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Staunch Trump ally Richard Grenell to end tumultuous tenure as U.S. Ambassador to Germany

Berlin — U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, a staunch ally of President Donald Trump, is to resign from his post after two years that have seen transatlantic relations strained in a way they haven't been for decades. Grenell, who has also served as acting U.S. Director of National Intelligence since February, implicitly confirmed his pending return to the U.S. in a series of tweets thanking people for their well wishes.

The 53-year-old will formally resign his diplomatic post in the next few weeks, according to the German Press Agency. His official duties in Berlin are likely to be taken over temporarily by Robin Quinville, who's been an envoy at the embassy since July 2018, the news agency said.

Many in Germany may welcome the departure of a diplomat who espoused Mr. Trump's own blunt style so thoroughly.

In an interview aired Sunday by Sinclair Broadcast Group TV stations in the U.S., Mr. Trump praised Grenell for his work as acting intelligence director. That work included some contentious personnel changes that chaffed many in the American intelligence community, which Grenell had virtually no experience in before being tapped as acting DNI.

"Richard Grenell is a superstar. He had guts, he had courage to do what he did. Richard Grenell has done one of the best jobs I've ever seen," said Mr. Trump.

There's speculation that Grenell may now be asked to join Mr. Trump's re-election campaign, or possibly be tapped for some other senior role within the administration.

Mr. Trump surprised many when he called Grenell to Washington in February to temporarily take over as DNI, while continuing as the top American diplomat in Berlin. But now that job has been filled on a formal basis: Congressman John Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican and another strong supporter of Mr. Trump, will be sworn into the role this week after a strictly partisan Senate confirmation process.

The U.S. Embassy in Berlin has declined to comment on Grenell's future plans.

"They will resent instructions."

While he remained on good terms with Health Minister Jens Spahn, Grenell made few other friends in Berlin. Among Germany's political establishment, the man from Michigan quickly gained a reputation as a relatively undiplomatic diplomat.

There have been sporadic demands from Germany's opposition to declare him persona non grata in the country, and while Chancellor Angela Merkel's government always resisted, it voiced scant support for the ambassador.

U.S. Ambassador Grenell At Berlin 4th Of July
U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell attends the 4th of July party hosted by the U.S. Embassy at former Tempelhof Airport on July 4, 2019 in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup/Getty

Wolfgang Kubicki, Vice President of the German Parliament, at one point said Grenell was acting, "as if the United States were still an occupying power here."

After just one month on the job, Grenell shocked many in Germany, and beyond, by voicing support for Europe's right-wing political movements in an interview with Breitbart.

"I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders," Grenell told the website previously run by Steve Bannon. "I think there is a groundswell of conservative policies that are taking hold because of the failed policies of the left."

He presented himself as a "big fan" of Austria's then-chancellor Sebastian Kurz, a right-wing conservative who gained support with his calls for limits on immigration to Austria and Europe more broadly.

In the world of international diplomacy, such public support for one political faction over another is something of a rarity.

Grenell dismissed accusations that he was interfering in Germany's internal affairs as "absurd," but his overt pressure on Berlin on a number of contentious topics strained ties between the allies:

  • Iran: Shortly after his appointment as ambassador in May 2018, Grenell warned German companies against working with Iran - as they had long done and as Germany and other EU nations tried to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive - as the Trump administration ratcheted up its "maximum pressure" campaign against the Islamic Republic.
  • Defense: Grenell threatened to have U.S. troops withdrawn from Germany, a major NATO ally, over what the Trump administration said was inadequate spending by the German government on its own military.
  • Nord Stream 2: The ambassador threatened Germany with sanctions over its cooperation with Moscow on a new gas pipeline to deliver Russian natural gas straight to western Germany. "Companies involved in Russian energy exports are taking part in something that could prompt a significant risk of sanctions," he said.
  • Huawei: Grenell repeatedly demanded that Germany exclude Chinese telecom giant Huawei from building the next generation, 5G mobile phone network in the country.

His repeated, public forays into Germany's domestic affairs drew some unsolicited advice from a former German Ambassador to the U.S.

"Explain your own country's policies, and lobby the host country, but never tell the host country what to do, if you want to stay out of trouble," said Wolfgang Ischinger, a former ambassador who is now chairman of the Munich Security Conference. "Germans are eager to listen, but they will resent instructions."

So what might Grenell's departure mean for transatlantic relations? 

Many in Berlin will breathe a sigh of relief. But there's now the possibility of another long period without a U.S. Ambassador in Berlin. It's unlikely the post will be filled before the U.S. presidential election in November, and even after that it could take some time.

Before Grenell was accredited in Berlin two years ago, the post went vacant for 15 months - the longest stretch since the end of World War II.

But as far as Grenell is concerned, one thing is clear: U.S. "pressure" on Germany isn't about to let up with his departure. 

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