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Fallout from leaked memos about Trump prompts UK ambassador to resign

Sir Kim Darroch, British ambassador to the United States since 2016, has resigned after diplomatic memos in which he criticized President Trump were leaked. Although Prime Minister Theresa May and other UK politicians expressed support for Darroch, Boris Johnson, the frontrunner to replace May, did not. Meanwhile, Trump volleyed insults back. Judy Woodruff talks to Ambassador Peter Westmacott.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was unvarnished and direct diplomatic analysis from one-half of what's known as the special relationship. And it was never meant to be public.

    In a series of what we're supposed to be secret diplomatic cables back to London published last weekend, Sir Kim Darroch, Britain's ambassador to the U.S., variously described President Trump and his White House as — quote — "insecure, inept and incompetent."

    A few days later, President Trump said the feeling was mutual.

  • President Donald Trump:

    The ambassador has not served the U.K. well. I can tell you that. We're not big fans of that man. And he has not served the U.K. well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just yesterday, the president tweeted that Darroch is — quote — "a very stupid guy" and again criticized British Prime Minister Theresa May for her handling of Brexit negotiations.

    But the final straw came last night, when Boris Johnson, the front-runner in the race to replace Theresa May, refused to say that he wouldn't fire Darroch as ambassador.

    Hours later, Darroch, who has been Britain's ambassador to the U.S. since 2016, resigned. In a letter, he wrote: "The current situation is making it impossible for me to carry out my role as I would like."

    Today, British Prime Minister Theresa May expressed support for Darroch.

  • Theresa May:

    Sir Kim has given a lifetime of service to the United Kingdom. And we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. Good government depends on public servants being able to give full and frank advice.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, earlier today, Johnson seemed to backtrack.

  • Question:

    You weren't going to back him. You said last night you weren't going to back him.

  • Boris Johnson:

    No, on the contrary. My view is, it's wrong to drag civil servants into the political arena. That's what I think.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now the view of this diplomatic rift from Sir Peter Westmacott, who, among his postings as a British ambassador and diplomat, served as Kim Darroch's predecessor here in Washington from 2012 to 2016.

    Sir Peter Westmacott, welcome back to the program.

    Did Ambassador Darroch have to step down today?

  • Peter Westmacott:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Did the ambassador have to…

  • Peter Westmacott:

    It seems to me that it was his choice. It was his choice to do so.

    He wasn't recalled. He wasn't asked to resign. But I think that he had concluded that the pressures on his family and his ability to do the job, because he was being frozen out of access to the White House, for the time being anyway, and perhaps the final straw, as you put it, of noticing that person most likely to be the next British prime minister wasn't going to back him on television last night, made him feel, I think it's probably best if I stand aside, and we resolve this by somebody else being appointed to take my place.

    So, did he have to go? No. It was his choice. Personally, I regret it, because I don't think an ambassador doing an excellent job should be drummed out of office for doing nothing wrong.

    But I think it was his decision, as I say.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What does it say, though, that Boris Johnson, who is seen as the front-runner, the favorite to win, the race for prime minister, didn't vigorously stand by him?

  • Peter Westmacott:

    I think it takes us straight into domestic politics, which are frankly a bit of a mess at the moment.

    We have had three years going around in circles trying to work out how to make Brexit happen. And we are also now in the middle of a leadership contest for the Conservative Party which is going to determine who the next prime minister is after Theresa May.

    Boris Johnson, front-runner, but needs the support of the right-wing, hard-line Brexiteers within his party when the votes are cast in the coming days.

    And I think that part of this is that Kim Darroch has been accused of being soft on Brexit, of a pro-European, and so on. So I think Boris Johnson wasn't going to support the ambassador unequivocally.

    The second point is that he thinks he's got a close relationship with Donald Trump. And he thinks that's going to be important when he becomes prime minister, if he becomes prime minister, and that this may be the key to making a success of Brexit with nice new trade deals.

    So I suspect it was partly that he wasn't going to get on the wrong side of the president. This morning, asked about it, he seemed to be taking another view. There was, after all, very strong support in Parliament for Kim Darroch, for the position he'd been left in, and I think for the principled way in which he decided to resign and stand aside for the public good.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is it significant, though, that in terms of, overall, what Boris Johnson did, that he seems to be deferring to the United States, deferring to President Trump's wishes?

  • Peter Westmacott:

    I think that we need to keep in mind, what is this all about?

    This is about a totally improper and probably illegal leak of some sensitive communications. That's the heart of it. And then it's also, I would say, in part, about a very sharp perhaps overreaction from the president.

    One day's tweets is one thing, but two and three days of it, and very rude remarks about Trump — about Kim Darroch and about Theresa May, much ruder than things he said about a number of other heads of governments and representatives of other governments who have behaved far, far worse, if I might say so, I think that is a part of it.

    The Boris Johnson part of it is, in a sense, a sideline. But I think what we have seen is an indication of the importance he attaches to getting everybody to support him within the Conservative Party when they vote for the new leader of that party. That's what it's about.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there informed guessing, speculation or solid reporting right now in London as to how these sensitive secret cables were made public?

  • Peter Westmacott:

    Yes, there's a great deal, Judy. It's pretty unprecedented, not totally. You have had WikiLeaks dumping lots of cables in the United States.

    We have had people from time to time making public documents that shouldn't be made public. And some of these were quite sensitive, but they were not earth-shattering. One senior member of the United States Senate said to me yesterday, this seems to me to be reporting based on a typical British understatement.

  • Peter Westmacott:

    So, I think there was nothing there that was tremendously liable to cause offense.

    So, I think that's what — that's what Kim was doing. Who did it? Who caused the leak? We don't know. There's an inquiry taking place at the moment.

    It looks as though he's being caught up in this battle for the future of the Conservative Party and the battle about whether professionals should still be in charge of key negotiations representing the British government, or whether there should be more political appointments, because there is gossip that one of the reasons why this was done was to get Kim out of the job, to stop any ordinary other diplomat, somebody like me, getting a job in his place, and ensure that there was a pro-Trump, pro-Brexit politician installed in his place.

    But, at the moment, we honestly don't know. That's why the inquiry is so important.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And finally, just quickly, as a former — as a diplomat, do you — is this episode going to make it less likely that diplomats are going to be willing to speak candidly in their communications back to their own governments?

  • Peter Westmacott:

    I think that is a real risk.

    To be honest, we have seen this before. After WikiLeaks and after one or two other leaks which have been made over the last few years, I have noticed colleagues of mine feeling that they better be very wary of what they commit to print, rather than what they say in person or sometimes over a secure telephone.

    I'm hoping that this inquiry will get to the bottom of it, and will show that this was a one-off caused by some political — political stratagem or maneuver, and that it doesn't become a symptom of a different culture, which means that officials cannot do their jobs, cannot tell truth to power, cannot tell honestly what they think is going on in the countries where they are based, if they are diplomats.

    Because I think, if this is part of a new culture, rather than a one-off, then it certainly will, as you suggest, make people less willing to do their jobs properly. And they will be of much less value to the governments that they represent abroad.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sir Peter Westmacott, the former British ambassador to the United States, thank you.

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