Trump and Merkel are “totally respectful” of each other
Richard Grenell, President Trump’s envoy to Berlin, speaks his mind much to the displeasure of Germany’s political elite. Establishment scribes have scorned the American ambassador as a "diplomatic total failure.” Incensed politicians have demanded his expulsion. Die Weltwoche meets the US Ambassador for a candid conversation about German sensitivity, weapons, friendship, and the chemistry between Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Donald Trump.
"I don't threaten, but I ask very direct questions“: Grenell with Partner Matt Lashey and dog Lola.
“You can’t get into this job if you are worried about getting criticized.” Richard Grenell, clad in a smoothly tailored sports coat, blue jeans, suede shoes, leans back and flashes a gleaming smile. Once again, his name is in the news. “Ambassador Grenell threatens Germany with troop withdrawal,” blares a Der Spiegel headline this morning.
Sitting in his office a few meters from Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate where former US President and Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan delivered his legendary proclamation: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”, Grenell blithely explains that those who know him know he loves a spirited debate.
The German intelligencia is not enamored of Grenell’s blunt diplomatic style. The German media slam the former United Nations spokesman as a “right-wing extremist colonial officer,” and the “high commissioner of an occupying power.” Politicians and bureaucrats have demanded Grenell’s removal from the Fatherland.
But the close Trump advisor and confidante has no intention of leaving anytime soon, or of buttoning his lip. He parries criticism with disarming openness. A devout Christian, he tells of how faith helped him overcome cancer. As an openly gay Republican, he fights for worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality. And delighting in surprises, he shares a startling, almost unbelievable revelation as our reporters will soon learn.
German media reported today, "Shortly before Trump's planned trips to Europe, the US tightened the tone and threatened to withdraw part of its troops from Germany once again.” Mr. Ambassador, what will be left of the US - German friendship once you have moved US troops to Poland?
Well, first of all, the President hasn’t made any decisions on that. So, anyone reading into a decision being made is not accurate.
Is it pending?
No. Look, I think the German media, the European media, largely missed what President Trump said in Washington when he was standing with [Polish] President Andrzej Duda. His point is that the 2% commitment is a NATO commitment, and it's an obligation that we think is very important. He made that clear. President Trump said, “Germany is at 1 percent. They should be at 2 percent, and they’re not getting there fast. We have 52,000 military personnel in Germany. We’ve had them there for a long, long time. So, we’d be, probably, moving a certain number of troops to Poland, if we agree to do it.” The reality is that that's not a decision yet, and my comments were simply highlighting what the President already said. I am talking about the reality. Once again, some in the media are playing fast and loose.
The news in the US gives the impression that Germany and all of Europe is becoming less and less important for the Americans. Is that correct?
No, I don't think so. I think the Europeans are incredibly important for the Americans. One of the reasons I wanted this job [as ambassador to Germany] was because the E3 — the British, the French, and the Germans — are an incredibly important negotiator to the work that the United States does. I saw that at the United Nations. I saw that we needed to have the E3 as representatives of the EU reflexively with the West. We view the world in the same way. We believe in democracy, human rights, the rule of law and capitalism. This is why I wanted this position in Germany.
To put the relations back on the right track?
No. I would just say to deepen the relationship between Europe and the United States, between Germany and the United States, so that the West could be strengthened. We feel very strongly that Americans have sacrificed a lot for Europe, because we are friends.
Twice in one century.
Twice. We did that because we believe in the relationship, and we want Europe to be reflexively with the West. We're not asking Russia or China to build up their militaries. We're asking our friends, the Germans.
It's interesting that you mentioned the E3 and not the EU as a whole. Is the EU less important?
No. I didn’t mean to suggest a separation. There's no bifurcation. I think, just practically speaking, at the UN, where I came from, we tend to organize with the E3 largely because the French and the British were on the Security Council as a permanent member, and having discussions with the E3 was quicker and easier. But we absolutely recognize that this is only the start of the wider discussion that must be had.
You have tried to put pressure on the Germans in regards to the US-led mission to secure oil tanker ships sailing in the Strait of Hormuz near Iran. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Germany will not be taking part. Do you take “No” for an answer?
