By Nahal Toosi and Daniel Lippman
When British Ambassador Kim Darroch went to the White House days after Donald Trump was inaugurated, the new U.S. president greeted him warmly, noting that he’d watched Darroch being interviewed on Fox News.
“You’re going to be a TV star!” Trump told Darroch.
It was a jovial moment, according to two people Darroch told about the encounter, and it was one reason that the British envoy — in public and private — has described Trump as “charming.”
But new reports that Darroch privately dissed Trump’s team as “dysfunctional” and “inept” in leaked cables back to the British foreign ministry have set off a diplomatic spat and soured Trump on the diplomat. The president has spent two days obsessively tweeting about Darroch, claiming he doesn’t even know him, that the Brit is a “very stupid guy” and a “pompous fool” and — most astoundingly — insisting the U.S. will no longer deal with Darroch.
Yet in Washington, Darroch is widely liked and well-connected in U.S. government circles, having cultivated close ties to some of the president’s top aides, whom he regularly has seen in business and social settings. The ambassador to the U.S. since early 2016, he is a garrulous figure who rarely lets his diplomatic mask slip in public. He also throws famously lavish parties in his stately residence next to the massive British Embassy and always has a fun toast to make.
Trump aides and confidants who have attended his soirees include White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Darroch and his embassy even hosted a September 2017 engagement party for Katie Walsh, Trump’s former deputy chief of staff, and her beau Mike Shields, which several Trump aides, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, attended. Matthew Whitaker celebrated the new year during his brief stint as acting attorney general at the British Embassy, where Darroch oversaw the festivities.
Now, almost overnight, the ambassador risks going from bipartisan Washington convener to ostracized foreigner at Trump’s direction. The fallout reflects how quickly Trump can turn on a top ally’s envoy — and insist that Washington turn with him. It’s also another example of Trump’s willingness to shatter diplomatic norms with the United Kingdom, which claims a “special relationship” with the United States.
“It drags one of the most important U.S. relationships internationally through the mud at the very highest levels,” said Jeff Rathke, a former Foreign Service officer and Europe analyst who has served in multiple administrations. “Even if it is temporarily satisfying for President Trump in some way, it is bad for the relationship because it undermines confidence and trust.”
The irony, said one person close to the Trump administration who’s been to Darroch’s parties, is that “a lot of folks from the White House actually say the exact same things” about the internal dynamics there. “They were probably saying those things to him.”
The fracas started on the weekend, when the Mail on Sunday published a story detailing the contents of secret cables that Darroch had sent to London offering his analysis and views on the Trump administration starting in 2017. According to the British news outlet, Darroch described internal divisions in the White House as “knife fights,” warned Trump could lead the U.S. to war with Iran and described the administration overall as “chaotic,” predicting it would not become “less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction riven; less diplomatically clumsy and inept.”
Darroch wrote that Trump “radiates insecurity” and has “no filter.” But he also warned officials in London: “Do not write him off.”
On Monday, Trump lashed out: “I do not know the Ambassador, but he is not liked or well thought of within the U.S. We will no longer deal with him.” By Tuesday, Trump seemed even more angry, tweeting: “The wacky Ambassador that the U.K. foisted upon the United States is not someone we are thrilled with, a very stupid guy…. I don’t know the Ambassador but have been told he is a pompous fool.”
On both occasions, Trump also used his tweets to attack outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May, who he said had failed to take his advice on how to negotiate Brexit with the EU. “She went her own foolish way-was unable to get it done,” Trump wrote.
So far, the British government has stood up for Darroch, noting that it’s his duty as a diplomat to offer “honest, unvarnished” analysis to his superiors back home. “Sir Kim Darroch continues to have the Prime Minister’s full support,” a U.K. spokesman said.
And the State Department has said it will still work with Darroch — for now.
“We will continue to deal with all accredited individuals until we get any further guidance from the White House or the president, which we will, of course, abide by the president’s direction,” spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said during a news conference, describing the U.S.-U.K. relationship as “bigger than any individual” and “bigger than any government.”
I have been very critical about the way the U.K. and Prime Minister Theresa May handled Brexit. What a mess she and her representatives have created. I told her how it should be done, but she decided to go another way. I do not know the Ambassador, but he is not liked or well….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 8 июля 2019 г.
….thought of within the U.S. We will no longer deal with him. The good news for the wonderful United Kingdom is that they will soon have a new Prime Minister. While I thoroughly enjoyed the magnificent State Visit last month, it was the Queen who I was most impressed with!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 8 июля 2019 г.
