheartened by the move. “In the past I’ve always even bragged to audiences in the United States and Europe that the State Department sponsored me over the years even though they knew that I might criticize American policy. And I did that when there were Democratic and Republican administrations. … That’s something that I thought was a small sign of strength in American democracy,” he said. 

“It’s far bigger than me—I mean, I’m sorry I’m not going to Denmark, but I do care greatly about what it implies about where our government is going,” he added.

He tweeted about his experience, and the story was quickly picked up by major Danish media outlets. 

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But in a series of tweets on Sunday, the U.S. Embassy in Denmark said Sloan’s “proposed last-minute inclusion in the program by [the Danish Atlantic Council] did not follow the same deliberative process of joint decision-making and agreement that we followed when recruiting all other speakers.” Sloan said he was invited to speak at the conference just under two weeks before it was scheduled to take place. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, corroborated Sloan’s account of what happened and confirmed that Sands personally pushed the Danish think tank to block Sloan from speaking.  

It’s not the first time the State Department has landed itself in hot water by spurning Trump critics. The State Department in February rescinded a prestigious award from a Finnish journalist, being honored for facing a campaign of online harassment and death threats by exposing Russian disinformation operations and troll factories. The journalist and U.S. officials told Foreign Policy at the time her award was rescinded because she criticized Trump on social media. Democratic lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee launched an investigation into the matter and referred it to the State Department’s inspector general. Two other experts and former officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say they have been blocked from speaking at State Department-funded conferences in Europe and pressed in advance by U.S. officials on what they would say and whether it would be critical of the president.

The move drew swift criticism from former U.S. officials and even other European diplomats. “The State Department is all about promoting American culture and American freedoms, and instead here we have American diplomacy showing the opposite. In fact, showing fear of free speech, showing insecurity about what an American may say publicly about U.S. leadership,” said Jim Townsend, a former U.S. official who led the Pentagon’s NATO policy during President Barack Obama’s administration.

The incident also highlights another misstep from a political donor-turned-ambassador. Trump, like Democratic and Republican presidents in the past, has made a habit of appointing deep-pocketed donors with no relevant foreign-policy experience to ambassador posts. Sands donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Trump’s presidential campaign and inaugural committee before Trump nominated her to serve as ambassador to Denmark in 2017. A former actress and chiropractor, Sands served on the boards of prominent academic and philanthropic institutions in California and was head of a former private investment firm. She has no prior diplomatic experience.

Sands often promotes articles and tweets from her personal account about censorship of right-wing figures online and on college campuses.

After his speaking engagement was canceled, Sloan published his prepared remarks on his website, outlining how the trans-Atlantic community is in crisis, in part due to uncertainty Trump brought to European allies. 

Struwe, the head of the Danish Atlantic Council, said in a statement that his organization canceled the conference because of the controversy. “We have decided not to proceed with the Conference. The progress of the process has become too problematic,” he said. 

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

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