BERLIN — Since the new U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, arrived in his host country in early May, he has made national headlines here twice.
First, he triggered harsh criticism after appearing to threaten one of the U.S. president’s favorite targets: German businesses. As the United States announced it would be withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions, Grenell tweeted that “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.”
Now Grenell is being criticized over an interview with hard-right news site Breitbart, in which he said he wants to “empower” conservatives in Europe. His remarks leave room for interpretation, but they were criticized both in the United States and in Europe for politicizing diplomacy with a core U.S. ally and as a further blow to transatlantic relations.
Grenell rejected the criticism on Twitter early Monday, writing: “Absurd. I condemn those comments completely. Don’t put words in my mouth. 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.”
The German foreign ministry said on Monday it was seeking “clarification on whether the statements were actually made in the form they were given.”
Although Chancellor Angela Merkel is from the conservative Christian Democrats, that does not seem to be what the ambassador has in mind.
“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 was quoted as saying by Breitbart. The ambassador went on to specify what he thinks made for a good conservative candidate: “consistent conservative policies on migration, tax cuts, and cutting red tape and bureaucracy,” according to the Breitbart summary, which did not include any critical remarks by Grenell on the resurgent far-right in Europe.
Grenell has called himself a “big Merkel fan” in past interviews and credited her economic performance, but regarding perhaps the most important criterion he listed to Breitbart — migration — Merkel stands for the exact opposite. His criteria do, however, match the description of another conservative leader with fewer hesitations about engaging with the far right.
“Look, I think Sebastian Kurz is a rock star. I’m a big fan,” said Grenell, referring to the leader of Austria’s conservatives who has formed a government with the far right. In Europe, Kurz and Merkel are considered to be on different ends of the conservative leadership spectrum. Merkel has often blurred the lines between conservative and liberal. Kurz has opposed Merkel on immigration and won his election on hard-line campaign promises. (In a separate Breitbart piece, Grenell was quoted as saying that Merkel has “suffered politically” by allowing in too many immigrants.)
The comments triggered an immediate backlash on both sides of the Atlantic. “When I raised concerns to Grenell about politicizing this post, he personally assured me that once he became ambassador he would stay out of politics. This interview is awful — ambassadors aren’t supposed to ‘empower’ any political party overseas,” U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) wrote on Twitter.
A U.S. ambassador who applauds the leader of a neighboring country while indirectly appearing to criticize the leader of Germany likely also wasn’t what German officials had in mind when they urged Washington to name a new top diplomat earlier this year.
While German government officials remained silent or sought clarification, Social Democrats — who are part of a coalition with Merkel’s Christian conservatives — criticized Grenell for inappropriately interfering in the internal affairs of a host nation. Grenell “behaves not like a diplomat, but rather like a right-wing extremist colonial officer,” former party leader Martin Schulz was quoted saying by German news agency dpa. “The U.S. ambassador apparently views himself as the long arm of a right-wing conservative global movement,” said Rolf Mützenich, deputy leader of the Social Democrats in parliament. Mützenich also accused Grenell of having violated the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations with his comments.
German newspaper headlines summarized Grenell’s comments on Monday morning as having “caused a stir” and described them as “not diplomatic” or as an “indication that Grenell would like to unseat the Merkel government.” Leading German journalists accused the ambassador of acting as a “political activist.”
While German media outlets have acknowledged his experience as a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations during President George W. Bush’s administration, it is his career as a Fox News commentator and early defender of Trump that has drawn the most attention. His more recent remarks to Breitbart — a media outlet viewed with deep suspicion across the political spectrum in Germany — won’t soothe those concerns.
Grenell’s comments were published shortly after Alexander Gauland, the co-leader of Alternative for Germany (AfD), the third-largest party in the parliament and obvious conservative challenger to Merkel, called the Nazi era a “speck of bird s‑‑‑” in German history on Saturday, saying that it overshadowed “more than 1,000 years of successful German history.” In the subsequent responses, many reminded Gauland that Nazi Germans killed more than 6 million Jews and triggered a war in which millions more people died.
More moderate members of his own party have also condemned Gauland’s remarks, saying that “this should not happen to a politician who has a minimum of instinct and sense of responsibility for our history.”
Gauland and other AfD officials call themselves conservatives, too, which may explain why Grenell’s remarks triggered such harsh German reaction.