Isolated in Berlin Trump's Ambassador Finds Few Friends in Germany
Since arriving in Berlin as U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell has flouted diplomatic conventions and attempted to interfere in domestic politics. He has since become politically isolated in the German capital.
Tucker Carlson's worldview doesn't come across as particularly complex. It can be summed up in three words: Foreigners threaten America. That's all that's needed for good ratings.
His show on the right-wing Fox News channel is among the most successful political shows on American cable TV. The mouthpiece of the American neo-Nazis, the Daily Stormer, has described him as "literally our greatest ally." His most prominent viewer is Donald Trump.
In late November, "Tucker Carlson Tonight" once again tackled the subject of immigration, and, not for the first time, Germany. On the show, "Lessons from Germany" appeared in big red letters next to a photo of a grim German Chancellor Angela Merkel, her face framed by a Russian and a Turkish flag.
Carlson was joined by a special guest from Berlin, a man with short, gelled hair sitting before a backdrop of the nighttime Brandenburg Gate dressed in a suit jacket but no tie: U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell. The 52-year-old has been Trump's man in the German capital since May.
Carlson was happy to cede the spotlight for the interview. After all, Grenell didn't need much encouragement. He had been a pundit on Fox News for a long time and knew what was expected of him. He is not known for keeping his opinions to himself.
The ambassador made it clear in just a few sentences how little he thought of the chancellor's refugee policy. "There was no plan in place," he said, "so the policy really fell apart." He claimed that anyone calling for secure borders in Germany today faces an "overreaction." The discourse, he said, is largely being controlled by "elites in Berlin" and he argued that anyone who speaks openly about the issue runs the risk of being portrayed as being part of the "radical far-right" by the German media.
Sebastian Kurz, Grenell said, "won in a very big way" in Austria because he called for clear immigration rules. As a result, he said, the young chancellor was becoming popular "throughout Germany," adding that everyday Germans and Europeans were yearning for leaders who want secure borders.
Grenell's TV interview was a thinly veiled call for a change of government in Berlin. It was akin to a German ambassador in Washington attacking the American president's immigration policy on German public television and then touting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a role model.
Refrain from Meddling
Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relationships obligates diplomats to refrain from meddling in their guest country's domestic affairs. Their duty is to cultivate discreet contacts within the country's government apparatus and to further their own government's positions.
In Berlin, the representatives of Germany's most important ally usually have the easiest jobs. Many previous U.S. ambassadors were major political and social figures in the capital, enjoying excellent connections to the Chancellery and federal ministries, and playing host to the most powerful and influential personalities in Germany.
Barack Obama's ambassador, Philip Murphy, invited longtime adversaries Helmut Kohl and Merkel to his dining room in 2012 for discreet talks aimed at reducing the tensions between them. By the time his tenure was over after four years, he had made so many friends he had to rent out the Olympic Stadium for his goodbye party.
Grenell has taken a different path. On the day he took up his post, he tweeted that "German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately." Martin Schulz, the former head of the center-left Social Democratic Party, compared his behavior to that of "a right-wing extremist colonial officer." Four weeks later in Breitbart, the main organ of the pro-Trump, right-wing "alt-right" movement, Grenell essentially called for regime change. "I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe," he said.
These days, the spotlight on Grenell seems to have grown dimmer, though not necessarily by choice. He still tweets assiduously and he never seems to say no when Fox News calls, but in Berlin, he has largely become isolated. The powerful avoid him. Doors have been shut. Few politicians to the left of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AFD) and the populist-conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), want to be seen with him.
In the week before Christmas, Grenell wrote a letter to DER SPIEGEL about the Relotius case, in which longtime DER SPIEGEL journalist Claas Relotius was revealed to have invented reporting for several of his stories, including about the United States. Grenell was justifiably angry, but he didn't stop there. He accused DER SPIEGEL of anti-Americanism, writing that the United States was clearly "targeted by institutional bias."
DER SPIEGEL editors and reporters, he argued, had regularly published reports "which could have been proven untrue if they had checked the facts with the Embassy first." He also wrote that "unfortunately, it is common practice for Spiegel reporters to not even call us before writing."
DER SPIEGEL has been reporting this article since October and sent multiple interview requests to Grenell since early December, to no avail. On Thursday, the embassy answered a list of questions with a written statement: "All seven of your questions are based on fabricated stories that are not true. Every one of the questions assumes something that is false. Konstantin von Hammerstein uses the same tactics as Claas Relotius by pushing a false narrative with anonymous sources."
Because the ambassador was unwilling to grant an interview, DER SPIEGEL focused its reporting on conversations with more than 30 sources who have come into contact with Grenell. These include numerous American and German diplomats, cabinet members, lawmakers, high-ranking officials, lobbyists and think tank experts. They were all willing to speak openly but did not want to be quoted by name.
Almost all of these sources paint an unflattering portrait of the ambassador, one remarkably similar to Donald Trump, the man who sent him to Berlin. A majority of them describe Grenell as a vain, narcissistic person who dishes out aggressively, but can barely handle criticism. His brash demeanor, some claim, hides a deep insecurity, and they say he thirsts for the approval of others. After one of his appearances, we were told, he asked almost shyly how he had done.
