WASHINGTON — Ask members of the Washington diplomatic corps about the cables that Sir Kim Darroch, the British ambassador who resigned Wednesday, wrote to London describing the dysfunction and chaos of the Trump administration, and their response is uniform: We wrote the same stuff.
“Yes, yes, everyone does,” Gérard Araud, who retired this spring as the French ambassador, said Wednesday morning of his own missives from Washington. “But fortunately I knew that nothing would remain secret, so I sent them in a most confidential manner.”
So did Darroch, who alone and with Araud, tried to navigate the minefield of serving as the chief representative of longtime US allies to a president who does not think much of the value of alliances.
Until Darroch’s confidential cables appeared in the Daily Mail last weekend, none of the major ambassadors in Washington had been denounced by President Trump as “wacky” and a “very stupid guy’’ — a description that the envoy’s friends are quick to say hardly applies to one of Britain’s most sophisticated diplomats and a former national security adviser.
But as one ambassador, who is still serving and therefore spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Wednesday, “it could have been any of us.”
With a few exceptions — including the ambassadors from Israel and the United Arab Emirates, who have supported Trump’s every move — foreign diplomats in Washington these days describe living in something of a black hole.
Decisions that directly affect their nations’ trade relationships or troops are delivered with no notice. Their contacts inside the State Department, the Treasury, and Congress freely tell them they have little idea what decisions Trump may make, or what he may reverse.
And the Trump administration has almost reveled in keeping foreign diplomats in the dark. While Darroch, following in the tradition of his predecessors, hosted receptions in the British Embassy’s grand ballroom and weekend cocktail parties under tents on the lawn overlooking Embassy Row, few administration officials have attended.
There were occasional appearances by Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s elder daughter and son-in-law, who also serve as the president’s senior advisers and live just a few blocks from the embassy with their children. A few other officials, like Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president, showed up at Darroch’s famous New Year’s parties, held amid the embassy’s stunning art collection.
But those were rare occasions. Trump’s secretaries of state, Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo, did not appear to nurture the “special relationship.” Nor did Vice President Mike Pence, who lives next door to the British Embassy.
While Darroch often tried to reach out to the White House and the National Security Council, like most of the ambassadors from NATO nations, he never quite felt that he broke into the inner circle.
In December, when Trump announced via Twitter that the United States was withdrawing forces from Syria — where both the British and the French have deployed troops, some of them dependent on US forces for transportation and intelligence — Darroch was given no notice.
He called around the capital, reaching out to key members of Congress and national security reporters to glean information. To be fair, Trump’s own national security team was also taken aback, and the defense secretary, Jim Mattis, resigned in protest. (Trump later insisted Mattis was fired.)
The Syria decision was quietly reversed, in part. But it was another example of the chaos that Darroch had described to his successor as national security adviser, Mark Sedwill, in a 2017 memorandum that leaked Saturday, leading to Trump’s declaration that the ambassador to America’s longtime ally was, in effect, persona non grata.
Similarly, the White House barely gave allies notice of Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement last year, even though Britain, France, and Germany had helped negotiate it. As one NATO ambassador noted, it took weeks for the administration to gather them and describe its new Iran strategy, which was composed largely of a series of 12 demands that Pompeo also announced in a speech.
“For me, as a foreigner, it was fascinating,’’ said Araud, who now looks back at his tenure as French ambassador as a grand political science experiment. “It’s what happens when a populist leader takes command in a liberal democracy. These people don’t recognize or accept the idea that an ambassador or a bureaucrat could be of any use. They only want to deal with other leaders.”
Araud recalled a moment in 2017 when France’s foreign minister was planning a trip to Washington. The ambassador gave the State Department two months notice to try to get on Tillerson’s schedule. They never heard back until a day before the event, Araud recalled, only to be told the meeting would last only 20 minutes.
“So the minister didn’t come,’’ he said.
Darroch was somewhat more successful. From his time as national security adviser, he had deep contacts in the intelligence agencies in the United States, and among the permanent class of national security specialists. But even in those conversations, officials often expressed mystification about how decisions in the Trump administration were made and policy generated.
Traditionally, the British ambassador would be brought in for consultations with senior US officials about major decisions under consideration in the Middle East, or in dealing with Russia, where Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, the British equivalent to the National Security Agency, often takes the lead in gathering intelligence.
But not in the Trump era.
There will be a new British ambassador, presumably appointed after Parliament selects a new prime minister to replace the departing Theresa May, and seats a new government. But under current conditions it is unclear whether that diplomat’s access will be much better.
A comment from the State Department about Darroch’s departure on Wednesday blandly repeated its commitment to the “special relationship” between the United States and Britain.
The two nations “share a bond that is bigger than any individual,” the statement said, “and we look forward to continuing that partnership.”