When American ambassadors leave their positions in the German capital, the moment is usually marked by a big farewell celebration and a sense of sadness. In 2013, Barack Obama’s ambassador, Philip Murphy, even rented Berlin’s Olympic Stadium for his going-away party. He and many of his predecessors still maintain close ties to Germany to this day.
But when the news made the rounds in late May that Donald Trump’s ambassador to Germany, Richard "Ric" Grenell, would be leaving his posting early, the reactions ranged from glee to relief. Former Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) described Grenell’s departure as "an act of kindness." He joked that Trump must still have a soft spot for the Germans after all.
"Over generations, every ambassador I have met left Germany as a friend and respected partner," writes Andreas Nick, a lawmaker with Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) specializing in foreign policy. Grenell, he says, behaves like "the representative of a hostile power."
Grenell reacted in his own way to the jubilation. In late May, he tweeted: "You make a big mistake if you think the American pressure is off. You don’t know Americans." It sounded like a threat. It’s now clear that it was.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 25/2020 (June 13, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.
On Friday of last week, shortly after Grenell left Berlin, it became known in Washington that Trump was planning to drastically reduce the number of U.S. troops in Germany. Without consulting with NATO partners, the U.S. president had asked the Pentagon to develop plans for the withdrawal of a large portion of the U.S. soldiers stationed here. According to German and American government representatives, the decision was made extremely quickly by a circle of three men: the president, his security advisor Richard O’Brien - and Grenell.
Now the White House has confirmed plans for the withdrawal in a phone call with the German embassy in Washington. People in both capitals see the plans as classic Grenell. The threat of withdrawing U.S. armed forces from Germany has long been one of his themes. He sees it as a way of punishing Germany for not raising its defense expenditures as fast as Trump would like. According to high-ranking representatives in the German and American governments, Grenell is seen as the driving force behind the withdrawal plans. "That is a typical Grenell move," one official in the U.S. government says. Grenell did not respond to questions from DER SPIEGEL about his involvement.
According to officials in the German government, the reduction of U.S. troops won’t have grave consequences for Germany’s security. But the symbolic damage to the German-American relationship, which has already been battered under Trump, is severe. Since the end of the Second World War, the presence of U.S. soldiers in Germany has been an important symbol of the closeness between the two countries.
A Recurring Threat
It’s unclear when exactly the decision to withdraw was made. Some signs suggest the decisive date was in early June, when Grenell had his official farewell visit as ambassador with President Trump in the White House. Grenell posted an Instagram photo of the Oval Office showing him with O’Brien, the national security advisor, as well as with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. High-ranking German and American government representatives describe what happened in the ensuing days as a perfect storm.
Grenell was only able to withstand two years in Germany before announcing his resignation as ambassador. From the beginning, he had an arm's length relationship with the country. While most post-war U.S. ambassadors to Germany maintain excellent relationships with officials at even the highest levels of German politics, Grenell remained isolated. No wonder: He issued directives to German business leaders on Twitter, berated the German government for its defense expenditures and ranted to the right-wing U.S. media about the chancellor’s refugee policies. Soon, he was a pariah in Berlin’s political circles. Even Merkel steered clear of the diplomat.
In summer of 2019, Grenell threatened to withdraw U.S. troops if the German government didn’t accede to American calls to raise the defense budget to 2 percent of gross national product (GNP), as NATO members had pledged to do by 2024. "It is really insulting to expect that the U.S. taxpayer will continue to pay for more than 50,000 Americans in Germany, but the Germans use their trade surplus for domestic purposes," Grenell said. Officials in Berlin were shocked by the tone.
At the time, Trump was also considering reducing the contingent of U.S. troops. His reasoning, as is so often the case, was simple. Despite the NATO agreement, he believed Germany’s defense budget was still too low. He argued that Germany was profiting security-wise from the U.S. presence in the country, despite being unwilling to pay for the costs.
Trump backed away from the plan, apparently partly because the proposal didn’t get a very positive reaction from Republicans in Congress or at the Department of Defense.
But Grenell never allowed himself to be dissuaded from punishing the Germans for their inaction. Although his own people had repeatedly tried to explain to him that the American troops in the country only served to protect Germany to a small degree, if at all, the ambassador refused to change his mind.
Now the gleeful comments about his departure may have once again set off Grenell’s disdain. He could have ignored the remarks, but that’s not his style, given that his curt tone is paired with an enormous personal sensitivity. This led to a Twitter war that even came to involve Trump’s son. In a tweet, Grenell responded to Nick, the CDU lawmaker, by arguing that it is his duty to represent the interests of the U.S. -- in response to which Donald Trump Jr. paraphrased Grenell, "Pay your NATO bill."