They also say Grenell knows little about Germany and Europe, that he ignores most of the dossiers his colleagues at the embassy write for him, and that his knowledge of the subject matter is superficial. "Ric only scratches the surface," said one person who regularly interacts with him.
Keeping Him at a Distance
The chancellor keeps him at a distance. Grenell was present during her meeting with Trump in the White House last spring, but she has not received him in Berlin. Her advisers note that it is unconventional for the head of government to personally receive an ambassador because of their different ranks, but that is only half the truth. She was constantly in close contact with Murphy during his stint in Berlin, and former Israeli ambassador Shimon Stein has been a close friend of Merkel's since his time in Berlin.
Murphy came to Berlin in mid-October. The Democrat is now the governor of New Jersey, and, unlike Grenell, he is still liked and well-connected in Germany. Through his friend Christoph Heusgen, the German ambassador to the U.N. in New York, he sent out feelers about whether the chancellor might want to meet him for a brief coffee.
Merkel politely declined. She didn't want to annoy Trump unnecessarily by inviting one of his most prominent critics into the Chancellery. And then there was Grenell: How was she to credibly brush him off after meeting with one of his predecessors? Murphy understood. Maybe next time.
Anyone who doesn't absolutely need to meet Grenell avoids it. "I have no interest in people who are going through Europe with a wrecking ball," says former Green Party co-chair Cem Özdemir. He is one of several prominent politicians who keep their contact to the American ambassador to a minimum.
In conversations with parliamentarians, the ambassador apparently pushed hard for invitations to visit lawmakers in their constituencies. Many said no. Who, after all, wants to be seen in their home district with Grenell? And those who did invite him, didn't all have the best things to say about the experience.
In early September, the ambassador visited the electoral district of CDU lawmaker Peter Beyer, who is also the German government's trans-Atlantic coordinator. Press was not invited on the trip to Ratingen, located near the Western Germany city of Düsseldorf.
A Reunion of Friends
During the visit, executives from a mid-sized company told the ambassador about the difficulties they were facing because of the U.S. sanctions on Iran. Shortly thereafter, Grenell tweeted: "Another industry leader leaves Iran. #sanctionsareworking."
On Oct. 3, Emily Haber, the German ambassador in Washington, invited guests to the embassy's annual party celebrating the anniversary of German unification in the garden of her residence. The embassy grounds are located on a steep hillside, and on that warm autumn evening, the lights of the capital sparkled in the darkness below. The U.S. Air Force band played rock n' roll while Germans and Americans stood in line waiting for beer at the Bavarian stand.
Everything seemed as it always had been -- a reunion of good, old friends -- but there was a shadow hanging over the event. Crises are a normal part of the trans-Atlantic relationship, much like arguments in any marriage. But ever since Trump came to power, many people in Berlin political circles believe Washington is pushing them into the arms of a divorce lawyer.
That afternoon, a high-ranking official from the German Foreign Ministry unwittingly demonstrated just how broken the relationship has become. After mentioning the "German-American community of values," she suddenly paused and had to laugh. A community of values with Trump? What an absurd idea!
The American president has called the European Union a "foe," but many people in Berlin believe he means Germany when he says Europe. Trump has a strange obsession with the country of his ancestors -- with German cars, German economic power, the German chancellor. And Grenell, his man in Berlin, seems happy to be his mouthpiece.
He was also at the party that evening. The ambassador happened to be in Washington and, in accordance with the dictates of politesse, received an invitation. But people weren't particularly happy to see him. Those working in the German Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry haven't forgotten his catastrophic early days as ambassador and now believe he is unapologetically trying to force himself into all kinds of German-American conversations. Why, for example, did the U.S. ambassador need to be present when the German defense minister visited her American counterpart at the Pentagon?
First Among Equals
Many people who have encountered Grenell in the last few months believe he only wanted to come to Berlin to further his career in Washington. Germany is considered the most important country in Europe, and those wishing -- like Trump -- to erode Europe must pull the initial lever in Berlin.
Grenell seems to see himself as the first among equals of U.S. ambassadors in Europe. In mid-December, he commented on the protest movement in France on Fox News and received the president of Kosovo in Berlin. His counterparts in other EU countries follow these appearances warily. They aren't planning on subordinating themselves to him.
Thus far, his posting in Berlin hasn't done much to help his career in Washington. In Trump's world, the only people who matter are those he takes notice of. Germany is geographically much too far away -- and it wasn't long before Grenell seemed to be spending more time in Washington than in Berlin.
As an ambassador, he is theoretically meant to sell American positions to the Germans via public appearances and interviews. Grenell has taken the opposite tack. Germany, and the American public, seem to be less important to him than the person sitting in the Oval Office.
Reaching Trump requires appearing on Fox News, and Grenell seems to use every opportunity to go on one of its shows. Sometimes he appears from Berlin, commenting on the political situation in Germany and Europe like a foreign correspondent, and sometimes he is in Washington, fawning over his president.
