Diplomats scramble to contain outrage over Trump's remarks
Jan. 12, 2018
WASHINGTON (AP) — American diplomats scrambled Friday to salvage their nation's bonds with Africa, Haiti and even the celebrated "special relationship" with Britain after President Donald Trump, in the span of a few hours, deeply offended much of the world with the most undiplomatic of remarks.
Trump's description of African nations as a "shithole" and other inflammatory comments became the latest and perhaps most direct test of whether America's global partnership can withstand its president's loose lips. In Washington and far-flung foreign capitals, U.S. officials launched into urgent cleanup mode.
As world leaders denounced the comments as racist, Trump's ambassadors to Botswana and Senegal were both summoned to explain his remark, as was the top U.S. diplomat in Haiti, where there is no ambassador, State Department officials said. In addition to the Africa slur, Trump during a meeting Thursday with lawmakers questioned why the U.S. would need more Haitian immigrants.
The White House, too, was reeling from the fallout. Staffers fanned out to do television appearances in support of Trump and reached out to Republicans on Capitol Hill to coordinate damage control.
Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein, in charge of U.S. public diplomacy, said Trump has the right to "make whatever remark he chooses," calling it the benefit of being president. He said Trump's comments notwithstanding, it was diplomats' obligation to send the message to other countries that the United States cares "greatly about the people that are there."
"Will they have to work extra hard to send it today? Yes, they will, but that's OK," Goldstein said. "That's part of the responsibility that they have. It doesn't change what we do."
But how does anyone — even a seasoned diplomat — explain to a foreign leader why the U.S. president would use such a demeaning epithet to describe their country? What could they say to keep the relationship on track?
State Department officials said they were advising diplomats to prepare to get an earful, and to focus on listening to and acknowledging those countries' concerns. Rather than try to interpret or soften Trump's remarks, diplomats were encouraged to focus on specific areas where the two countries are cooperating — trade, for example — and to emphasize that those tangible aspects of the relationship transcend anything the president did or didn't say, said the officials, who weren't authorized to disclose private conversations and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
"I think you just have to take it. It's almost impossible for diplomats to say something that would make an African government feel better," said Grant Harris, who ran Africa policy at the White House under former President Barack Obama. "So you say the U.S. government is committed to being a strong partner and that actions speak louder than words.
"The problem is, for many other administrations, the actions spoke more loudly," Harris added.
There was at least as much at stake in the president's jab at the United Kingdom — perhaps the most important U.S. relationship. Facing protests during an upcoming trip to London to open the new U.S. embassy, Trump canceled his visit and said on Twitter it was to protest the "bad deal" the Obama administration reached for the new embassy building. In fact, President George W. Bush's administration announced the embassy would move because of unsolvable security concerns about the old one.
Trump ignored shouted questions about his Africa comment and about whether he's a racist during an event Friday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. But he wasn't silent the night before.
As his comments, disclosed by participants in the meeting, ricocheted around the world, Trump made calls to friends and outside advisers to judge their reaction to the tempest, said a person who spoke to Trump but wasn't authorized to discuss a private conversation.
He wasn't apologetic, the person said. Instead, Trump blamed the media for distorting his meaning, arguing his description of "shithole" was not racist but rather a straightforward assessment of some nations' depressed conditions. Trump also said he believed he was expressing what many people think, according to the person.
The long-term damage to America's global relationships was difficult to predict. But foreign policy experts agreed it could only further alienate the United States at a time when many nations already see the U.S. as a less reliable partner than in the past.
In Africa, where the U.S. has long enjoyed widespread popularity, it was possible that countries would ultimately decide they have little recourse other than lodging angry complaints. After all, many of those nations rely on military and economic assistance from Washington. Haiti, though geographically close to the U.S. and historically intertwined, is not a major diplomatic player or key partner for trade, counterterrorism or other top priorities.
Ambassador James Jeffrey, the former U.S. envoy to Turkey and Iraq under Bush, said the ramifications of Trump's remarks extended far beyond the countries he insulted. He said the "shithole" comment, in particular, would rattle European nations who fear a return to the xenophobic world view that devastated the continent during World War II.
"Where this is going to hurt us is with the Europeans when we turn to them for other things that require a you-just-have-to-trust-us kind of thing, like right now on Iran," Jeffrey said. "It makes it very hard for them to go out on a limb with things he's asking them to do."
Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP and Jonathan Lemire at http://twitter.com/JonLemire