Well of course Kim Darroch resigned.
The British ambassador to the United States didn’t really have any other choice, once his frank appraisals of President Trump were leaked to the press earlier this week. Trump reacted in childish fashion, naturally, with angry tweets and name-calling — but it is entirely proper that Darroch ended up quitting his job over the matter. Diplomats are supposed to be diplomatic, after all, and once their ability to do that has been compromised, well, it’s time to move on.
In other words, something unpleasant happened in Washington, D.C., this week. But for once, it’s not really Trump’s fault.
Trump might well be the worst president in U.S. history. Everything he touches seems to turn to mud. His immigration policy is needlessly cruel and counterproductive. His stance on climate change might well be disastrous. His tax cuts are bankrupting the nation’s treasury, his trade wars are bankrupting farmers, and the man himself often seems to relish his own moral bankruptcy. (We always knew that Trump was good at bankruptcies.) He praises tyrants. He profits from his office. He even tells dirty stories to Boy Scouts. He is bad in nearly every way it is possible for a president to be bad.
So letting Trump off the hook when something goes wrong feels like a strange departure. Indeed, the temptation is to treat Trump as the villain in nearly every story involving American politics. Often he is. Sometimes he isn’t. The temptation is magnified in this case because Darroch’s leaked appraisal of the president — in which he characterized Trump as “clumsy,” “insecure” and “inept” — rings so true.
Indeed, much of the blame for Darroch’s resignation was cast at Trump’s feet on Wednesday.
“For the United Kingdom’s next prime minister, it is obvious that flattery and sycophancy are not enough when dealing with Trump,” wrote Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution.
“Once again, Trump’s invective is directed at America’s democratic allies, as opposed to authoritarian adversaries,” added Peter Nicholas at The Atlantic.
“Trump’s entire foreign policy is based on his wounded feelings,” Windsor Mann said at USA Today.
The consensus was that Darroch lost his job for telling the truth.
But truth-telling is only part of an ambassador’s job — a part that depends very much on that truth being delivered in the proper time and the proper place to the proper people. Darroch was right to offer his candid assessment of Trump to his bosses. That’s where the dissemination of his honesty should have stopped. It is not his fault those assessments were leaked. It is not surprising, however, that when the leaks happened, they proved fatal to Darroch’s employment.
Ambassadors, after all, are supposed to represent the interests of their country. It’s a job that can involve flattery, cajoling, negotiating, wheedling, and all the other tools of persuasion. It is also a job that involves an unusual amount of discretion — and complete honesty only rarely. It is difficult to make the leaders of other countries amenable to your nation’s interests if those leaders know you have been calling them “clumsy” and “inept” behind their backs.
Darroch, to his credit, seemed to understand that. “The current situation,” he wrote in his resignation letter, “is making it impossible for me to carry out my role as I would like.”
Remember WikiLeaks’ 2010 disclosure of American diplomatic cables? Those similarly candid assessments from U.S. diplomats around the globe threw a wrench into international relations. “Diplomats spent years rebuilding trust with other governments,” NPR recently reported on the matter. “These cables wreaked havoc,” a retired diplomat told the network.
The Darroch affair isn’t much different from the WikiLeaks dump. Nobody really blamed world leaders and international governments then for being cranky about how U.S. diplomats assessed them. So why blame Trump now?
Yes, the president is vulnerable to criticism when it comes to foreign affairs, including relations with allies. He favors a two-fisted style himself, and his ambassadors haven’t always been diplomatic, either. It is also true that Trump is overly susceptible to flattery from world leaders, so it is especially noticeable when he is being thin-skinned. And it would be nice if he could just be above the fray once in awhile, like his predecessors often tried to be.
But it is important that Trump’s critics do not blame him for every negative occurrence during his presidency. For one thing, doing so would simply not be accurate. It also could make those critics look like the boys who cried wolf, compromising their credibility on more important matters.
The leak of Kim Darroch’s memos, though, would’ve been disruptive in any presidency. Indeed, they were probably leaked precisely to be disruptive. The leak would have played out to similar results — and ended with a similar resignation — no matter who occupied the White House. This scandal happened on Trump’s watch, but for once, it isn’t really Trump’s fault.