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Donald Trump's new ambassador in Berlin: Who is Richard Grenell?

US President Donald Trump intends to nominate former UN spokesman Richard Grenell as his country’s ambassador to Germany, the White House has said. DW looks at what the choice could mean for Berlin-Washington relations.

The United States Embassy in Berlin stands in a prime location just next to the Brandenburg Gate, reflecting the country's role as one of the four powers considered to have liberated Germany at the end of World War II. Security guards are ever-present at the building's entrance, yet since John B. Emerson departed in January 2017, a new US ambassador to Germany has been missing. 

That appears set to change. The White House said on Friday that US President Donald Trump would nominate Richard "Ric" Grenell, a 50-year-old former Bush administration diplomatic aide and frequent commentator on the conservative news broadcaster Fox News,to the post. Grenell met with Trump on July 12 at the White House.

Grenell's nomination comes at a tricky time: Trump is looking to show signs of action on any political front as his domestic policies stall, and the relationship between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Trump is decidedly cool.

A 'foothold' in diplomacy

Under the Bush administration, Grenell was the Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy on the diplomatic team of four different US Ambassadors to the United Nations (UN) at a time when the US pursued a military-friendly "cowboy diplomacy" foreign policy. Key topics over the course of Grenell's tenure there included US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iranian and North Korean nuclear policy and the alleged involvement of Syria in Lebanese politics. 

UN Spokesperson Richard Grenell follows US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton

Grenell was a spokesman for hawkish US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton

That Trump did not nominate a political donor or business leader and that Grenell "at least has some footing" in the diplomatic community, even if he is not a career diplomat, is seen positively throughout Berlin, said Jan Techau, director of the Richard C. Holbrooke Forum for the Study of Diplomacy and Governance at the American Academy in Berlin. However, Techau pointed out he cannot speak in particular for the German government or diplomatic network.

Read more: US Senate confirms Trump's contentious pick for Israel Ambassador

A master of media

Grenell served as a political advisor and media spokesman for various Republican politicians and campaigns, including John McCain's 2000 bid for the presidency. In 2009, Grenell founded Capital Media Partners, a strategic international communications firm. He continues to be a frequent media commentator.

The communication skillset that Grenell has amassed will aide him immensely, Techau said, though he pointed out that Grenell will need to learn to navigate the unique German media landscape.

"The German media works slightly different than the American media. It is a very different culture. Different outlets matter here," explained Techau.

Much like his potential future boss, Grenell often takes to Twitter to pour criticism on media outlets and individual journalists, while occasionally adding a splash of praise - sometimes for the same outlet.

However, Grenell's Twitter trajectory has sometimes proven problematic. In 2012, Grenell's free-wheeling Twitter tendencies led to his resignation as the campaign foreign policy spokesman for then-Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney just weeks after being named the position. However, some media attributed the firing to pressure from socially conservative Republicans who objected to Grenell as the first openly-gay spokesman on a Republican presidential campaign.

Transatlantic challenges

When he stepped down from his role in the Romney campaign in 2012, Grenell's resignation message expressed his sadness at not being able to "confront President [Barack] Obama's foreign policy failures and weak leadership on the world stage." One of Obama's foreign policy legacies was a close relationship with Merkel, even in spite of the NSA spying scandal.

Now, more than six months of the Trump presidency has left Germany with both the feeling that it can no longer rely on the former solidity of the trans-Atlantic relationship and what Techau described as "a new wave of anti-Americanism in German public sentiment and publications."

Barack Obama and Angela Merkel in Berlin

Obama and Merkel had a close working relationship

A major challenge from day one for the future ambassador will be "representing a president here [in Germany] who is so unpopular," Techau said.

Beyond the image challenge, Techau thinks that, "Trade is the big issue that has the most potential to sour the relationship."

President Trump has accused Germany of unfairly running a trade surplus, thereby disadvantaging American industry and exports. If the White House ends up pursuing protectionist or retaliatory measures, such as increasing tariffs on imported goods, America's trade policy could become a revolving-door issue in Grenell's meetings with German officials and industry representatives. And it is an issue that Grenell has little expertise in, Techau pointed out.

All in all, Techau thinks Trump's reported nomination of Grenell sends a "mixed message" to the German government: he is at once both a "Trump loyalist" and "conservative foreign pundit" and a "real foreign policy person."

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