America’s Trumpiest Ambassador

To conservatives, Richard Grenell is the poster child of a Trumpian foreign policy. To critics, he is a shallow ideologue.

A photo of Richard Grenell.
Richard Grenell. (Michael Sohn / AP)

There is perhaps no more lucid illustration of the perilous state of American diplomacy in the Trump era than the improbable rise of Richard Grenell.

Just a few years ago, Grenell was best-known in U.S. political circles as a right-wing internet troll—hectoring journalists on Twitter, lobbing personal insults at perceived adversaries, and preaching zealously to the Fox News faithful. Today, as the U.S. ambassador to Germany, he occupies one of the most crucial diplomatic posts in the world.

Appearing at an event on Iran on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, just hours after his boss’s boss became embroiled in an epic impeachment battle, Grenell made clear that he was still deeply ensconced on the Trump Train. He lashed out at European leaders for offering economic lifelines to Tehran and being slow to blame it for recent strikes on Saudi oil facilities. (Regarding who was behind the attack, his faint praise was that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had “made it clear, recently.”) He said he was “proud” to work for a president whose threats of military action are credible and who achieves the “perfect balance” between showing restraint in using force and resolve when it has to be used.

He defined the “Trump Doctrine” as economically “squeezing” countries ranging from North Korea and Russia to China and Iran but “offering them a different path if they change their behavior, and always being willing to talk.” And he got in a knock at his host country’s “Germany First” approach of investing in domestic priorities other than its military (In the U.S. “we don’t have an opera house on every single corner”), even as he presented himself as an avatar for Trump’s equivalent American approach.

Grenell’s ascent from shouting head to prominent diplomat has proved polarizing. To conservative fans, he is the poster child for a new Trumpian style of foreign policy—an ambassador who is unconstrained by protocol and who has no use for accommodation or politesse. To his critics (and there are many in Berlin), he is a shallow ideologue who’s shown little interest in good-faith engagement, preferring instead to bash and dash—attacking his host country’s government on Twitter before retreating to his villa in the Dahlem district of west Berlin.

“Ric is not playing a constructive role here in political Berlin,” a senior German politician, who has had regular contact with Grenell but asked to remain anonymous to discuss him, told us. “He’s not meeting people, and doors have closed for him. In truth, he has shut them himself.”

Relations between Washington and Berlin, long a pillar of the transatlantic alliance, have grown more strained under Trump than at any time in the postwar era. The president lashes out frequently at Germany and Merkel, whose defense of liberal democratic values has turned her into a favorite target of the Republican right. Grenell, since arriving in Berlin in May of last year, has doubled down on Trump’s criticisms via tweets and interviews with sympathetic news outlets, seeming to relish the opportunity to translate the trollish ethos of Trumpism into international diplomacy.

On his very first day as ambassador in Berlin in the spring of 2018, Grenell, who turned 53 last week, tweeted a demand that German companies sever their ties with Iran. A few weeks later, he invited a reporter for Breitbart News to his residence, and told him, “I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders.” The comments were interpreted by some in Germany as a call for far-right regime change. (Grenell denied that was his intention.)

In the ensuing months, the ambassador has continued to use Twitter to rail against Germany’s lack of defense spending, its appetite for Russian gas, and its willingness to engage with Iran. On Instagram, meanwhile, Grenell—who shares the ambassador’s residence in Berlin with his partner and dog, Lola—presents himself as a man who is thoroughly enjoying the trappings of his new life. In the first half of 2019 alone, he can be seen lounging on a yacht off Italy’s Amalfi Coast, hand-feeding elephants on safari in Kenya, and snapping selfies at an Elton John Oscar party in Los Angeles. When he travels within Germany, it is not to gain a better understanding of the country or its people, his critics say; they say he relates to Germany like a tourist, visiting the sites of former Nazi concentration camps and also doing lighthearted activities like drinking beer at Oktoberfest or cheering on his favorite fighters at mixed-martial-arts events.

Some German politicians we spoke with said they believed Grenell was growing tired of Berlin and was keen to return to the United States for a job in the Trump administration. Over the past year, his name has been floated for two jobs—U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and national security adviser—that he didn’t get. But with a noxious election campaign looming, talk persists that Trump could soon recall one of his most ardent, pugnacious defenders to Washington.

Grenell has had some successes as ambassador. He played a key role in convincing the German government to accept the deportation of Jakiw Palij, a 95-year-old resident of Queens, New York, who had worked as a guard at a labor camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. Palij arrived in Germany in August of last year and died five months later. Grenell was also instrumental in preventing Iran from withdrawing 300 million euros from a Hamburg-based bank last year, funds that would have alleviated the effects of U.S. sanctions.

