Former British Ambassador To U.S. Reflects On Becoming Trump Persona Non Grata

Sep 11, 2020

When the now former British Ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch described Donald Trump's White House as "inept" and "deeply dysfunctional" — and added that the president "radiated insecurity" — an international scandal ensued.

And when his frank assessment became public in the summer of 2019, he became persona non grata in Trump's Washington, overnight.

Darroch, who had held the ambassadorship from 2016, resigned after President Trump said he would "no longer deal with him."

Darroch writes about the experience — and many others during his three-plus years in Washington — in a new book titled Collateral Damage: Britain, America, and Europe in the Age of Trump.

In his first U.S. broadcast interview about the book, he says of this period: "I wouldn't hide the fact that those were the four worst days of my career. And, you know, they're a distant memory now because we are 15 months on from that. But it was a pretty searing and difficult time."

Darroch says he predicted Donald Trump had a good chance of winning the election four years ago. He says he thinks Joe Biden is in the "stronger position" now.

Interview Highlights

On the moment he learned that cables had been leaked

Yeah, it was a horrible moment. It was a Friday in Washington and we'd heard from London that one of the minister's private offices, one of the special advisers to the minister, had been tipped off by one of our Sunday newspapers that they had a sheaf of documents from Washington, from the embassy and the newspaper sportingly provided us with a kind of page from each of them so that it was a bit of research to try and find out what the whole documents were in each case. And most of them were cables with quite a wide circulation, comparatively recent. One was talking about the state visit. One was talking about the president's first rally where he had launched his 2020 election campaign.

On what he wrote in the cables

But the one that had kind of stopped me in my tracks and made me think this is really bad was a letter I had written to, as you say, a tiny group of people in Whitehall, very senior people in Whitehall as preparation for a senior level of ministerial discussion about relations with the new administration in the U.S. It was written about six months into the Trump administration and some of the comments in it were about the president — actually inept and dysfunctional was about the administration as a whole. And remember, there had been a lot of changes in the first six months and some policies had been introduced and blocked in the courts. And it was proving quite difficult to track what the administration was going to deliver. So, I called it as I saw it. And we are paid to give frank, clear assessments — but confidential assessments — to our ministers of what's going on. And so, of course, you know, I was furious that this had leaked and I realized instantly that it put my posting in jeopardy.

On standing by his judgments

I have said publicly several times since that, you know, I stand by my judgments ... I think it's been written a thousand times that this was a president who thrived on chaos and disruption and who didn't believe in, or didn't operate by, the normal processes and structures and norms, if you like, of the office. And, you know, whether you think he's done a great job, or that his record is more mixed, I think it's inarguable that he has stuck to that very unique style of conducting the presidency. ... So I kind of stand by my judgments, though I wish they had not become they had not become internationally famous.

On whether he knows who leaked the cables

I don't have suspicions based on any inside knowledge or facts or particular leads. You know, I'm not a detective. And the police, when I talked to them right at the start of the investigation, I didn't have any strong leads either. So it's all guesswork. It could have been someone ... who thought I was being strongly unfair to the president. It could have been because I was six months or so from the end of my term. So, you know, my time was running out. It could have been about who should succeed me, of trying to make sure that it was someone who had a political rather than a diplomatic background or who was strongly Brexit-supporting or whatever. But it's all guesswork.

On his decision to resign

I knew from the moment that the stuff leaked and the articles appeared that that [Trump] would respond — and I realized very quickly that this put my position in jeopardy. ...

As you know, that's his style. And so I wouldn't have known what particular words he would use, but I guessed it would be that sort of style. So this may sound surprising, but I wasn't surprised by it. I was a bit surprised by the second half of that tweet or one of the tweets about me, which carried on into an attack on the then-prime minister, Theresa May, and how she was handling Brexit, because I just wondered what prompted him to go on to that point in an attack on me. But no, I mean, it was you know, the words that really made a difference were — to my thinking — were we will "no longer deal with him." And I started to think, well, your job here as an ambassador depends on having the best channels to the highest level of the administration. And if you don't have those, then you can't really do the job — and this is such an important posting — that British interests need an ambassador who has the best possible contacts. So I started to think then the job had become, my position had become, untenable.

