The embattled U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands Peter Hoekstra apologized Friday for making unsubstantiated anti-Muslim claims at a conference in 2015, after his first week in the post was clouded by questions about the incendiary statements.
Hoekstra, a former Republican congressman from Michigan and recent political appointee, made the apology during an interview Friday with De Telegraaf, one of the largest Dutch newspapers, at the end of a particularly rough introduction for the new ambassador.
“Looking back, I am shocked I said that,” he told the newspaper. “It was a wrong statement. It was wrong.”
Hoekstra made the remarks in question during a conference on terrorism hosted by the right-wing David Horowitz Freedom Center. He talked about the supposed “chaos” brought to Europe by immigrants from Islamic countries and repeated a baseless theory about so-called “no-go zones” that is popular in right-wing media.
“Chaos in the Netherlands. There are cars being burned. There are politicians that are being burned,” Hoekstra said at the time. “With the influx of the Islamic community — and yes, there are no-go zones in the Netherlands. All right? There are no-go zones in France.”
In the interview with the Dutch newspaper, Hoekstra said that he couldn’t recall what his remark was based on.
“I mixed up countries. I was wrong. I can’t recall how that could happen. I know: I was wrong,” he said.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether Hoekstra’s apology extended to the other instances where he had repeated the no-go zone theory in conservative media, or other baseless remarks he had made about Muslims, such as speculating that 10 to 15 percent of the Muslims in the world — potentially hundreds of millions of people — were radical Islamist militants.
The State Department distanced itself from Hoekstra’s remarks Thursday during a briefing in Washington but declined to call them inaccurate.
“The ambassador made mistakes in 2015,” Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Steve Goldstein told reporters. “Those comments were not the position of the State Department, and you will never hear those words from this podium.”
The remarks have overshadowed Hoekstra’s early days in the Netherlands, bringing criticism and controversy to the otherwise routine ritual of installing a new ambassador in a closely allied country. The Dutch media in particular have homed in on them, repeatedly asking Hoekstra to provide the names of the politicians he said were being burned in their country or retract the statements.
Before Hoekstra’s arrival in The Hague in January, he told a Dutch journalist that he had never made the statements and that they were “fake news.” He later apologized. And during his first news conference with Dutch media at his new residence on Wednesday, his refusal to answer basic questions about the remarks — and the Dutch press corps’ tenaciousness as they continued asking about it — drew a strong reaction in the United States.
“This is the Netherlands — you have to answer questions,” one reporter said during the tense meeting.
The State Department announced the interview with De Telegraaf on Thursday after it, too, faced questions about Hoekstra’s comments.
Hoekstra talked to the newspaper about his performance during the news conference, saying he felt like he had already apologized.
“How many times do I have to say sorry?” he said. The newspaper will publish the full interview Saturday, it said.
Goldstein, also a political appointee of President Trump, had said during a Washington briefing that it was his belief that the ambassador should answer reporters’ questions in the future.
“I have advised, as I’ve advised most people, that when reporters are in front of you, just as you are in front of me, that it’s always good to answer questions,” he said.