In icing out UK envoy, Trump has found critic he can punish

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Philip Bump

The newly released descriptions of President Donald Trump’s administration sound like scores of other assessments that have emerged since his inauguration.

The White House has indeed been “dogged from day one by stories of vicious infighting and chaos”, according to multiple press reports. To that end, there are not signs “that this Administration is going to become substantially more normal” than it has been since its outset or any “less dysfunctional, less unpredictable” or “less faction-riven”. The author of these descriptions warned at one point that the administration could “denounce the (World Trade Organization), tear up existing trade details, (and) launch protectionist action, even against allies” – all of which to some extent actually occurred. The crowds at Trump’s political rallies, he wrote, are generally “almost exclusively white”, and the rhetoric Trump feeds them is “incendiary, and a mix of fact and fiction”.These are not the words of an opinion columnist for Trump’s hated New York Times or the on-air commentary of a panellist on CNN. Neither are they the language of a voter focus group, reflecting some segment of the electorate.

They are, instead, messages sent from Britain’s ambassador to the United States, Kim Darroch, to members of the British government from Trump’s inauguration to last month. They are messages intended only for that audience that were provided to The Daily Mail and later were confirmed as authentic.

They are also, obviously, embarrassing, both for the United States and Britain. When the United States had a cache of similar diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks nearly a decade ago, there was widespread consternation within the government and broad concern about possible ramifications. “I have been very critical about the way the UK and Prime Minister Theresa May handled Brexit. What a mess she and her representatives have created,” Trump wrote on Twitter Monday. He added, “I do not know the Ambassador, but he is not liked or well thought of within the US.”

“We will no longer deal with him,” Trump continued. “The good news for the wonderful United Kingdom is that they will soon have a new Prime Minister. While I thoroughly enjoyed the magnificent State Visit last month, it was the Queen who I was most impressed with!”

Coincidentally, Darroch himself had warned of Trump’s fickleness after the president’s visit to Britain, a trip that was viewed by the British as broadly successful.

“We might be flavour of the month,” he wrote in a cable obtained by The Daily Mail, but the United States “is still the land of ‘America First’”.

There’s not really anything in the messages written by Darroch and published by the newspaper that breaks new ground in criticism of the president. When more than half of Americans regularly tell pollsters that Trump is not levelheaded and say he does not have good leadership skills, why should we assume no foreign diplomat shares that assessment? The ambassador’s job certainly entails building a close relationship with Trump and the White House – something that reporters like The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey say he accomplished, contradicting Trump’s tweet. It does not, however, entail misrepresenting his views of the president in private communications to leaders in his own country. Sycophancy dies in darkness.

But the publication of Darroch’s messages gave Trump an opening. There’s not much Trump can do to punish Americans who are critical of his presidency, besides advocating policies that his political opponents dislike. The media’s critical coverage of his administration is an ongoing source of angst, but the First Amendment ensures that it will be allowed to continue.

A diplomat credentialed to serve in the United States, however? Let the blowback commence.

At the outset of Trump’s presidency, there was some concern about how America’s international relationships would fare during his administration. Trump’s declared willingness to shake up the United States’ position in the international order was a feature of his 2016 campaign and one that, as president, he has not shied away from.

There’s no suggestion at this point that the relationship between the United States and Britain will suffer over the long term from Darroch’s comments, particularly now that Trump has apparently excised him from America’s diplomatic sphere. These sorts of indelicacies, originating from an individual, are not generally the stuff that foment international crises.

Britain seems willing to move on. It responded to Trump’s move with a statement supporting Darroch – but also highlighting the long-standing bond between the two countries. That Trump would be incensed on a personal level by the publication of Darroch’s criticism is, after all, something that the British should have anticipated.

Darroch prepared them for it.

Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Washington Post. Based in New York. Before joining The Post in 2014, he led politics coverage for the Atlantic Wire. © 2019, The Washington Post.

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