But Grenell’s nonstop drive to convince, cajole, and bully Germany into spending more on defense and dropping its support for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline— stances that enjoy broad political support in the United States and elsewhere in Europe—have come to nothing. In fact, because Grenell’s efforts have been so aggressive, they appear to have hardened resistance in Germany and made it more difficult for those politicians who agree with him to make their case.

He has sometimes taken credit for decisions he had little to do with. When the German blue-chip companies Volkswagen, Siemens, and BASF pulled out of Iran last year in response to the U.S. sanctions, a story quoting Grenell said he’d led weeks-long talks with Volkswagen on the matter. Perplexed company officials later denied there had been any such talks with the ambassador.

The Atlantic’s efforts to contact Grenell for this story offer a glimpse at the ambassador’s style. Multiple emails and text messages to a U.S. embassy spokesman went unreturned over several days; when the spokesman was finally reached by phone recently, he replied bluntly, “That is the response—no response.” Grenell himself, meanwhile, responded to an emailed query by writing back with a decidedly unambassadorial  “lol,” and then attacking the work of one of the authors of this story.

Grenell’s acerbic style was honed long before he arrived in Germany. When he worked at the UN—where he served as a spokesman under then-Ambassador John Bolton in the mid 2000s—reporters described him to The Village Voice as “arrogant,” “rude,” and “unbearable.” Later, during the 2012 presidential election, his incendiary internet persona came briefly to the forefront when he joined Mitt Romney's campaign as a foreign-policy spokesman. Political reporters—many of whom had been on the receiving end of his Twitter tirades—began re-upping some of his more offensive provocations. He had suggested that the MSNBC host Rachel Maddow “take a breath and put on a necklace,” and proposed that Newt Gingrich use his time on the primary debate stage to “rate all his wives.”

A former Romney-campaign official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, told us the team had failed to vet Grenell's Twitter feed before bringing him on board, and were caught off guard by the uproar. "We announced we were hiring him, and the first thing I got was reporters reaching out to me saying, ‘What have you guys done? This guy is a constant troll. He’s the worst,’” the official said.

The Romney campaign benched Grenell, expecting the controversy to blow over. Instead, some social conservatives piled on, unhappy that Romney had hired a gay spokesman. Grenell ended up resigning weeks after he was hired.

But if Grenell’s openly antagonistic relationship with the press once proved a liability, it has only seemed to make him more popular in today’s Republican Party. Among his vocal fans is Donald Trump Jr., who has tweeted, “We need more @RichardGrenell’s.” And the president has reportedly praised his combative media appearances, saying the bellicose ambassador “gets it.”

At times, Grenell has defied orthodoxy in ways that don’t neatly conform to his critics’ caricature of him. During gay-pride week in Berlin, he hoisted a rainbow flag in front of the embassy entrance near the Brandenburg Gate and tweeted out a picture of it, hanging just below the Stars and Stripes. The gesture would have been unremarkable but for the fact that the State Department had explicitly denied requests from U.S. embassies to fly the gay-pride flag earlier in the year. Grenell, who is the most prominent openly gay person in the Trump administration, is also spearheading a push to end the criminalization of homosexuality in dozens of countries around the world.

Grenell’s defenders in the German capital say it is better to have an ambassador who speaks for the president than one who is disconnected from the White House. For them, Grenell represents a long-overdue wake-up call for Germany’s political establishment, which has been accused of ignoring pleas from previous U.S. administrations to take on more responsibility for its security. Grenell has said it is important that friends speak clearly and openly with each other.

But in a country where political debate is measured and diplomats are expected to be, well, diplomatic, Grenell has often seemed to delight in kicking up controversy. In an interview last November, he criticized Chancellor Merkel for allowing hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany in 2015, telling Fox News that “politically, I would say that it really toppled her.” In the past, Trump has called Merkel’s refugee policies “insane” and accused her of “ruining Germany.”

Martin Schulz, the Social Democrat who challenged Merkel in the last German election, has likened Grenell to a “far-right colonial officer,” and Wolfgang Kubicki, a vice president of the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament, suggested he be sent home for openly questioning German budget priorities. (Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations states that diplomats have a duty not to “interfere in the internal affairs” of their host state.)

Several German politicians used the word toxic to describe him. Jens Spahn, a right-leaning member of Merkel’s party who is also gay, was photographed frequently with Grenell in the weeks after he arrived in Germany last May. But the buddy pictures stopped, several party members told us, when it became clear that the relationship was becoming a political liability for Spahn.

Because critics are not always welcome, receptions at the U.S. embassy in Berlin have also taken on a different feel under Grenell. A former diplomat, who like others in this story requested anonymity to discuss the topic, likened them to the cantina scene in Star Wars: a collection of misfits with sympathies for the Trump administration.

“He’s playing to an audience of one,” the former diplomat told us. “Trump is what counts. No one else.”

Uri Friedman contributed reporting.