BERLIN—The new U.S. Ambassador to Germany, Richard “Ric” Grenell, is a “big fan“ of a lot of folks in his new home. He claims he’s a “big fan” of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and a “big fan“ of the soft-spoken Social Democratic justice minister, Heiko Maas.
And, according to a recent Breitbart article, Grenell is a “big fan” of Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the boyish face of the his country’s far right government notable for banning headscarves for kids and otherwise making immigrants feel deeply, sometimes dangerously unwanted. Grenell appears to see Kurz as a representative for the “conservatives around Europe” that he, the ambassador, would like to “empower.”
That sounded to a lot of people like Grenell playing advance man for a Bannonesque populist assault on the European political order. So now Berlin would like Grenell to explain what exactly he was talking about. “We asked the U.S. side for clarification,” a foreign ministry spokesperson said Monday morning. The Daily Beast did the same thing. A U.S. embassy spokesperson told us “the quotes are genuine“ and Grenell “stands by the interview.”
Indeed, the medium was part of the message. Breitbart used to be Steve Bannon’s baby, and the interview was published as the former Trump campaign manager and advisor has been touring the Continent touting his ideas for destroying the European Union. Chris Tomlinson, the young reporter who interviewed Grenell, is a self-described “beer nerd” whose most consistent beat appears to be cheering for the the selfie-stick-clutching right-wing extremists who once wanted to block rescue missions on the Mediterranean and more recently have taken to patrolling the Alps to hunt down refugees.
The resulting article was headlined: “TRUMP’S RIGHT HAND MAN IN EUROPE WANTS TO ‘EMPOWER’ EUROPEAN CONSERVATIVES,” but they were not talking about Merkel’s classically conservative Christian Democratic Union, which Grenell seems to think is prey to “the group-think of a small elitist crowd.”
It is bad form for a diplomat to act like a spokesperson for any foreign political movement. In the U.S. Nicholas Burns, who was under secretary of state for political affairs in the George W. Bush administration, pointed out the “cardinal rule of diplomacy” that ambassadors “must not interfere in the domestic politics of the countries to which they are accredited.” In Germany, the former leader of the Social Democrats promptly compared Grenell to a “right-wing extremist colonial officer.”
At a time when foreign policy analysts are worried that misunderstandings will amplify tensions between the U.S. and Germany, the new U.S. ambassador isn’t just doing Breitbart interviews—he also tweets about twice as much as President Donald J. Trump, which is saying something.
On his first day at work in Berlin he tweeted that, in light of President Trump sabotaging the Iran Nuclear Deal, “Germans doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.” The Germans’ angry responses on Twitter mounted into the thousands.
One reason Grenell’s confirmation in the Senate was held up for almost a year reportedly was concern among Democrats about his caustic and sometimes sexist social media habits. When he was the spokeman for Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the 2012 elections, Grenell tried to deleted a raft of nasty tweets. “Hillary [Clinton] is starting to look like Madeleine Albright,” he declared in one post, and noted in another that Michelle Obama, who likes sports, supposedly “was sweating on the East Room Carpet.”
After the Breitbart interview was published, the tweeting continued. Many critics suggested Grenell wants to “empower” figures like Alexander Gauland, the co-leader of the far right Alternative für Deutschland party. “Absurd, I condemn these comments completely,“ Grenell tweeted, even though the 77-year-old Gauland loves to quote Edmund Burke and mainstream German media outlets have sometimes described him as a “clever“ or “old-fashioned“ conservative.
Probably Grenell realized the timing for a Gauland endorsement would look really very bad just now. Over the weekend, Gauland told a room full of fans from his party’s youth wing that Adolf Hitler, who brought about the death of at least 50 million people, is “just bird shit in more than 1,000 years of successful German history.“
Grenell did not praise the anti-immigrant AfD party in the Breitbart interview. Nor has he described himself as a “big fan“ of the party in any other context. Sebastian Kurz, on the other hand, is a “rock star” in Grenell’s view. According to Der Spiegel, the ambassador has invited the young chancellor for lunch this month, which is also not a diplomatic custom.
Kurz’s German counterpart, ideologically, is conservative health minister Jens Spahn. present themselves as likeable, accessible, informal, which seems to appeal to Grenell. He attended a workshop on transatlantic relations organized by Spahn this weekend in casual dress, including blue Converse sneakers.
Breitbart also got two other articles out of the sit-down with Grenell: “AMBASSADOR GRENELL: CHAIN MIGRATION IS A KEY ISSUE FOR GERMANY,“ one headline screamed. To show how big, the article cited “390,000 Syrians“ who supposedly will bring family members to the country “under the current scheme.“
“Donald Trump talks a lot about chain migration, and that is actually the issue here in Germany—its chain migration,” Grenell said. Breitbart’s figures were taken from the German tabloid Bild last summer, when there was no “current scheme” for chain migration, or rather, family reunification.
Early this year, new estimates showed that if refugees with temporary asylum were allowed to bring their families, around 50,000 to 60,000 family members might come to Germany. But this proposal was not granted. Now, under a new law, only 1,000 family members will be eligible to come per month. Meanwhile, NGOs that try to help children and parents reunite have noticed a significant drop in donations.