"I saw him up close today," he said after the chancellor's visit to the White House in late April. Grenell closed his eyes, apparently moved, then looked at the blonde host. "He is a master negotiator," he said, "watching him up close today for me just really solidified why I early on wanted to support Donald Trump."
Grenell spent eight years as a spokesman for the US Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, some of which under John Bolton, the right-wing hardliner selected by Trump as national security adviser. But Grenell markets his experience in the international community so aggressively he makes it sound like he himself was the UN ambassador.
Indeed, when the American ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, announced her resignation, Grenell's conservative allies brought him up as a potential successor. But it didn't work. In December, Trump nominated State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert to replace Haley and Grenell instead remained in Berlin. There, though, he is politically isolated, the price for his undiplomatic tweets and TV appearances meant to impress Trump.
At the German ambassador's party that lukewarm autumn evening in Washington, he didn't mingle with the guests. When a renowned American diplomat raised the topic of his failed early days in Berlin, he tried to justify his aggressive behavior. The German-American relationship, he supposedly said, is strong enough that it can handle a bit of excitement and disruption.
Too bad his friend Jens Spahn had already left. The conservative member of the CDU and high-profile Merkel critic had visited Washington only a short time before and his visit was one of the subjects being discussed at the party. The diplomats were surprised that the health minister had been received by Bolton in the White House.
Grenell supposedly initiated the meeting with his old boss. The ambassador carefully cultivates the impression in Berlin that he has a direct line to the White House and that he can arrange sought-after meetings in Washington at any time. But is that true?
The German Embassy in Washington ultimately had to help arrange Spahn's visit with Bolton. Only an official inquiry from the German diplomats was able to secure the meeting Spahn so badly wanted, in the hopes it might help him in the CDU power struggle.
Spahn and Grenell have been highly public about their friendship. When the ambassador took up his duties in Berlin, Spahn's husband Daniel Funke, head of the Berlin offices of the gossip magazine Bunte, published a photo spread and story about Grenell and his partner Matt Lashey. The article quoted Grenell as saying that a bout of cancer in 2013 had brought him "closer to God" and that his dog helped him defeat the illness.
'Actually Really Nice'
"Lola could tell that I was sick when I came back home from chemotherapy and collapsed exhausted on the couch," Bunte quoted him as saying (Eds note: Quotes from Bunte have been translated back into English from the German-language article). "She would cuddle up to me and even licked my bald head. It may sound strange, but I think she wanted to lick away the chemo." The cancer, Grenell said, made him a "better man" and "gave me the strength to not care what others think about me."
Spahn is among the few important politicians in Berlin to stand up for Grenell. "He wins you over on second impression," he has said, according to other CDU members. "He's actually really nice."
And the ambassador stands up for Spahn. In November, Grenell met with a small group of people interested in foreign policy for an under-the-radar meal. One of those present says the ambassador was uncommonly critical of the German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, saying she was incompetent and sanctimonious -- and that she had to go. He explained that a successor was ready and waiting. Who? Jens, of course. That, at least, is how the story was related.
When reached for comment by DER SPIEGEL, the U.S. Embassy denied that version of events. "Ambassador Grenell has never said a bad word about Minister von der Leyen -- ever. Neither in private nor in public. He likes her very much. This is complete nonsense and printing it is unworthy of real journalism."
Grenell is well-liked among the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany. When he visited the Committee on the Affairs of the European Union in the German parliament last October, he was welcomed with applause by AfD members, and AfD parliamentarians posed for selfies with the ambassador at the Embassy's Fourth of July party in Berlin. Petr Bystron, a foreign policy specialist for the AfD, immediately posted his photo with Grenell on Twitter, along with the hashtag #conservative_revolution.
Consorting with the Right Wing
Embassy staff made it clear to the ambassador that it would be counterproductive to set up an official meeting with the AfD. But Grenell isn't shy about consorting with the right wing. In early September, he was a guest at an annual dinner held by the Achse des Guten, or Axis of Good, a blog run by the journalists Henryk M. Broder and Dirk Maxeiner that sees itself as a counterbalance to the allegedly left-wing mainstream media. It offers an intellectual home to Islamophobes, Merkel-haters and EU-skeptics.
The event took place in Berlin's Moabit neighborhood, in a historic tram depot now filled with classic cars. The audience listening to Grenell's address that evening included Thilo Sarrazin, infamous for authoring a bitingly critical book about Islam in Germany, and the former East German human rights activist Vera Lengsfeld, who left the CDU out of hatred for Merkel and now supports the AfD.
Such appearances have not been well-received in political Berlin. In late October, he sent out invitations to a Halloween party at his residence in the tony neighborhood of Dahlem. The theme for the evening was "super heroes." Grenell invited several prominent Berlin political figures, but many politicians declined to attend.
One of the most prominent invitees who did choose to attend was Henryk M. Broder from the Axis of Good. He came dressed as a Muslim woman in a burka.