It was summer 2017, and Britain’s National Security Council was convening to discuss a problem. President Trump had been in office for 150 days, and Prime Minister Theresa May and her Cabinet colleagues were still struggling to get a handle on his chaotic Administration. They needed advice.
At his desk in his splendid official residence in Washington DC, the British Ambassador, Sir Kim Darroch was trying to help. Britain’s National Security Adviser Sir Mark Sedwill had asked him to put together some thoughts on the President’s personality and leadership style, and he was compiling a briefing note.
Copied to a ‘strictly limited’ number of senior figures in Downing Street and the Foreign Office, it ran to six pages of highly unflattering observations about the President’s character and political record.
In the confidential memo – marked ‘Official Sensitive’ – the UK’s most important diplomat accused Trump of ‘radiating insecurity’, filling his speeches with ‘false claims and invented statistics’ and achieving ‘almost nothing’ in terms of domestic policy.
Earlier, Sedwill had sent Sir Kim an outline presentation for the meeting. Sir Kim thought the slides ‘looked good’. There was just one point he felt he needed to correct: ‘My only disagreement with the slides: I don’t think this Administration will ever look competent,’ he declared.
It was an extraordinarily damning assessment. The problem was that Ministers and diplomats had to find a way to deal with the President.
Sir Kim highlighted how America was still the UK’s No 1 security partner and the ‘cultural and historical ties’ between the two countries were ‘profound’. The UK needed America: as an export market; for defence and intelligence cooperation; and for a post-Brexit trade deal.
‘The starting point is that this is our single most important bilateral relationship,’ Sir Kim wrote.
But he added: ‘As seen from here, we really don’t believe that this Administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional, less unpredictable, less faction-riven, less diplomatically clumsy and inept.’
He therefore compiled a three-point guide for how Britain’s politicians and officials should handle this most unpredictable of Presidents. His first suggestion was to ‘flood the zone’, which meant influencing as many of the President’s key advisers as possible.
Sir Kim said Trump spends his days in the Oval Office asking his White House team, Cabinet members and senior Republicans for their opinions ‘on the business of the moment’.
But, crucially, the diplomat also highlighted how the President spends his evenings phoning his friends outside the administration ‘seeking reinforcement or a different take’. Many of these friends have been ‘cultivated’ by the British, Sir Kim boasted.
‘It’s important to ‘flood the zone’: you want as many as possible of those who Trump consults to give him the same answer,’ he wrote. ‘So we need to be creative in using all the channels available to us through our relationships with his Cabinet, the White House staff, and our contacts among his outside friends.’
Sir Kim’s second recommendation was for Theresa May to call Trump more often, stressing ‘there is no consistently reliable substitute for the personal phone call from the Prime Minister’.
‘The President respects and likes her,’ he added. ‘I know they have already talked several times. But in a perfect world, they would be speaking two or three times a month, if not more.’
The diplomat’s third pointer was to urge Britain’s politicians and officials to use flattery and to pander to the President’s ego when they come into contact with him.
‘You need to start praising him for something that he’s done recently,’ he advised. ‘You need whenever possible to present them as wins for him.’ In comments which could be viewed as highly patronising, Sir Kim also advised his bosses to make their points ‘simple’ and ‘even blunt’, adding: ‘as a senior White House adviser told me, there is no upside with this President in being subtle, let alone ambiguous.’
His stark assessment reveals the scale of concern at the highest level in the British Government about Trump. By summer 2017, the President had torn up the Paris climate change accord; junked key international trade agreements and launched military strikes against Syria. Western allies were reeling: he didn’t seem to care who he upset.
But while Trump was making waves on the world stage, his domestic programme was getting nowhere, Sir Kim said.
The President’s big election pledges – building a wall between the US and Mexico; stopping Muslims from certain countries coming to America and reforming tax and healthcare – had all hit the buffers.
‘Of the main campaign promises, not an inch of the Wall has been built; the executive orders on travel bans from Muslim countries have been blocked by the state courts; tax reform and the infrastructure package have been pushed into the middle distance; and the repeal and replacement of Obamacare is on a knife edge,’ Sir Kim wrote. The Ambassador ‘wouldn’t bet a tenner’ on Trump’s health proposals passing through the Senate.
Sir Kim’s confidential letter, sent to Sedwill, who is now also the Cabinet Secretary, on June 22, 2017, is unsparing in its assessment of the President’s personality flaws and the chaos of his administration.
In language that is likely to prove highly embarrassing for Sir Kim, the Ambassador declared: ‘For a man who has risen to the highest office on the planet, President Trump radiates insecurity.’
He highlighted how the Administration had been ‘dogged from day one by stories of vicious infighting and chaos inside the White House, and swamped by scandals – all, one way or another, linked to Russia.’
And while the President would deride media stories about such chaos as ‘fake news’, Sir Kim privately advised his bosses in London to believe what they were reading in the newspapers. ‘The stories about White House knife fights are, we judge, mostly true: multiple sources and confirmed by our own White House contacts. This is a uniquely dysfunctional environment.’ He warned Whitehall to be braced for more presidential outbursts including the use of ‘immoderate, sometimes offensive, language’, like his attacks on London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
‘There is no filter,’ Darroch advised. ‘And we could also be at the beginning of a downward spiral, rather than just a rollercoaster: something could emerge that leads to disgrace and downfall.’
But while warning Whitehall that Trump’s White House could collapse under the weight of scandal, he also urged the British Government not to write Trump off.
The President, he noted, has been mired in scandal most of his life but has always survived.
Sir Kim drew a parallel with The Terminator, a 1984 science fiction film featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a cyborg that is almost impossible to destroy.
‘Trump may emerge from the flames, battered but intact, like Schwarzenegger in the final scenes of The Terminator.’
Looking to the future, Sir Kim warned ‘there are real risks on the horizon’ and that Trump ‘will do or say things we oppose’.
‘This ‘America First’ Administration could do some profoundly damaging things to the world trade system: such as denounce the WTO, tear up existing trade details, launch protectionist action, even against allies. It could further undermine international action on climate change, or further cut UN funding.’ He said that Trump’s ‘spontaneous’ missile strike on a Syrian airbase in April 2017 had won him ‘the best headlines of his brief time in the Oval Office’ but warned that ‘a less well judged military intervention is not inconceivable.’
In the face of the chaos, Sir Kim highlighted how German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Emmanuel Macron, were busy distancing themselves from Trump. But Sir Kim warned London: ‘I don’t think we should follow them.’
He admitted it could be rocky, but suggested that sometimes it might make sense to criticise the President, ‘provided we are careful’. Sir Kim added: ‘Arguably, you get more respect from this President if you stand up to him occasionally – provided the public comments do not come as a surprise and are judicious, calm and avoid personalising.’
Today he may regret that his confidential memo does not meet that test.
Indeed, last night, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, a friend of the President, called for Sir Kim to leave his post, saying: ‘The sooner he is gone the better.’