We didn't put any pressure on them, and I think that was overplayed by the German media. We simply asked. If simply asking is too much pressure, I think we have a different problem. To simply ask should not be considered pressure. Unless you somehow are not used to being asked.
(Broder) May I, as a German, say this: If the Germans ask some government to do something, that's diplomacy. If some governments are asking the Germans to do something, that's blackmail.
I think that we have a deep friendship, and we should recognize that asking for help and assistance and cooperation is not a threat. Suggesting it is a threat is unserious.
We get the impression that your request for naval support puts Germany in an embarrassing situation. It is no secret that the German navy is in bad shape. It is currently engaged in two missions, one in the Aegean and one off the coast of Libya. With that, they've reached their limits. They don't seem to have ships left to participate in another mission.
Let me say it this way. We are asking for help because it is the best way to mitigate consecutive excuses. When we constantly hear the reasons why you can't help, we sometimes feel like no matter what we ask, it's going to be a “No” from some people. And we understand that some of this is about politics. But we want to formally ask and go through the process where the German government, members of the Bundestag and the public hear the requests and offer a thoughtful response. But we're at the point where we don't even get the words out of our mouth before there's an absolute “No.” from some people.
Like a preemptive answer?
(Gehriger) Germans complain that you are pushy, bossy, demanding, shameless, and interfering in German affairs. That's exactly the impression many Swiss have of the Germans. Mr. Ambassador are you, perhaps, too German for the Germans?
(Laughs) I think anyone who knows me knows that I love a good conversation, and a good debate. I don't threaten, but I ask very direct questions. I thought that's what we're supposed to be able to do with our friends. But let me also add that the media are missing the many, many people who have reached out to say “Thank You for being honest and direct” – as friends should be.
In an interview with the German daily “Welt”, Chinese star artist Ai Weiwei announced that he was going to leave Germany because, "Germany is [no longer] an open society." German culture "does not really accept other ideas and arguments," he says, and "there's hardly any room for open debates, hardly any respect for the voices of those who disagree.” Is this what you're experiencing, too?
No. I think there is a healthy debate in Germany, and I'm in the middle of it. (laughter)
That's the good news. The bad news?
Look, we are not afraid to confront difficult issues. It isn’t an easy decision to spend more money on defense. There are no easy answers. And we have these same debates in the United States. What I think is extremely important is to have these public debates because NATO is asking. I have been told multiple times to keep these conversations away from the public and just have them quietly in the back room. But we tried that. We think there's a benefit to having this issue publicly debated. But we're also not naive to understand that when you raise your head to have a public discussion, you're going to be criticized. You can't get into this job if you are worried about getting criticized for confronting issues. We, here at the embassy, feel very strongly that the public debate is healthy.
You say, “There is huge support in the German public.” What makes you think so?
I speak publicly regularly throughout all of Germany, and overwhelmingly the German people tell me that they support NATO and paying the NATO obligations.
The German people, meaning the rank and file?
Yes. German people who show up at events. They absolutely value NATO. They recognize that the contribution to NATO is an absolute obligation, and they recognize that the largest economy in Europe has a responsibility to meet its obligations.
Strangely enough, when we listen to the media, we get exactly the opposite impression — that the German people oppose the German contribution to the NATO.
I can just tell you my experience.
(Broder) I have no doubt about your experience because my experience is the same. But I wonder how come the German media is covering the whole subject in a, let's put it politely, very different way. Do you have any explanation?
I think it's really important to talk to people throughout the entire country.
(Broder) You had barely arrived in Germany when my very special “friend” Mr. Martin Schulz asked you to quit your job. What did you think about that?
Look, I like people who want to discuss topics, but I think it's important to actually discuss and not just to …
It was not his request to discuss.
Right, correct. We are open to having a thoughtful debate about these issues. I think it's extremely healthy to listen. Having a one-sided conversation doesn’t convince others.
On the day you took office in Berlin in May last year, politicians and the media were already in a rage. What was the occasion?
On that day it was the Iran sanctions. I arrived the day that the U.S. put sanctions back on Iran. I work for the American people and for the U.S. government. We, ambassadors, were instructed to make clear what the new U.S. policy was, and that's exactly what I did. When people don't like a policy, then we should discuss it. We shouldn't attack each other personally.
