Trump’s man abroad is the very opposite of what a diplomat is supposed to be

There are certain traits one typically seeks in an envoy representing the United States. Deep expertise in the political and cultural history of the area, for example, and a “corridor reputation” among the policy community, as someone who is both an effective manager and a pleasant colleague.

Someone you wouldn’t find on that list: An online troll whose last assignment tried the diplomatic equivalent of “return to sender” because of fraternization with neo-Nazis, and whose biggest claim to fame since then is working to overturn American democracy. These are characteristics that should eliminate anyone from future public office.

We live in a time when a major political party will nominate a man facing 81 federal charges in four different jurisdictions to run for president.

But we live in a time when a major political party will nominate a man facing 81 federal charges in four different jurisdictions to run for president. It should be no surprise that Ambassador Richard Grenell has also resurfaced as part of former President Donald Trump’s latest effort to appear credible as a world leader. Grenell, who Trump has referred to as “my envoy” since leaving office, is keeping a busy schedule, according to a recent report from The Washington Post. In recent weeks, while the United States has worked to shore up and defend democracies from Ukraine to Guatemala, per The Post reporting, Grenell has traveled to support right-wing political movements in other countriesin their efforts to undercut elections.

Grenell and I have similar backgrounds. We both served previous administrations in the same position then, running public affairs for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. He did so under former President George W. Bush. I spent time at the U.N. myself, under former President Barack Obama. We both found post-government careers in on-air commentary and consulting. The similarities end there, though I can appreciate the prior acumen and skill he once displayed in being the longest-serving spokesperson at the mission, advising four different U.S. ambassadors on navigating the challenging landscape of the United Nations. 

What is mind-boggling is how someone with such high level exposure to foreign policy and responsibility for our nation’s reputation would effectively fritter away all that goodwill barely one month into a dream gig as U.S. Ambassador to Germany. In June of 2018, Grenell said he had been contacted by people throughout Europe about a right-wing “resurgence” and that he “absolutely wants to empower other conservatives throughout Europe.” While he didn’t violate any laws, (and tweeted that the idea that he’d actually endorse such parties is “ridiculous.”) Grenell is aware enough of the realities of being a U.S. diplomat to carefully word his answers in his own Senate testimony by claiming he would be apolitical as an ambassador and technically, supporting right-wing movements is not direct support of a particular political party.

Martin Schulz, a previous European Parliament president and leader of a German political party, said at the time that Grenell behaved “not like a diplomat, but a far-right colonial officer.” 

The concern is less about the dying language of civility; we are several years into Trump’s profaning once hallowed institutions and breaking norms. What should worry everyone is the open embrace of far-right movements overseas by the GOP’s presumptive nominee and his inner circle. We’ve seen the international far right band together informally, from the growing bonds between  the GOP and Hungary’s President Viktor Orban to the various claimants to the title of “the Donald Trump of South America” to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s use of homophobic religiosity to draw support for his regime abroad.

These are the kind of links Grenell strives to strengthen while Trump is out of office — and while neither one holds an official role. Imagine if a stop-the-steal supporter took the movement global as secretary of state, a possibility floated inside Trump World, according to Washington Post reporting. Such a senior official could use the diplomatic corps’ significant government resources to entrench the domestic and international white supremacy groups that aligned during round one of a Trump presidency. The Washington Post reports that Grenell told Guatemalans, via a local television interview, that the Biden administration’s work to help swear in anti-corruption crusader Bernado Arévalo after he won the country’s election as “all wrapped up into this kind of phony concern about democracy.” What is unclear from those comment is whether Grenell thinks the concern or democracy itself is worthy of dismissal. I suspect both. 

Make no mistake, the shadow diplomacy we’re seeing from Grenell and Trump — both unelected, unappointed individuals purporting to represent America abroad — is a direct challenge to America’s democratic experiment, on a global scale. While Biden speaks about the soul of the nation and the battle for democracy on the world stage, Trump has let loose his minions to build a countermovement of authoritarians. 

For those who think the ex-pat life is a solution to a Trump victory in November, the work of the Grenells of the world should give you pause: You cannot escape the desire of mediocre men to assert power and push their own interests. Using public service for personal gain is a global problem that requires vigilance — and your vote in November.