On the positive side, I have to say, this was one of the most fascinating periods in history. The combination of the election of Donald Trump as president and Brexit in the U.K. ... So it was a privilege to be here at that time. ... I wouldn't hide the fact that those were the four worst days of my career. And, you know, they're a distant memory now because we are 15 months on from that. But it was a pretty searing and difficult time. And I'm really glad that I resigned quickly rather than trying to hang on, because I think I would have had to leave sooner or later. And I think it would have been humiliating to sort of cling on and wait for stories in London saying I was about to be removed or whatever. So I feel it was the right decision to resign when I did, which was on the Wednesday — actually took the decision on Tuesday night — after the leaks.

On his U.S. presidential election predictions

Do you know when [Trump] won, there were lots of stories in 2016 — and a lot of stories in the British press — that no one had seen this coming. And as I recall in the book ... I wrote in February 2016, which I think was quite early before others were calling it, but I was certain that Trump would win the nomination. And given how unpopular Hillary Clinton seemed and given what I thought were some flaws in her as a candidate, I thought it was possible that Trump could win the presidency.

Now, look, [2020] is a really difficult one to call it for two reasons. Well, I think [it will be] Joe Biden or several reasons. Joe Biden has — he's in a stronger position than [Hillary Clinton] ... Joe Biden's lead [in the polls] seems to be both bigger and more stable. Second, Donald Trump ran as the absolute outsider in 2016, and he's now running with a record on which he can be attacked. So it's not like he can come with a completely clean slate and say — I've nothing to do with Washington, I'm going to clean up this mess and all of those things. So you have to say, I guess, that Joe Biden is the narrow favorite. And when I look at the English bookmakers, the British bookmakers, they all have Joe Biden as a very narrow favorite. But I'll tell you this, first of all, although national polls show a big lead, it's all about the battleground states. And I just noticed that his lead is smaller in the battleground states, and when the lead gets quite smaller, gets within the margin of error, and you start to wonder about it. Second, you still have the debates to come and you'll have 80 plus million Americans watching those debates. And some of them may take decisions on the basis of what they see. And I think Donald Trump is quite a hard guy to debate with for a whole range of reasons that we could discuss at length. ... I mean, yes, I think the bookmakers are right to say that Biden is a narrow favorite. But I tell people here — do not rule out a second term President Trump.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Worse things have been written about Donald Trump's White House, but when Kim Darroch described it as inept, deeply dysfunctional and added the president himself, quote, "radiated insecurity," international scandal ensued. Kim Darroch, you may recall, was Britain's ambassador to the United States. And when his frank assessment became public in the summer of 2019, he became persona non grata in Trump's Washington overnight. Darroch writes about the experience and many others during his three-plus years in Washington in a new book. It's titled "Collateral Damage." And he joins us now for his first U.S. broadcast interview. Ambassador, welcome.

KIM DARROCH: Thank you very much. It's great to be talking to you.

KELLY: Would you describe that moment when you learned that these cables - that, I'll note, you had written in 2017; you had intended only ever to be read by a small circle of colleagues - that they had, in fact, leaked and were about to be published in a British newspaper for the whole world to read?

DARROCH: Yeah, it was a horrible moment. It was a Friday in Washington, and we heard from London that one of the minister's private officers, one of the special advisers to the minister, had been tipped off by one of our Sunday newspapers that they had a sheaf of documents from Washington, from the embassy. And most of them were cables with quite a wide circulation. One was talking about a state visit. One was talking about the president's first rally, where he launched his 2020 election campaign.

KELLY: Normal diplomatic events and communications about them.

DARROCH: Yeah, exactly. But the one that kind of stopped me in my tracks was a letter I had written to, as you say, a tiny group of people in Whitehall, very senior people in Whitehall, as preparation for a senior-level ministerial discussion about relations with the new administration in the U.S. So, you know, I called it as I saw it. I mean, we are paid to give frank, clear assessments, confidential assessments, to our ministers of what's going on. I was furious that this had leaked, and I realized instantly that it put my post in jeopardy.