You say it's important to have an open and healthy debate. In May, Chancellor Angela Merkel went to Harvard. There, on American soil, she gave a speech which wasn’t part of any of healthy debate, but rather a very obvious critique of your president. You have witnessed the two behind closed doors. Can you tell a little about what happens between Trump and Merkel once the public is not watching?
I've seen them discuss issues. It is extremely healthy, and it's back and forth, and it's honest. It's totally respectful. And it’s kind of fun because they are both passionate.
On what side? On Mrs. Merkel's side?
Both. They both have a good sense of humor.
Excuse me. You are saying Mrs. Merkel has a sense of humor? That's going to be our headline!
They also agree on all of the big issues, maybe not always the tactics but they agree on the goals. And that is very important to remember.
In Saxony people will vote on September 1st. A leading party in this Bundesland is the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland, AfD. All across Europe, they're labeled as the party of leprosy, as dangerous outcasts. Have you personally met some of their members?
We're willing to have discussions with everybody in the Bundestag. But we tend to talk largely to the coalition.
Journalists — the pundits — say the success of the AfD is a disgrace and shameful for Germany. Is it a defeat for democracy if their members get elected? How do you see this?
I think Germany has a great democracy. I think it's very healthy. I'm not fearful of what's going to happen in any part of this country. There's a very thoughtful process in place. You've got great critiquers in the media, too. I think the first observation is that you have a great system and there should be no anxiety about the future. The second thing is the bench, do you know that English word? It means the people coming up next. I think that you've got a lot of superstars here in Germany. People who are next in line in politics. (laughs)
Who do you have in mind?
I don't want to mention anybody because it might immediately ensure their defeat. (laughter) But there are people that I think are very capable. I would say in the coalition and even outside of the coalition you've got great superstars that are younger, who are coming up, people who care deeply about Germany and are competent and thoughtful and smart. So, you don't have to worry about your system. I think it's pretty good and healthy.
(Broder) The provisional leader of the Social Democrats (SPD), Malu Dreyer, has declared she is open to a coalition with the Linkspartei (Left Party). "If there is a majority to the left of the Union, we must look for common ground and analyze what separates us," said the Rhineland-Palatinate Premier. The Socialists are declaring their openness to cooperate on a political and federal level with a party that is basically what was left from the old Communist system, GDR. Isn’t that scary?
Look, I'm going to stay away from talking about political parties, but I'm always willing to talk about the issues. I think it's really important that Germans understand that Americans are committed to the alliance.
Americans came across the Atlantic twice to rescue Europe from tyranny. Millions of Americans died so the old continent regained freedom. But today, on any given day in Western Europe and in Germany especially, media broadcast news that goes beyond being critical about the US or its president. It is flat out Anti-American. Sometimes it even demonizes the US. Can you make sense of this ardent Anti-Americanism?
Well, that's certainly not lost on Americans. Americans feel very strongly that they have sacrificed for a stronger Europe, a Europe that will always be with the West. When we see the rise of anti-Americanism, it's very troubling. I think quickly behind it, or maybe right in front of it, is antisemitism.
It's connected. I just think that we have to constantly have these conversations. One of the problems in the current situation is not a lot of people realize that we have 50,000 American military personnel in Germany at any given time. It's very expensive. It's borne by the American taxpayer. We don't do that lightly. We do that because we believe in Europe, and we believe in Germany, and we believe in NATO. Germany has an exporting economy. It relies heavily on exports and the free flow of goods, navigation, in the Strait of Hormuz, for instance. It depends on open waters. The ones who are guaranteeing the open waters are …
Yes. And I don't think that it's too much to say, "You in Germany have a surplus. We have a $22 trillion national debt. Could you help us since you have a surplus?" I don't think that that's too much to ask. But angry voices over a thoughtful request, saying, "You're threatening us," I think comes from not understanding the deep sacrifices that Americans have made and are currently making.
(Broder) We Germans are well aware about the sacrifices Americans made.
But I think it's usually talked about in the past. It's not always recognized to the degree of the 50,000 Americans here, the Strait of Hormuz and navigation. And how about the South China Sea? There are other places where the German economy benefits from American defense and protection.
(Broder) I refer to Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, a contemporary of Freud and one of the most important German-language writers of the 19th century. She said: "The feeling of guilty gratitude is a burden that only strong souls can bear". My personal impression is the Germans will never forgive the Americans that they had to be liberated from the Nazis. Did this ever occur to you?