Then a new source of irritation in the White House gave Grenell a unique opportunity to implement his plan of revenge. Trump was annoyed that Merkel ruined his plan to hold a G-7 Summit in Washington. Trump wanted the meeting to take place there in June to send the message that the U.S., and the rest of the world, had overcome the COVID-19 crisis. Merkel had her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, state that the time had not yet come for such a meeting. Trump saw this as an insult. "There was some disappointment that the meeting could not take place immediately," Grenell told Germany’s Bild tabloid. "We will certainly not have a G-7 summit without the Germans."
In early June, when the first rumors that the president had told Defense Secretary Mark Esper to drastically reduce the number of U.S. troops in Germany began making the rounds, it wasn’t just the German embassy that was taken by surprise. The State Department and parts of the National Security Council in the White House were also kept out of the loop. Congress, whose related committees should have been informed, were also not told.
For the entire weekend, the German government didn’t know what to make of Washington’s plans. Leading officials from the German Foreign Office and the Defense Ministry called their counterparts in Washington, but they couldn’t help and had to admit that their departments hadn’t been included in the White House's decision-making.
Even now, the German government doesn’t have any strong connection to Donald Trump’s administration, so officials in Berlin decided to wait. They saw the fact that the planned troop withdrawal wasn’t being announced publicly by either the Pentagon or the White House as a reason for hope. But early last week, the German embassy in Washington received a phone call from O’Brien, the national security adviser himself, making it clear how serious the president was. The number of U.S. soldiers in Germany was to be limited to 25,000, and 9,500 soldiers were to be withdrawn soon.
But in practical terms, the punitive act will hurt the Germans less than it will hinder the U.S. military. "The withdrawal of U.S. troops wouldn’t present an immediate security risk for Germany," says Sigmar Gabriel, who is now the head of the Atlantik-Brücke, an Atlanticist non-profit. "We are not a front-line state anymore," he says. He argues that the U.S. would primarily hurt itself. U.S. military figures agreed: "The U.S. soldiers are not here to protect Germany, all of them only serve our aims," says Ben Hodges, a former commanding general for the U.S. Army in Europe. For this reason, among others, he describes Trump’s withdrawal plans as a "colossal mistake."
Germany has been one of the most important military hubs for the U.S. Army since the Second World War. Around 35,000 U.S. soldiers are stationed here, along with 12,000 American civilians who work for the troops.
Self-Harm for the U.S.
The U.S. Army uses that personnel to operate a massive base, Ramstein, in the western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Almost all military transports to Iraq or Afghanistan travel through this base, and the site is an almost irreplaceable communication link. The military hospital in nearby Landstuhl is almost as central to the country’s military logistics, given that nearly all injured U.S. soldiers from deployment regions are treated there.
There is a long list of other bases. The U.S. run their military missions in Africa from a facility on the edge of Stuttgart. The city is also the site of the army’s European headquarters. Germany also houses the U.S. Army’s largest munitions depot outside of the U.S.
"The Americans mostly use Germany as a logistical hub, since we are between the U.S. and their opponents in Russia or China," says one German general. A massive withdrawal, he argues, would ultimately, "primarily harm the U.S."
Officials in the Bundeswehr hope that Congress will stop the plans or at least soften them. "Our approach needs to be to stay calm and to wait," says one high-ranking German officer. He argues that past experiences have shown that the most outrageous plans are usually relativized by the Pentagon.
Trump’s plan, it turns out, is viewed critically at the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department, and resistance is forming in Congress. That opposition is coming not only from the Democrats, but also from Trump’s own Republican Party. Even loyal supporters of the president, including the Heritage Foundation, are turning away from him.
A letter signed by 22 Republican members of Congress says: "In Europe, the threats posed by Russia have not lessened, and we believe that signs of a weakened U.S. commitment to NATO will encourage further Russian aggression and opportunism."
Trump’s former national security advisor, John Bolton, who has an almost mystical aura in conservative circles, wrote on Twitter that a withdrawal from Germany would create nothing but problems. And even Mark Milley, Trump’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, supposedly has opposed the move internally.
It is unclear if the attempts to block the withdrawal will succeed. Richard Grenell seems to have considerable influence in Washington. "The president sees Grenell as a super-loyal member of his inner circle," says one U.S. military official. Trump not only gave Grenell -- who headed a PR firm after serving as spokesman to the U.S.' ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush -- the German ambassadorship, he also made him the special envoy for Serbia and Kosovo and, for a time, acting director of national intelligence.
Grenell also cultivates close ties to O’Brien, and he is close with Donald Trump Jr. Before Grenell’s appearance on right-wing Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s show on Monday of last week, Trump Jr. tweeted that it would be "must watch tv."
Grenell is a kind of unofficial campaign aide for Trump. There have been rumors circulating in Washington for some time now that he would have liked to have become the successor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, before Pompeo decided against running as senator in Kansas.
The German government is now trying to play down the conflict. Government officials are saying that they don’t want to give the impression they are angry or whiny, given that Trump’s goal is to set off a public fight. They are instead hoping that Trump’s plans can’t be implemented quickly. After all, who knows if he will win the election in November.