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.”
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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.