I've heard you say this a couple of times.
Maybe the Germans simply forgot there is no such thing as a free lunch?
The only thing that I can say is that the Americans believe in Europe. We believe in Germany, and we want to have a very close, deep relationship. But that means that there has to be a recognition of shared expense, defense expense, shared values, contributing to NATO, at the levels that were agreed upon by the current coalition, the SPD and the CDU.
You are openly gay and promote a global push for decriminalizing homosexuality. This is a topic where you would expect broad support all across Europe. Do you get that support?
I certainly get support across Europe, but not always vocally from the governments. The focus is on those 71 countries that criminalize it. The president has been very clear that this is wrong, and he's going to continue to tackle it.
President Trump went public with this initiative in the beginning of June. Are you the man behind this? Who pushed the president to take the lead?
No. It's really the president. He feels strongly about this.
He's considered by many Germans as being very homophobic.
Well, that's absolutely ridiculous. He is a great supporter. There's just simply no proof to suggest otherwise.
Let’s talk about migration. You know what the German reaction is to the events at the American-Mexican border? Trump is criticized in the most negative tones. Do you have any opinion about the way the Germans are handling the migration issue, here, on their own ground?
I will stay completely out of it. It's not to say that I don't have an opinion. (laughter)
On China, we hear U.S. ambassadors across Europe warning about Chinese influence and particularly any deals with Huawei.
This is a big issue for the U.S.
The US ambassador to Switzerland, Ed McMullen, for example is outspoken about this.
Ed is very good. [To his assistant] Can we remind the German media that there are other voices doing this? (laughter)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned during his recent trip to Europe that Huawei is linked to Chinese Communist Party, that it will collect data of private individuals and deliver it to the Chinese Government. But we've learned from Edward Snowden that American companies have done the same on behalf of the US Government — that our data is stored by the NSA in a black cube in Utah. “So where is the difference?” people say. “Why are Americans warning of Huawei about something they themselves have been doing since long?”
The point is that, in the United States, we have companies that are very confident and proud to stand up against our government. The way Apple did after the San Bernardino terror attack in California in 2015. When these companies go to China, when they go to Iran, or they go anywhere in the Middle East, they play by the local rules. I would argue that companies have no choice in China. Even American companies have no choice but to turn over that information immediately to China, and there's no due process or rule of law. If you don't like the decision, so be it. It doesn't matter. There's no way for you to appeal.
There is no public uproar in those countries about this?
Of course there's no public uproar because there's no reporter allowed to challenge it.
Our time is running out, a few brief questions. Short answers please. First, please name something typically German that you will never get used to?
[Ambassador pauses to think.]
No. The fact that buildings don't have air conditioning.
(Broder) The liberation of Germany will never be completed without the introduction of air conditioning. (laughter)
I am learning that that isn’t a bad thing. We over-use A/C in the U.S.
Next: Something German that you would not want to miss out on.
There's a whole bunch of things. One is Oktoberfest. Two is all of Bavaria.
Something German you will never understand?
Why the capital is not in Munich. (laughter)
Trump’s ancestors originally came from Germany. Do you see something typically German about him?
He's a New Yorker. He's a typical New Yorker regardless of ethnicity.
(Broder) You mentioned that Americans came to help and to save Europe twice in the last century. As far as I am concerned, I'm very grateful for this because the Americans liberated my father. Otherwise, I wouldn't sit here. I'm not sure whether Europe is moving towards another disaster or not. Just in case something goes wrong, will the Americans come and save the Germans for a third time from themselves?
Look, I'm not going to do a hypothetical. I'm confident that you have a great system here, that having public dialogues about issues is really important. I would just say that we feel very strongly that the Germans are our friends, and that we need Europe. We need a strong Europe. We are in this together.
Richard Grenell, born 1966 in Jenison, Michigan, is a graduate of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He was a commentator for Fox News before being appointed spokesman for the US ambassador to the United Nations by President George W. Bush Jr. in 2001. After seven years, he returned to freelance journalism. The 52 year old has been ambassador to Berlin since May 2018.
Grenell with reporters Broder (m) and Gehriger (r)