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Hours into his new job, Trump’s ambassador to Germany offends his hosts

U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Allen Grenell on May 8. (Michael Sohn/AP)

BERLIN — For the past year, German officials have been urging their U.S. counterparts to send a new ambassador to Berlin. But after finally receiving one, many may be having second thoughts.

Within hours of assuming his new post Tuesday, Richard Grenell triggered harsh criticism in this Trump-weary country after appearing to threaten one of the U.S. president’s frequent targets: German businesses.

In a tweet after President Trump’s announcement to leave the Iran nuclear deal, Grenell wrote that “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.” Germany, alongside France and Britain, wants to stick to the deal Trump is seeking to scrap. And while Grenell’s post may not deviate from the official White House stance on future European business dealings with Iran, the timing and tone struck some German politicians, journalists and business executives as offensive and inappropriate.

The remarks, which were widely perceived as a threat here, came only an hour after the U.S. Embassy in Berlin took to Twitter to announce that Grenell had officially arrived in the German capital.

While German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier may have kindly welcomed the new U.S. top diplomat in the German capital, business associations and leading European politicians immediately lashed out at him on his first day.

“It’s not my task to teach people about the fine art of diplomacy, especially not the U.S. ambassador. But he does appear to need some tutoring,” said Andrea Nahles, the leader of Germany’s mainstream Social Democratic party, striking a sarcastic tone. The Social Democrats are part of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government and are in charge of key responsibilities, including the Foreign Ministry.

The left-wing Die Linke party urged the Merkel government to officially summon Grenell on Wednesday. Neither Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, nor a government spokesman were willing to comment on the ambassador’s remarks, however.

On May 3, Vice President Mike Pence swore in Richard Grenell as U.S. ambassador to Germany, saying Germany "is one of the United States' most important allies." (Video: C-SPAN)

“Germans are eager to listen, but they will resent instructions,” wrote Wolfgang Ischinger, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference and an authority on transatlantic ties, responding directly to Grenell on Twitter. The criticism was echoed by top officials elsewhere in Europe.

Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told Germany’s Der Spiegel newsmagazine that the tweet was an “impertinence.”

“This man was accredited as ambassador only yesterday. To give German businesses such orders … that’s just not how you can treat your allies,” Asselborn said.

Business executives — who already felt unfairly targeted by Trump’s Twitter attacks and his tariff threats — didn’t hold back their criticism, either.

“I’m sure that our foreign ministry will indicate to the ambassador that it’s not his role to give direction or utter threats to German companies,” said Michael Tockuss, chairman of the German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce.

The deal between Iran, the United States and several other countries lifted crippling sanctions on Iran in exchange for the halting of its nuclear program.

World leaders slammed President Trump's May 8 announcement that the United States would leave the Iran deal, but Israel's prime minister lauded it. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

After the signing, Iranian exports to the European Union increased by 375 percent from 2015 to 2016. European companies have already invested a significant amount of money in the country, raising the stakes if the deal should collapse. German companies that depend disproportionately on exports would be most affected by the deal’s disintegration.

While Grenell’s Tuesday tweet may have struck Germans as offensive, some businesses said they would likely respect the measures. European plane-maker Airbus, for instance, announced that it would adhere to U.S. sanctions on Iran but added that it was still determining the full impact.

Grenell defended his tweet Wednesday, writing that he had used “the exact language sent out from the White House talking points & fact sheet.” Some German media outlets have acknowledged the diplomat’s experience as a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations during President George W. Bush’s administration, but his career as a Fox News Channel commentator and early defender of Trump has drawn ire. In the United States, Grenell’s confirmation had mainly made news because he is the highest-ranking openly gay member of the Trump administration.

If responses to Grenell’s Twitter defense Wednesday offer any indication, the new U.S. ambassador to Germany will face a difficult task in Berlin.

“That language is not going to further your cause. If anything, it will do the opposite. Good luck with the new job,” Marcel Dirsus, a German political scientist focusing on defense issues, responded to Grenell on Twitter.

Evening news anchor Christian Sievers appeared similarly unconvinced on whether Grenell’s approach would work in Berlin: “Is that some sort of apology from America’s (pretty undiplomatic) top diplomat in Germany?”

Wednesday’s unusually harsh criticism of a new U.S. ambassador to Germany also reflects how much transatlantic relations have soured since Trump’s inauguration. In responding to the president’s comments or actions, German’s top government officials have begun to go without the usual diplomatic phrases and are choosing to express open opposition. Merkel has previously warned that the collapse of the Iran deal could widen the divide between the United States and Europe.

Grenell’s tweet was reminiscent of the awkward start of the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, Pete Hoekstra, in December, after a reporter asked him why he said there were “no-go” areas in the country where radical Muslims are setting cars and politicians on fire. Hoekstra initially denied having made such comments and called the claim “fake news.” After realizing that there was video footage of him making those claims, he denied having used the term “fake news” just seconds before.

Making remarks disappear on Twitter may just be as difficult.

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