Trump Takes the Bait, Lashing Out at U.K. Ambassador Whose Private Notes Were Leaked

Wittingly or not, Trump seems to have aided a plot hatched in London to depose Britain’s ambassador to the United States.

British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson, left, and British Ambassador to the United States, Sir Kim Darroch, right, walk through the United States Capitol Building after meeting with United States Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, on November, 8th, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Alex Edelman / CNP - NO WIRE SERVICE - Photo by: Alex Edelman/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
In 2017, Britain's Ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch, right, accompanied then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to meetings in Washington. Photo: Alex Edelman/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Donald Trump’s tweet, lashing out Britain’s ambassador to the United States, Kim Darroch, for writing private assessments of the American president’s shortcomings, arrived on Monday with all the inevitability of a cuckoo popping out of a clock to announce the progress of time.

In fact, the president’s angry denunciation of the previously obscure diplomat — with whom, he wrote, “We will no longer deal” — was so predictable, it looked to some observers like the intended outcome of a plot, hatched in London, to depose the ambassador in Washington by leaking his confidential briefing notes on the “uniquely dysfunctional” administration of a man unable to brook criticism.

It was equally predictable that Trump would tweet again on Tuesday, hurling childish insults at Darroch — calling him “wacky,” “very stupid,” and “a pompous fool” — after Prime Minister Theresa May let it be known that the ambassador still had her full support, even though “the views expressed in the documents are not necessarily the views of ministers or the government.” (The word “necessarily” has rarely been used to such cutting effect.)

“The scandal surrounding the reporting from British ambassador Kim Darroch in Washington is not that he was sending home his unvarnished analysis,” Peter Ricketts, a former British ambassador to France, observed in The Guardian. “It’s that someone inside the British system deliberately amassed a stash of his assessments, then chose the moment of maximum impact to leak it. This was not a spontaneous decision to make public a single document: it required premeditation and therefore an agenda.”

Speculation as to what that agenda might have been was fueled by the fact that the collection of confidential memos from Darroch to senior officials in London was turned over to Isabel Oakeshott, a pro-Brexit journalist who is known to be close to Nigel Farage and his most important financial backer, Arron Banks.

Jonathan Powell, former prime minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff, told Britain’s Channel 4 News that the attempt to force Darroch from office followed similar efforts to punish career British officials suspected of insufficient enthusiasm for Brexit. “There have been a whole series of attacks on civil servants — on the cabinet secretary, on the former negotiator in the EU — all of a part, by Farage and people from the Brexit side who seem to be keen to get rid of these people.”

Like clockwork, the Daily Mail’s publication of the diplomatic cables provided to Oakeshott — in which the ambassador described a president “radiating insecurity,” whose administration was unlikely to ever get “less diplomatically clumsy and inept” — triggered a demand from Farage for Darroch to be fired.

Leave.EU, a pro-Brexit group funded by Banks, then helpfully suggested that “Britain’s anti-Brexit ambassador to the U.S.” should be “replaced by a favourite of the President,” like Farage. The group’s tweet showed Farage campaigning for Trump in 2016, and a screenshot of the newly elected president’s tweet from that November, in which he had called for his friend to get the job then.

Oddly, the tweet from Leave.EU in support of Farage also claimed that Darroch’s secret cables had somehow exposed his anti-Brexit “Remainer leanings.” In fact, none of the cables published in the Mail on Sunday included any anti-Brexit comments from Darroch. That suggests that Darroch, Britain’s former ambassador to the European Union, is simply suspected by the pro-Brexit faction of sympathy for those who would like Britain to remain in the bloc, or it could mean that Leave.EU has been given prior notice of as yet unpublished documents obtained by Oakeshott.

Oakeshott, whose report on the leaked documents predicted that their publication would make it impossible for the ambassador to work with “the notoriously thin-skinned President,” has previous form in the realm of political hit jobs. In 2015, she was responsible for unleashing the viral claim, attributed to an anonymous source, that David Cameron, the former prime minister, had inserted his penis into a dead pig as part of a hazing ritual during his Oxford school days. The journalist then admitted to the BBC that she had no idea if the claim, which she had included in an unauthorized biography of Cameron, was true.

Oakeshott seemed to hint on Monday that her source for the leak of Darroch’s private messages was indeed a British government official with pro-Brexit sympathies. She tweeted that Farage was right to suspect that her source had been motivated by frustration at hearing “many civil servants rubbishing Brexit.” The pro-Brexit Telegraph then reported that “a source close to Isabel Oakeshott” had confirmed that the leak had come from “pro-Brexit officials” who “feel like pariahs” in government offices where career civil servants want Britain to remain in the EU.

