When scathing descriptions like “inept” and “insecure” and “dysfunctional” are being tossed around, diplomacy is hardly the first thing that comes to mind.
Especially when it’s an episode involving the United States’ closest traditionally ally, Britain, and when the speaker is a veteran envoy discussing President Trump and his administration.
A British tabloid, the Mail on Sunday, published a trove of what it said were memos from Ambassador to the U.S. Kim Darroch, written from 2017 to the recent past.
The documents, meant to be shared among only a few senior British government officials, contain a wealth of unflattering observations about Trump and the “chaotic” White House over which he presides.
On Sunday, the Foreign Office did not directly confirm the authenticity of the memos, but did not dispute it either. Describing the leaking of sensitive diplomatic material as “mischievous behavior,” the office said it was launching an investigation as to how the disclosure occurred.
While castigating the disclosure, the British government defended Darroch, saying a key part of his job was to provide an unvarnished view of the political climate in the country of his posting. Still, some politicians scrambled to distance themselves.
Jeremy Hunt, the British foreign secretary who is in contention to become the next prime minister, said the ambassador’s depiction of Trump’s mercurial and polarizing style represented his “personal view — it’s not the view of the British government.”
Trump, who recently reveled in the pomp of a state visit to London, was disgruntled by the portrayal of him in the leaked memos, but refrained, in his initial reaction, from the kind of frontal assault he often launches against critics.
Speaking to reporters as he was leaving his New Jersey golf resort to return to Washington, the president declared that Darroch “has not served the U.K. well.”
“We’re not a fan of that man,” Trump said. He added dismissively: “I can say things about him, but I won’t bother.”
The British press, meanwhile, swiftly conjectured that — like so much in Britain these days — the incident was really about Brexit. A variety of reports pointed out that a chief beneficiary would be Nigel Farage, a strident proponent of leaving the European Union and the head of the new Brexit party.
Long a prominent figure on Britain’s far right, Farage was an enthusiastic backer of Trump during the 2016 election campaign. Trump once touted him as a good pick to serve as ambassador to Washington.
On Sunday, Farage seized on the cables’ disclosure to argue that Darroch was a “globalist” whose views were out of step with what he called the “Trump doctrine.” On Twitter, he urged that the envoy step down.
Darroch is due to leave Washington at year’s end anyway, but some observers suggested that the disclosure might have as much to do with domestic politics as who will represent Britain in Washington.
“Sometimes leaks from within the government are striking not just for their content, but also for the motive behind them,” wrote Patrick Wintour, the diplomatic editor of the Guardian newspaper. He called the affair a window into the “struggle for influence at the top” of the ruling Conservative party.
The front-runner to lead the party — and thus assume the prime minister’s position in coming weeks — is Boris Johnson, who helped rally voters to the pro-Brexit side in the divisive 2016 referendum campaign on whether to leave the EU.
Prime Minister Theresa May recently resigned after failing to win parliamentary approval for a plan for Britain’s divorce from the bloc.
May’s government gave the White House a heads-up when it learned that the leaked cables were about to be published, the Associated Press reported, citing a source with knowledge of the events. May and Trump, whose relationship has often been strained, spoke on Friday, the day before the tabloid’s report appeared, the White House confirmed.
A readout of their conversation said the two leaders had talked about “shared national security interests,” including Syria, Iran, North Korea and trade talks between Washington and Beijing, but made no reference to London’s efforts to contain the diplomatic fallout over Darroch’s remarks.
In the leaked memos, the ambassador cast a bleak eye on Trump’s mode of decision-making and governance.
“As seen from here, we really don’t believe that this administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional, less unpredictable, less faction-riven, less diplomatically clumsy and inept,” he wrote in the summer of 2017.
But he also warned that Trump’s ability to survive scandal should not be underestimated.
Some of the ambassador’s harshest assessments centered on U.S. policy on Iran, calling it “incoherent.” Britain was dismayed when Trump pulled out of a landmark nuclear accord painstakingly negotiated by world powers with Tehran during the tenure of his predecessor, President Obama.
Darroch also questioned Trump’s recent claim that he had personally halted a planned U.S. military strike against Iran at the last moment because he learned about the likelihood of scores of civilian casualties. He suggested that it was more likely that the president was motivated by worries about how a military entanglement would play politically with his base heading into the 2020 election.
Darroch has always been careful to speak favorably of Trump in public, but the cables suggest that his private assessment was more unsparing.
“For a man who has risen to the highest office on the planet, President Trump radiates insecurity,” he wrote.
Special correspondent Boyle reported from London and staff writer King from Washington.