New US ambassador to Germany under fire for rightwing support

German politicians have criticised Donald Trump’s new ambassador to Germany after he said he wanted to “empower” anti-establishment rightwing forces throughout Europe.

In an interview with the far-right news outlet Breitbart over the weekend, Richard Grenell, who has been in office for less than a month, said: “I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders.

“I think there is a groundswell of conservative policies that are taking hold because of the failed policies of the left.”

In Berlin, the foreign ministry asked him to clarify the comments and politicians criticised him for a perceived breach of diplomatic protocol.

“In the past, Germany was fortunate to have had great US ambassadors who built bridges and did not do party politics,” said Metin Hakverdi‪, a Social Democrat delegate and member of the German-US parliamentary friendship group.

“As a member of the SPD, a left party with a long proud legacy of fighting, together with the United States, both Nazis and communists, I am irritated to hear from Ambassador Grenell about our allegedly failed policies.

“US Senator Chris Murphy said rightly that ambassadors are not supposed to ‘empower’ political parties. Ambassador Grenell is new on his post and I hope this irritation will not be repeated.”

Omid Nouripour, a Green MP and deputy chair of the German-US parliamentary friendship group, said: “The comments made by Richard Grenell give the impression that the new US ambassador still hasn’t adjusted to his new role. At least the Russians make an effort not to be seen to be meddling in other countries’ affairs.”

He added: “The US ambassador represents the American people, not just the readership of Breitbart. That’s why it is important that he conducts himself as neutrally as possible.”

A spokesperson for the German foreign ministry said on Monday that the government had asked Breitbart to confirm the authenticity of Grenell’s comments and that the US ambassador would be expected to “explain what he meant” during his first official visit to the foreign ministry on Thursday.

Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said the chancellor had registered the comments made by the US ambassador but would not comment on the matter.

At the White House, press secretary Sarah Sanders declined to address Grenell’s comments, saying she did not have “any updates on that front at this point”.

While the use of political appointees – candidates with little or no foreign or diplomatic experience to be an ambassador – is more common in America than in other countries, ambassadors tend to subscribe to an unwritten code of conduct according to which they must remain politically neutral. Their ambassadorial instructions, signed by the US secretary of state, usually remain private, however.

In 2013, Germany formally summoned the US ambassador over allegations that US secret services bugged Merkel’s mobile phone. The only time a US ambassador in Germany has been recalled to the US was in 1990, after the American embassy to East Germany ceased to exist.

“The question to ask is whether Grenell in his Breitbart interview was explaining the US government’s position, or that of the Republican party,” said James D Bindenagel, a deputy chief of mission in the German US embassy from 1994 to 1997.

“The latter is just not done. If he is saying that Trump is in fact seeking to deal with anti-establishment politicians in opposition rather than the German government, however, then that’s a whole new problem.”

In his Breitbart interview, Grenell did not voice support for the rightwing populist party Alternative für Deutschland, which has been a vocal critic of Merkel’s refugee policies and is the largest opposition group in the Bundestag.

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But he did express admiration for the Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, whose conservative Austrian People’s party governs in a coalition with the far-right FPÖ. “Look, I think Sebastian Kurz is a rock star,” he said. “I’m a big fan.”

On Sunday, Grenell attended a workshop on transatlantic relations with a number of younger delegates from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, organised by the health minister, Jens Spahn, a leading advocate of a rightwing realignment of the CDU.

  • Additional reporting by Ben Jacobs in Washington

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