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In icing out the British ambassador, Trump’s found a critic he can punish

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/9/2019 Philip Bump
a man wearing a suit and tie: President Trump speaks alongside British Prime Minister Theresa May during a news conference in London on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. (Neil Hall/Pool via Bloomberg) © Neil Hall/Bloomberg President Trump speaks alongside British Prime Minister Theresa May during a news conference in London on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. (Neil Hall/Pool via Bloomberg)

The newly released descriptions of President 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.”

At times, the writer offers more biting assessments of the commander in chief. The White House might never “look competent,” the descriptions read at one point. At another, the author notes that Trump himself “radiates insecurity.”

These are not the words of an opinion columnist for Trump’s hated New York Times or the on-air commentary of a panelist on CNN. Neither are they the language of a voter focus group, reflecting some segment of the electorate.

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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 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. The ramifications for Britain have so far been fairly limited, though they became more significant on Monday afternoon.

“I have been very critical about the way the U.K. and Prime Minister Theresa May handled Brexit. What a mess she and her representatives have created,” Trump wrote on Twitter. He added, “I do not know the Ambassador, but he is not liked or well thought of within the U.S."

“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 Daily Mail 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 doesn’t have good leadership skills, why should we assume no foreign diplomat shares that assessment? When the media has repeatedly reported that Trump’s approach to decision-making eschews nuance, why is it odd to learn that Darroch came to the same conclusion?

Darroch worried that Trump’s administration might never look competent? A Fox News poll conducted in August 2017 suggested that nearly half of Americans viewed Trump himself as almost entirely incompetent.

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. While most Americans are critical of his presidency, there’s not much Trump can do to punish them 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 hasn’t 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, aren’t 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.

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