Washington’s “special relationship” with Britain has had its ups and downs under Donald Trump. But this week, to the disbelieving eyes of many observers across the Atlantic, it seemingly was turned on its head.
Britain’s ambassador to the United States, Kim Darroch — Sir Kim to his compatriots — resigned Wednesday, following a leak of brutally frank diplomatic cables he wrote about Trump and, in response, a storm of invective from the president.
In a series of tweets on Tuesday, Trump called the veteran envoy, who rose from working-class roots to a highly lauded diplomatic career lasting four decades, “wacky,” “pompous” and a “very stupid guy.” In the leaked cables, Darroch referred to Trump as “inept” and his administration as “chaotic.”
The episode, playing out over just a few days, was a jarring reminder of how Trump’s disruptive and highly personal style is coloring the United States’ dealings with the rest of the world — in this case, with one of its historically closest allies.
The head of the Foreign Office, Simon McDonald, who formally accepted Darroch’s resignation, seemed to be grasping for words as he explained the diplomatic debacle to a committee of lawmakers. He said there had never been an instance, during his 37-year tenure in the department, when one of the United Kingdom’s ambassadors had, in effect, been booted out by the head of state of an allied government.
“This is not the first time a British ambassador has left post or resigned because of actions against the host government,” McDonald said. “But usually they are governments with whom we have problematic relations, rather than friendly relations.”
Darroch wrote in his resignation letter that he had decided to quit because “the responsible course is to allow the appointment of a new ambassador.” It was not clear when that would occur.
Prime Minister Theresa May had staunchly stood by the 65-year-old envoy, saying he was only doing his job when he provided blunt assessments of the Trump administration and the political climate in Washington. She said his decision to step down was a “matter of great regret.”
Addressing lawmakers, May — who is herself set to depart within weeks — said it was “essential” for professional diplomats like Darroch to be able to be candid in their reports to their home governments.
The leaked cables appeared in the British tabloid the Mail on Sunday. Covering a span from 2017 to the recent past, the diplomatic memos, which were supposed to have been confidential, depicted Trump as erratic, unpredictable and seemingly immune to scandal. His White House was portrayed as a nest of infighting.
Although all sides insisted that Anglo-American ties were fundamentally unshakable, the events injected fresh drama into the race to replace May as prime minister.
The ambassador’s decision to quit came hours after a televised debate in which Boris Johnson, the front-runner to become the next prime minister, refused to defend the ambassador or criticize Trump.
On Wednesday, Johnson’s failure to stand up for Darroch was drawing some heavy fire from across the political spectrum, including within his own Conservative Party. One prominent member of May’s government, Conservative lawmaker Alan Duncan, said Johnson had “basically thrown our top diplomat under the bus.”
British media reports said the ambassador’s decision to resign was cemented when he watched Tuesday night’s debate, when Johnson refused to answer a hypothetical question as to whether, as prime minister, he would keep Darroch in place until his scheduled departure at year’s end.
The White House response was muted, at least initially. Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, told reporters that “in light of the last few days, his ability to be effective was pretty limited.”
“So it was probably the right choice,” he said of Darroch’s resignation.
The British political scene for months has been consumed by an ongoing brawl over Brexit, the country’s planned departure from the European Union that is now set for the end of October. And the leak of the cables, which is under investigation by the Foreign Office, was widely seen as reflecting those bitter divisions.
Leading up to the 2016 referendum that set the divorce from the bloc in motion, tabloids including the Mail were loud and colorful backers of Brexit. Darroch, who spent much of his career building closer ties with the EU, had long been vilified by hard-liners as a “globalist” who was not fully on board with the decision to leave the bloc.
Darroch’s fate was likely sealed when Trump said earlier this week that “we will no longer deal” with the ambassador, whose ability to function effectively was highly dependent on access. Darroch had previously had cordial ties with senior members of the administration, often entertaining top Trump aides at embassy gatherings, and a cutoff of such contacts would have severely impeded his ability to gather information and to advance his own country’s interests.
Johnson’s rival for the prime minister post, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, said in a statement that he was “deeply saddened” by the ambassador’s resignation. He also made a point of declaring that Darroch’s frank dispatches had been exactly in line with his diplomatic duties.
“I am sure that our Ambassadors worldwide will continue to provide the objective and rigorous reporting that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has always prized,” he wrote.
May, whom Trump derided as “foolish” in his Tuesday tweets attacking Darroch, made a veiled but pointed reference to unwarranted outside influence when she spoke to the House of Commons.
“I hope the House will reflect on the importance of defending our values and principles,” she said, “particularly when they are under pressure.”
Johnson, for his part, said that whoever was behind the leak “really has done a grave disservice to our civil servants.” Employing typically colorful language, he added: “I hope that whoever it is, is run down, caught and eviscerated.”
Many retired American and British diplomats have followed the saga over the last few days with mounting dismay, noting the dramatic break with established norms of diplomacy. In a tweet, Nicholas Burns, a former senior U.S. diplomat, praised Darroch as a “true professional.”
“Ambassadors worldwide understand they can be replaced at any time,” Burns wrote. But Darroch, he said, “was the victim of scurrilous British officials who leaked his cables and of the vanity and vengefulness” of Trump.
Trump’s allies, meanwhile, sought to dispel the notion that the president had done anything untoward.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is one of Trump’s staunchest defenders, praised Darroch as “outstanding” and said he was sorry to see him resign — but did not acknowledge any role by Trump in the affair. Instead, he wrote on Twitter that the ambassador “got a raw deal from the press.”
Trump’s Democratic critics said that although the publication of confidential cables precipitated the diplomatic melee, the president had thrown fuel on the fire.
“Part of what drove this is President Trump taking to Twitter to insult the ambassador, to insult Theresa May,” Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN.
The ambassadorial rupture came just weeks after Britain pulled out all the ceremonial stops for a state visit by Trump. In June, he dined with Queen Elizabeth II and met other senior royals, including Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, and Prince William, next in the line of succession.
One notable exception to the royal meet-and-greet, however, was the Los Angeles-born duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, who was on maternity leave during Trump’s visit. Before marrying Prince Harry, Charles’ younger son, she had been quoted as calling Trump “misogynistic.”
In a pre-visit interview, Trump said he was unaware that the duchess had been “nasty” regarding him.
Special correspondent Boyle reported from London and staff writer King from Washington.