KELLY: Wow. The lead article - I say the lead article because The Mail on Sunday devoted page after page to this. But they highlighted one particular sentence of yours, which I will quote - "We don't really believe this administration, the Trump administration, is going to become substantially more normal, less dysfunctional, less unpredictable, less faction-riven, less diplomatically clumsy and inept." Were you wrong?

DARROCH: This was a president who thrived on chaos and disruption and who didn't believe in or didn't operate by normal processes and structures and norms, if you like, of the office. And whether you think he's done a great job or that his record is more mixed, I think it's kind of inarguable that he has stuck to that very unique style of conducting the presidency. And I think if you look at how many people have turned over in the White House - I think he's, what, on his fourth chief of staff and his seventh or eighth communications director - you know, and that's not how - what usually happens in the White House over a four-year term. So, you know, I kind of stand by my judgments, though I wish they had not become internationally famous (laughter).

KELLY: The president tweeted, quote, "We will no longer deal with him," him being you. He also called you a wacky ambassador, pompous and a very stupid guy. I just - what is it like to be on the receiving end of that from the president of the United States?

DARROCH: Well, as you know, (laughter) that's his style. So I wouldn't have known what particular words he would use, but I guessed it would be that sort of style. So this may sound surprising, but I wasn't surprised by it. You know, the words that really made a difference were, to my thinking, were - we will no longer deal with him. I started to think, well, your job here as an ambassador depends on having the best channels to the highest level of the administration, and if you don't have those, then you can't really do the job. This is such an important posting that it's, you know, in British interest. We need an ambassador who has the best possible contacts. So I started to think then that the job had become - my position had become untenable.

KELLY: I mean, I'm thinking of this episode and others that played out in your time. As we said, you came here in 2016, beginning of 2016. I met you. I worked with you while you were here in Washington. You were always very discreet, very careful, even off the record - the last person, in other words, who I would have expected to find at the center of a diplomatic scandal. How challenging is it, as a diplomat, dealing with this not always especially diplomatic administration?

DARROCH: I won't hide the fact that those were the four worst days of my career. But it was a pretty searing and difficult time, and I'm really glad that I resigned quickly, rather than trying to hang on because I think I would have had to leave sooner or later, and I think it would have been humiliating to sort of cling on and wait for stories in London saying I was about to be removed or whatever. So I figured it was the right decision to resign when I did.

KELLY: A big-picture question to put you at the end - as someone whose job was to really try to understand America from the inside, living here, and as someone who now has some distance - you're watching events in America unfold from across an ocean - do you believe America's best days lie ahead?

DARROCH: I think they can. They can lie ahead. My personal favorite passage in the book was describing a meeting in mid-career when Tony Lake and Dick Holbrooke came across through London on a tour to say they were going to try to deliver peace in Bosnia.

KELLY: Tony Lake and Richard Holbrooke, two top American diplomats at that period. Go on.

DARROCH: And I was the head of the Bosnian department at the time, and it was very contentious in U.K.-U.S. relations. And, you know, hundreds of thousands of people had died, and the Serbs were doing ethnic cleansing, and it was just a terrible thing to be happening in Europe - in Europe. And Tony Lake and Dick Holbrooke came across, and they said they had a mandate to hold a peace conference and try and reach a settlement. And Dick Holbrooke said, we hope you'll support us. We'd like you with us. But we're going to do this whatever you think because this is the moment, and we just, you know, can't see this going on in European any longer, and America has to take a lead.

And that internationalist America, trying to make the world a better place and trying to solve the world's problems and address the world's injustices, was inspiring even if it was quite an intimidating moment with Lake and Holbrooke setting this out. And that's the America I would like to see in the future, and I think, absolutely, you still have it in your genes and your DNA. You can do that again. Your diplomats and your negotiators and your politicians still have that capability, if that's where you choose to go.

KELLY: Sir Kim Darroch, thank you.

DARROCH: Thank you very much.

KELLY: He was Britain's ambassador to the U.S. from 2016 until last year. His book is titled "Collateral Damage: Britain, America, And Europe In The Age Of Trump."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.