A gaffe is when a politician recklessly tells the truth, Michael Kinsley once said.
Sir Kim Darroch is not a politician. He is a diplomat. And the truth he spoke was not a gaffe. It was a leak. But it functions like a gaffe, a truth blurted out in a context in which it wasn’t supposed to be uttered.
The British ambassador to the United States is in trouble with the White House because of cables he sent home in which he offered a, shall we say, candid assessment of the American president. The cache of these cables leaked to the Daily Mail. And Donald Trump is understandably offended, declaring that the White House will not work with Darroch any more: “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,” the president said yesterday on Twitter.
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. I told her how it should be done, but she decided to go another way. I do not know the Ambassador, but he is not liked or well....
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 8, 2019
Full disclosure: I do know the ambassador, whom I have spoken with a couple of times and of whom I think highly. Trump’s disparaging remarks about him are, well, false. Darroch is, in fact, well liked and well thought of in the United States.
It’s a big deal in Washington when the president all but declares the British ambassador persona non grata. And the incident puts the U.K. government in a sticky situation. It has to defend the ability of its diplomats to send home frank assessments of American politics, but it also can’t stand behind the substance of cables that are so unflattering to the egotistical and self-obsessed leader of its closest ally. So the government denounced the leak, put distance between its views and the views Darroch expressed in the cables, and stood by his right to express his opinions. “The selective extracts leaked do not reflect the closeness of, and the esteem in which we hold, the relationship,” the government stated. “At the same time we have also underlined the importance of Ambassadors being able to provide honest, unvarnished assessments of the politics in their country.”
Note what the U.K. government did not say: that anything in Darroch’s cables is false. There’s a reason for that.
Darroch has, in fact, behaved as a model diplomat. A diplomat’s job is to represent his government’s position stoutly in public and to advise it with unstinting candor privately. Darroch has done both.
Publicly, he has said all the right things. On a recent episode of the Lawfare Podcast, I tried repeatedly to get him to acknowledge the oddities of our president—and he repeatedly parried and gamely defended the idea of business as usual in the special relationship. While he opened the conversation by acknowledging that “these are exceptional times” in both countries’ domestic politics, he also insisted it was all “democracy in action.” And when asked about Trump’s personality, he sounded positively complacent. There were strong government-to-government relations, he said. The president and the prime minister meet and talk frequently. There was “genuine friendship” and closeness in legislative relations. And while he acknowledged that “[o]f course . . . this president is different from some of his predecessors in the way that he sets out his views, his use of Twitter, and the comments that he makes on the international situation,” in his account the foundations of the relationship are untouched by anything Trump says.
Even on matters Russia, Darroch deemphasized Trump’s behavior at the Helsinki summit and his many warm comments about a dictator who had poisoned people in the streets of the ambassador’s home country. He was focused on what the administration did, he said. “It’s a good thing, we think, for international stability and security if there is a functioning, effective channel between the White House and the Kremlin and a good relationship” between Trump and Putin, as long as that channel is being used to convey appropriate messages. “The president is right to want to have a relationship with Vladimir Putin, and we trust that when they speak” he uses the channel to send tough messages.
At one point, I even said explicitly that Darroch sounded so unconcerned that I couldn’t imagine that his comments to me were similar in tone to the private discussions at Whitehall. He responded, “Fundamentally . . . we do not lie awake at night wondering about the next step in U.S.-Russia relations.”
All of this was exactly the right note for an ambassador to strike in such a conversation. And yet, when you hear a clearly smart person representing a close ally articulating such things, you wonder what the subtitles depicting his actual thoughts would say if you could read them.
Now, because of a truly unhelpful leak, we have the answer to that question: The tone in Darroch’s communications with London was, well, rather different. As the Daily Mail summarizes:
Britain’s Ambassador to Washington has described Donald Trump as ‘inept’, ‘insecure’ and ‘incompetent’ in a series of explosive memos to Downing Street.
Sir Kim Darroch, one of Britain’s top diplomats, used secret cables and briefing notes to impugn Trump’s character, warning London that the White House was ‘uniquely dysfunctional’ and that the President’s career could end in ‘disgrace’.
. . .
In the memos, seen by The Mail on Sunday following an unprecedented leak, Sir Kim:
- Describes bitter conflicts within Trump’s White House – verified by his own sources – as ‘knife fights’;
- Warns that Trump could have been indebted to ‘dodgy Russians’;
- Claims the President’s economic policies could wreck the world trade system;
- Says the scandal-hit Presidency could ‘crash and burn’ and that ‘we could be at the beginning of a downward spiral ... that leads to disgrace and downfall’;
- Voices fears that Trump could still attack Iran.
In one of the most sensitive documents, Sir Kim writes: ‘We don’t really believe this Administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction riven; less diplomatically clumsy and inept.’
He also says that he doesn't think Trump’s White House will ‘ever look competent’.
In reference to Trump’s ability to shrug off controversies in a life which has been ‘mired in scandal’, he says that the President may nonetheless ‘emerge from the flames, battered but intact, like [Arnold] Schwarzenegger in the final scenes of The Terminator’.
To which we should all respond with a resounding, “Duh!”
Darroch talks this way about our president in private for the same reason that Republican members of Congress and administration officials talk this way about a president they publicly support. These cables are the subtitles of the remarks he made to me, the thought bubbles not meant to be heard.
And don’t kid yourself: There are cables like this from the Washington embassies of all of America’s allies. Whatever they may say in public, this is what our allies are saying in private. They are saying these things because these things are true and because they owe their home governments honest evaluations of the governance reality with which the U.S. daily confronts those allies. They are saying these things because the thought bubbles and the subtitles when they speak to us are precisely the candor they owe their own government. And in the subtitles and the thought bubbles, they are ridiculing us; and they are ridiculing us because we are, in fact, ridiculous.
Sir Kim Darroch did nothing wrong. He spoke the truth. In public, he towed the improbable line to which all of our allies are hewing—that they are not appalled. The line was sufficiently improbable as a reality that I commented to him that he was being “very diplomatic.” But in an appropriate private setting that was inappropriately made not private, he described frankly the reality that we all know: that the Trump administration is not “going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction riven; less diplomatically clumsy and inept.”
And so we should ask ourselves: How much does American prestige and influence ebb when we are understood to be ridiculous, even when our allies decline to say it out loud? When we put allies in the position of having to say absurd things in deference to our leader’s sensitivities and reserve the truth for memos home, how long can we expect them not to hedge their bets with rising power adversaries?
Trump can respond to this by attacking Darroch, and the White House can shun him. The rest of us should remember that the thought bubbles of our allies are important.