U.S. diplomats scrambled Friday to salvage their nation’s bonds with Africa, Haiti and even the celebrated “special relationship” with Britain after President Donald Trump, in the span of a few hours, deeply offended much of the world with the most undiplomatic of remarks.
Trump’s description of African nations as a “shithole” and other inflammatory comments became the latest and perhaps most direct test of whether America’s global partnership can withstand its president’s loose lips. In Washington and far-flung foreign capitals, U.S. officials launched into urgent cleanup mode.
As world leaders denounced the comments as racist, Trump’s ambassadors to Botswana and Senegal were both summoned to explain his remark, as was the top U.S. diplomat in Haiti, where there is no ambassador, State Department officials said. In addition to the Africa slur, Trump during a meeting Thursday with lawmakers questioned why the U.S. would need more Haitian immigrants.
The White House, too, was reeling from the fallout. Staffers fanned out to do television appearances in support of Trump and reached out to Republicans on Capitol Hill to co-ordinate damage control.
Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein, in charge of U.S. public diplomacy, said Trump has the right to “make whatever remark he chooses,” calling it the benefit of being president. He said Trump’s comments notwithstanding, it was diplomats’ obligation to send the message to other countries that the United States cares “greatly about the people that are there.”
“Will they have to work extra hard to send it today? Yes, they will, but that’s OK,” Goldstein said. “That’s part of the responsibility that they have. It doesn’t change what we do.”
Shock and disgust
African leaders have expressed shock and disgust at Trump’s comment.
The chairman of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, calls the remarks “unfortunate” and says he is “all the more dismayed as the USA is a unique example of how migration contributes to nation-building based on values of diversity, tolerance and opportunity.”
Botswana’s government called Trump’s comment “reprehensible and racist” and summoned the U.S. ambassador to explain.
South Africa’s ruling African National Congress called Trump’s comments “extremely offensive.” Deputy Secretary General Jessie Duarte said developing countries do have difficulties, but the United States has millions of people out of work or without health care, and “we would not deign to make comments as derogatory.”
The U.S. Embassy in South Africa says the United States “deeply respects the people of Africa” as President Donald Trump’s remark about immigrants from Africa causes outrage across the continent.
The U.S. embassy says on Twitter “there has been no change in our dedication to partners and friends across the continent.”
In Kenya, East Africa’s economic hub, political activist Boniface Mwangi pleaded: “Please don’t confuse the #shithole leaders we Africans elect with our beautiful continent.”
Please don’t confuse the #shithole leaders we Africans elect with our beautiful continent. Our leaders are shit like dotard Trump. Our motherland is the most blessed continent that has been raped by imperialists in collaboration with our shitty misleaders for generations. pic.twitter.com/hJVYYo0VlC
What could diplomats say?
But how does anyone — even a seasoned diplomat — explain to a foreign leader why the U.S. president would use such a demeaning epithet to describe their country? What could they say to keep the relationship on track?
State Department officials said they were advising diplomats to prepare to get an earful, and to focus on listening to and acknowledging those countries’ concerns. Rather than try to interpret or soften Trump’s remarks, diplomats were encouraged to focus on specific areas where the two countries are co-operating — trade, for example — and to emphasize that those tangible aspects of the relationship transcend anything the president did or didn’t say, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to disclose private conversations and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
“I think you just have to take it. It’s almost impossible for diplomats to say something that would make an African government feel better,” said Grant Harris, who ran Africa policy at the White House under former President Barack Obama. “So you say the U.S. government is committed to being a strong partner and that actions speak louder than words.
“The problem is, for many other administrations, the actions spoke more loudly,” Harris added.
There was at least as much at stake in the president’s jab at the United Kingdom — perhaps the most important U.S. relationship.
Facing protests during an upcoming trip to London to open the new U.S. embassy, Trump cancelled his visit and said on Twitter it was to protest the “bad deal” the Obama administration reached for the new embassy building. In fact, President George W. Bush’s administration announced the embassy would move because of unsolvable security concerns about the old one.
‘Insult before humanity’
A senior Trump administration official also said the top U.S. diplomat in Haiti had been summoned to meet with Haiti’s president to explain Trump’s remarks about immigrants.
Former Canadian governor general Michaëlle Jean, who was born in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, called Trump’s reported remarks “disturbing” and an “insult before humanity.”
Many Norwegians were also baffled to be the subject of the president’s backhanded compliment.
Henrik Heldahl, a commentator for the Amerikansk Politikk website, said the sentiment about Norway might have been welcomed without the rest of the statement. “But the way he said it guarantees that the reaction here will be very negative.”
Rupert Colville, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that if confirmed, “these are shocking and shameful comments from the president of the United States. Sorry, but there is no other word one can use but ‘racist.'”
Full transcript and video of UN human rights reaction to Trump’s reported ‘shithole’ remarks here https://t.co/LwJxBueUrF
The long-term damage to America’s global relationships was difficult to predict. But foreign policy experts agreed it could only further alienate the United States at a time when many nations already see the U.S. as a less reliable partner than in the past.
In Africa, where the U.S. has long enjoyed widespread popularity, it was possible that countries would ultimately decide they have little recourse other than lodging angry complaints. After all, many of those nations rely on military and economic assistance from Washington. Haiti, though geographically close to the U.S. and historically intertwined, is not a major diplomatic player or key partner for trade, counterterrorism or other top priorities.
Ambassador James Jeffrey, the former U.S. envoy to Turkey and Iraq under Bush, said the ramifications of Trump’s remarks extended far beyond the countries he insulted. He said the “shithole” comment, in particular, would rattle European nations who fear a return to the xenophobic world view that devastated the continent during World War II.
“Where this is going to hurt us is with the Europeans when we turn to them for other things that require a you-just-have-to-trust-us kind of thing, like right now on Iran,” Jeffrey said. “It makes it very hard for them to go out on a limb with things he’s asking them to do.”