Swedish Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter, on vacation in her hometown, had already been on the phone with a congressman from New York outraged about the treatment of jailed American rapper A$AP Rocky when her phone buzzed with a notification.
It was a new tweet from the president of the United States declaring that he had spoken with another celebrity rapper, Kanye West, and would be calling Sweden’s prime minister to intervene in Rocky’s case.
“So many people would like to see this quickly resolved!” Trump wrote on July 19.
For Olofsdotter, the implications of Trump’s social media missive were clear: A high-profile case involving a celebrity and two companions — arrested after a street fight in a case that already included sensitive issues of race, nationality and the rule of law — was now threatening to turn into a bilateral flash point with a leader who has made sowing divisions over those issues a centerpiece of his presidency.
“I honestly did not see this coming,” Olofsdotter said Friday in an interview in her office at the Swedish Embassy in Georgetown, with a sweeping view of the Potomac River. A photo of her with Trump in the Oval Office, taken when she presented her credentials in 2017, sits in a frame on a side table.
Olofsdotter is now dealing with the fallout, with Trump tweeting late Thursday that he was “Very disappointed” in Prime Minister Stefan Löfven for not acting to free the rapper, born Rakim Mayers. Trump added that Sweden had let down the African American community, and he included a #FreeRocky hashtag. A trial for Rocky, who is charged with assault, is scheduled to begin next week.
In the interview, the ambassador said, “Of course we have racism in our country, like other countries, but this case is absolutely not about racism.” She added that Swedes have been “a little disappointed . . . and a little hurt” over the doubts cast on the nation’s legal system and “don’t recognize ourselves in the picture that is being portrayed” by the president and other U.S. politicians.
Olofsdotter noted that the two nations have had a close bilateral relationship and that Sweden acts as the United States’ protective power with North Korea, given that Washington does not have formal diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.
Asked how the situation could be resolved, Olofsdotter said: “This cannot be solved. It’s a legal process. The trial will decide if he’s not guilty, or if he’s guilty what kind of repercussions or punishments.”
Trump’s willingness to interject himself into the case at the risk of a diplomatic spat comes amid accusations from his critics that he is seeking to exploit a tenuous situation involving a popular black entertainer for political gain — a way to deflect criticism after the public backlash over his racist tweets July 14 aimed at four minority Democratic congresswomen.
The president’s involvement has also complicated matters for several minority Democratic lawmakers who have denounced Sweden’s handling of the case.
Before Trump got involved, Rep. Adriano Espaillat (N.Y.), who represents the Harlem community that Rocky calls home, and three other House Democrats — Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), André Carson (Ind.) and Joaquin Castro (Tex.) — held a news conference. They asserted that Rocky and his two companions, David Rispers Jr. and Bladimir Corniel, were being held in “inhumane conditions” and called their detention an “injustice.”
Espaillat, serving his second term in the House, came to the United States from the Dominican Republic as an undocumented immigrant, and he has criticized Trump’s treatment of immigrants and his attacks on the four Democratic women whom the president told to “go back” to foreign countries, even though they are Americans.
“I don’t care what he does,” Espaillat said of Trump in an interview Friday. “Anybody who wants to can jump in. I condemn his comments on the four women, and I condemn how he treats immigrations and a bunch of his [policy] positions. But if he jumps in and can help bring them back home and make sure the families feel better at the end of the day, all three of them, that’s his call.”
Aides to some of Espaillat’s Democratic colleagues were more circumspect about Trump’s motives.
“It’s an attempt to curry favor with black folks. It’s very, very transparently cynical, particularly the timing coming when it did,” said a House Democratic foreign policy aide involved in discussions between lawmakers and Olofsdotter, who was not authorized to talk on the record and so spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It also combines the president’s willingness to speak for rich and powerful friends who are nice to him.”
That was a reference to West and his reality-TV star wife, Kim Kardashian, who had worked with the White House on a successful criminal reform bill last fall and contacted Trump aides about Rocky’s case. During a photo op in the Oval Office to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing — on the day of his first tweet about the case — the president responded to a question from a reporter about Rocky by saying first lady Melania Trump had brought it to his attention.
“Many, many members of the African American community have called me — friends of mine — and said, ‘Could you help?’ ” Trump told reporters. “So, I personally don’t know A$AP Rocky, but I can tell you that he has tremendous support from the African American community in this country. And when I say ‘African American,’ I think I can really say ‘from everybody in this country’ because we’re all one.”
Another House Democratic aide involved in discussions on Rocky’s case said Friday that Trump has different motives than do the lawmakers, who are eager to bring home their constituents. Of the three men involved in the case, Trump has mentioned only Rocky in public.
Olofsdotter has met with Espaillat, Carson and Jeffries, as well as with a Castro aide and Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), head of the House’s Friends of Sweden caucus. She said she explained differences between the legal systems of the United States and Sweden, such as why the Swedish system does not offer bail, which Trump, in his initial tweet, offered to post for Rocky.
In video of the incident posted to the rapper’s Instagram account, Rocky and his companions, in Stockholm for his concert, are seen asking two Swedish men to stop following them through the city streets. During the altercation, one of the Swedish men appears to strike one of Rocky’s group with his music headphones. Additional video obtained by the entertainment news website TMZ shows Rocky and his companions apparently throwing the men on the ground and striking them.
“I told the ambassador if she walked around and two men approached her, her security team would act far more aggressive than Rocky and the two other men,” Espaillat said.
Asked about that exchange, Olofsdotter replied: “That’s total speculation. Everything is deemed on its own merits. In most countries, a certain degree of self-defense is accepted. In this case, the prosecutor has said it’s an assault.”
Late Thursday, after Trump tweeted his disappointment in Löfven, with whom he had spoken for 20 minutes last Saturday, Olofsdotter took to Twitter to offer a reply.
“In Sweden everyone is equal before the law,” she wrote. “The Government is not allowed, and will not attempt, to influence legal proceedings.”
In an op-ed published by The Washington Post on Friday, Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister, also defended the country’s legal system and suggested that Trump was motivated to try to curry favor with the African American community.
Like the United States and other European nations, Sweden has struggled with immigration and strains of nationalism. At a campaign rally in 2017, Trump baffled the Swedish public when he ripped into Germany and Sweden for accepting Muslim immigrants and vaguely alluded to a terrorist incident in Sweden that did not happen.
Yet Olofsdotter, in the interview, focused on the polarized debate over race and criminal justice in the United States and suggested that the public outrage here over Rocky’s case is “a projection.”
“I worry that if one perceives the U.S. system as unjust,” she said, “then of course you also worry that a system abroad is unjust.”