For his part, Darroch worked as usual on Tuesday from his embassy office on Massachusetts Avenue. He also went to Capitol Hill to meet with Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (Republican-Iowa) and Representative George Holding (Republican-North Carolina). However, he did not join a meeting between Liam Fox, a top British trade official, and Ivanka Trump, the president’s adviser and daughter. Fox had said he would apologize for the leak during the meeting.
Darroch, who did not respond to a request for comment, has spent decades as a diplomat, holding top positions such as national security adviser to former British Prime Minister David Cameron before coming to Washington. He’s done tours in Tokyo and Rome, and dealt with Middle Eastern and Adriatic issues, according to his embassy biography.
His appointment to the ambassador post in Washington is something of a career capstone — the position is considered the most prestigious ambassadorship in the U.K. foreign service and often goes to senior diplomats in the final years of their career.
The 65-year-old was born in Northern England and attended Durham University. He studied zoology but joined the U.K.’s diplomatic ranks in 1977. He is referred to as “Sir Kim” because of his appointment as a “Knight Commander” in 2008.
Some former officials and analysts believe what made Darroch a target for whoever leaked his critical memos is the ambassador’s extensive experience with European Union issues. He spent many years dealing with U.K.-EU relations, including having served as Britain’s representative to the regional bloc in Brussels. During a party in Washington months after the British voted to leave the EU, Darroch remarked wryly that his EU experience was “obviously time well spent.”
The belief in some corners is that the leaks of the cables were orchestrated by supporters of Brexit who want to make sure that the next British ambassador in the United States is on their side. Others suspect Russia may be behind the leaks similar to the way Moscow is accused of hacking the Democratic National Committee’s emails.
Sally Quinn, a journalist who’s attended parties at the British Embassy, said what Darroch wrote in the cables reflects what most foreign ambassadors in Washington also privately think.
“What Kim Darroch said is what all the ambassadors or most of them think, even the ones who particularly cozy up to the Trump people” like ambassadors from Middle Eastern countries, Quinn said. “They’re just lucky that their reports have not been hacked.”
Darroch has always been respectful to Trump administration officials in private, according to people who know him. At parties he has hosted, he would note how honored he was to have senior officials from the Trump administration attending, and they would return the bonhomie.
“Oh, we love the British — go Brexit!” one senior Trump administration official told Darroch at a small private dinner last year, prompting the British ambassador to laugh.
Darroch’s dilemma has now become an issue in the British Conservative Party’s internal race to replace May as prime minister. That contest is down to front-runner Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary and a Brexit advocate, and Jeremy Hunt, the current foreign secretary who supported remaining in the EU during the 2016 referendum.
Hunt on Tuesday tweeted support for Darroch, whom he said was simply doing his job by sending honest analysis to London.
“Allies need to treat each other with respect as @theresa_may has always done with you,” he wrote, addressing Trump. “Ambassadors are appointed by the UK government and if I become PM our Ambassador stays.”
Johnson has stressed that he has a “good relationship” with the White House, avoiding addressing Trump’s comments directly. But Nigel Farage, a fellow Brexiteer whom Trump has suggested should be the British ambassador in Washington, bulldozed into the controversy. “Kim Darroch is totally unsuitable for the job and the sooner he is gone the better,” Farage tweeted.
Despite Darroch’s positive reputation in the foreign policy establishment, some observers pointed out that the insights he offered in his memos weren’t all that original.
“You could have pulled it from pages of The New York Times,” said a senior Conservative British lawmaker, who asked not to be named. In fact, Trump’s “overreaction” arguably proved correct Darroch’s assessment about the volatility of his administration, the lawmaker added.
Robin Niblett, director of the London-based Chatham House think tank, said Trump’s assault may be an opportunistic attempt to gain “leverage” over the next British prime minister.
“In essence, it’s, ‘You will need to buy back my love,’” Niblett said. “There’s plenty of issues on which the U.S. wants to influence U.K. foreign policy going forward: Iran sanctions, [the Chinese tech firm] Huawei and a U.S.-U.K. trade deal.”
Darroch was expected to leave his post, and possibly retire, in January 2020. The fortuitous timing could give the next prime minister a chance to possibly sit tight and quietly move him on without appearing to have caved to Trump.
If Johnson wins the prime minister’s slot, he might recall the envoy. But if for whatever reason Darroch is allowed to stay and Trump follows through on his threat to bar U.S. officials from dealing with him, Darroch could find his final days as a diplomat rather lonely.
The dust up is already affecting his ability to socialize. On Tuesday, a person familiar with the matter confirmed the White House had disinvited Darroch from a dinner on Monday night in honor of the visiting emir of Qatar.