THE HAGUE — When President Trump picked Peter Hoekstra to be his ambassador to the Netherlands, he was inadvertently setting up an experiment: Would an exponent of the U.S. leader’s own devil-may-care approach to accuracy flourish outside the hothouse environment back home?
Early results suggest that exporting Trump’s style could be tricky. On his first day on the job last week, Hoekstra stonewalled questions about baseless statements he had made in 2015 claiming that Muslim immigrants have created “no-go zones” in the Netherlands, and that cars and politicians here have been “burned.” The ensuing uproar forced him to apologize and go into media seclusion.
Dutch journalists said they were shocked by Hoekstra’s evasions. The fallout was far larger than that, however. U.S. ambassadors typically keep a low public profile and are scarcely recognizable to the broader public, but now the former congressman from Holland, Mich., is notorious in the Netherlands just a week after he presented his credentials to King Willem-Alexander.
“In our country, politicians sometimes don’t answer our questions. But we are not used to politicians telling blatant lies,” said Hanneke Keultjes, a political reporter for Het Parool and Algemeen Dagblad, two of the biggest newspapers in the country, who asked Hoekstra at the contentious Jan. 10 news conference whether he had considered withdrawing as ambassador.
“Of course we follow what Trump does,” Keultjes said this week. “The ‘alternative facts’ that he tries to present, we only have real facts here.”
Hoekstra now must attempt to get his ambassadorship on track following his shaky start. He campaigned for the position because of his long-standing ties to the country: He was born in the northern Dutch city of Groningen before immigrating to the United States when he was 3, and he still understands the language.
But even before the no-go zone controversy, his appointment had unnerved the Dutch political establishment, since his opposition to gay rights and abortion and skepticism about climate change put him well outside the Dutch mainstream. In the Netherlands, a live-and-let-live approach to sexual orientation is so entrenched that far-right politician Geert Wilders campaigned against conservative Islam by saying it threatens equal rights for gay men and lesbians.
Hoekstra’s ambassadorial rollout only confirmed that what works on Fox News may not be as effective with wary Dutch journalists. The shakiness started in December, when Hoekstra gave an interview in Washington to a reporter for the Dutch Nieuwsuur television program in which he dismissed reports of his statements about Muslim-created no-go zones in the Netherlands as “fake news,” even though those words were captured on tape. Then he denied he had just used the term “fake news,” drawing an incredulous look from the reporter.
Later, Hoekstra said he was sorry about that exchange but did not retract the false assertions. Journalists called to the ambassador’s residence here for his first news conference expected him to clear the air. Instead, he stayed mum, leading one exasperated reporter to cry out, “This is the Netherlands. You have to answer questions.”
The ambassador finally apologized Friday in an interview with De Telegraaf newspaper.
“I said something that, looking back at that, wasn’t accurate,” he said, adding that he “mixed up countries” when he claimed that a politician had been burned. He did not say where he believes the alleged incident took place.
Dutch journalists said that bluntness is the national style and that they are accustomed to being treated respectfully by the politicians they cover — including, they said, not being talked to as though it is understood they will swallow falsehoods.
“Little lies or vague statements, obviously that happens in the Netherlands, as well. Our politicians are not necessarily that much better,” said Eelco Bosch van Rosenthal, a reporter at the Dutch public broadcaster NOS who was at Hoekstra’s news conference. “But straight-out lies is new, and it was strange to see that being imported from your own country.”
Televised exchanges between Dutch politicians and reporters are often notable, to American eyes at least, for appearing like two ordinary human beings speaking to each other on an equal footing.
“There’s less hierarchy,” Bosch van Rosenthal said. Prime Minister Mark Rutte “is on a first-name basis with many journalists, who would just call him ‘Mark.’ ‘Mr. President’ — we wouldn’t say that.”
Now Hoekstra is embarking on the heavy schedule of meetings with politicians and community and business leaders that is standard fare for any newly arrived diplomat. A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman declined an interview request for Hoekstra.
Even lawmakers who are ideologically opposed to Trump and his policies say they look forward to working with Hoekstra.
“My advice would be that he should leave Trumpian politics at home,” said Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, a lawmaker who handles international affairs for the center-left Democrats 66 party, which is a member of the ruling coalition.
Sjoerdsma said he hoped Hoekstra’s time here will broaden his view of what is and is not established fact. “I’m very happy to take him to these no-go zones in The Hague, but I also am happy to take him to some of those places that are below sea level and show him the effects of climate change,” Sjoerdsma said.
As part of a miniature rehabilitation tour, Hoekstra paid a visit Friday to one of those purported zones of fear, the immigrant-rich Schilderswijk area of The Hague, which has often been featured in coverage of Dutch Muslims in the U.S. conservative blogosphere.
Under heavy guard, he met with local police, walked through an outdoor market and sat with a local Moroccan Dutch business owner, Appie el Massaoudi, who gives jobs hauling trash and recycling to local youths at risk of radicalization.
“We welcomed him with open arms. We showed him that there’s nothing here like no-go zones,” said Massaoudi, who sat Hoekstra down in his spartan office warmed by a space heater. “He was a very open person, and you could have a good conversation with him.”
That get-to-work approach may prove the best strategy if Hoekstra is to win over The Hague, where Dutch leaders have little choice but to deal with him, no matter what he says. Some lawmakers also say his closeness to Trump is an advantage.
“An ambassador like Hoekstra has a good entrance into the White House because of his personal knowledge of the president and his team,” said Han ten Broeke, a lawmaker charged with coordinating foreign policy for the ruling center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy.
In one measure of the local desire to move beyond the episode, the prime minister’s office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment about Hoekstra.
“This man is the accredited representative of the United States, and you have to do business with him,” said Jan Melissen, a senior research fellow at the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch foreign policy think tank that trains diplomats. “Just like you have to do business with Trump.”