“Darroch is facing the usual fate of the non-believers, those have not achieved full Brexit transcendance and therefore must be ejected from their position before they can keep asking critical questions,” the Brexit-skeptic editor of, Ian Dunt, wrote on Monday. “But the story also shows something else: When you scratch at the surface of this movement for total British sovereignty, you quite often find servility to the US lying underneath.”

If the leak to Oakeshott was part of a plot to replace Darroch with a pro-Brexit ambassador to Washington to mollify Trump, it seems to point to a fundamental contradiction in the rhetoric of the anti-EU movement. During the 2016 referendum, Farage and Boris Johnson, the leader of the pro-Brexit campaign who could be prime minister by the end of this month, urged Britons to “take back control” of their economy and laws by leaving the EU.

But now, as the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU without any sort of a deal on a future trading arrangement seems possible, supporters of the project seem obsessed with the idea that Trump might save Britain by agreeing to a free-trade agreement to at least partially offset the damage a no-deal Brexit would do to the British economy.

Max Hastings, a historian of the so-called special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom, told the New York Times last month that he was astounded by how much faith British politicians put in the idea of Trump rescuing post-Brexit Britain with a favorable trade deal. “They have a quite extraordinary belief that if they suck up sufficiently to Trump, this administration will do them favors,” Hastings said.

What makes this wishful thinking all the more extraordinary is that, as The Intercept reported in April, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on a visit to Ireland that month that Congress would block any new trade deal with the United Kingdom if Britain leaves the EU without a deal, which could fatally undermine the peace in Northern Ireland.

As the uproar over Darroch was unfolding on Monday, Rep. Brendan Boyle, an Irish-American member of the Congressional Friends of Ireland caucus who accompanied Pelosi on her trip, tweeted an image of himself baling hay on his family’s farm in Donegal, near the border with Northern Ireland that would need to be sealed off in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

The fact that Brexit could make Britain ever more reliant on the United States was foreseen in 2017 by Emmanuel Macron, the former investment banker who was then running for the French presidency. “Britain lived in an equilibrium with Europe,” Macron said at the end of Trump’s first week in office, when May rushed to Washington to hold the new president’s hand. “But now it is becoming a vassal state, meaning it is becoming the junior partner of the United States.”

“Boris Johnson enjoys giving flamboyant speeches but has no strategic vision; the turmoil he created the day after Brexit proves it,” Macron told Monocle two months later.

“Nigel Farage and Mr Johnson are responsible for this crime: they sailed the ship into battle and jumped overboard at the moment of crisis,” Macron continued. “Theresa May has handled it but what has been happening since then? On the geopolitical level as well as on the financial: realignment and submission to the US. What is going to happen is not ‘taking back control,’ it’s servitude.”

Trump’s rebuke of Darroch, for accurately reporting in private briefings a series of commonly held views about his White House, was accompanied by an insult aimed his boss, Prime Minister May, for her supposedly “foolish” decision not to take the American president’s advice — to “sue the EU” instead of negotiating a post-Brexit trade agreement with the bloc.

The president’s insults even became an issue in the contest to replace May as prime minister on Tuesday. While the leading candidate, Boris Johnson, dodged a question about Trump’s outburst, Jeremy Hunt, the current foreign secretary, tweeted back at the president, calling his comments, “disrespectful and wrong,” and promising to keep Darroch in place should he become prime minister.

Hunt, who trails Johnson in polling of the 160,000 Conservative Party members who will elect a new party leader to take over as prime minister later this month, has apparently decided that standing up for national pride is a better strategy than placating Trump. While the American president is broadly unpopular in Britain — with 77 percent viewing him unfavorably in a poll last month — he is a hero to the hard right of the British Conservative party. In a recent poll of those grassroots Conservative activists — the 0.2% of the population with a say in who succeeds May — 54 percent said that Trump would make a good British prime minister.

Trump essentially endorsed Johnson during his visit to Britain last month, apparently having forgotten, or just never heard, that the former mayor of London had denounced him during the 2016 campaign as “clearly out of his mind” and “betraying a quite stupefying ignorance that makes him frankly unfit to hold the office of president of the United States.” Johnson’s detractors in Britain have tried very hard to draw Trump’s attention to video of those remarks.

Update: July 9, 2019, 10:29 a.m. ET
This article was updated to report a second volley of tweets from Trump maligning the character of the British ambassador on Tuesday morning and a reply to those tweets from British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

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