‘There’ll be some bumps in the road and we’ll have to adjust policy, but there won’t be a trade war’: Exclusive interview with U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell


KCRW Berlin met with Ambassador Richard Grenell on Tuesday, May 29. Listen to our interview or read the full text below.

Jennifer Wolfe: You’re listening to KCRW Berlin, I’m Jennifer Wolfe. This week, KCRW Berlin had a chance to meet the new U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell. Ambassador Grenell stopped by our studio in Berlin to talk about the current status of transatlantic relations, the Iran nuclear deal, and North Korea. He also gave us some personal insight into his new life in Berlin.

KCRW Berlin reporters Sylvia Cunningham and Monika Müller-Kroll talked to Ambassador Grenell.

Monika Müller-Kroll: As Berlin’s English language radio station, our audience comprises not just Americans, but people from all over the world who share English as a common language. And to many of our listeners, President Trump represents a new American approach to foreign policy that they are not necessarily comfortable with. What does the president mean when he says he wants to “Make America Great Again”?

Ambassador Richard Grenell: You know, I think what you have to do is you have to go back and look at candidate Trump and what he tried to do in the campaign, which for me was very exciting because I’ve waited a long time to have a president that would take on Republicans and take on Democrats, both, and really forge a new way. And that’s exactly what he did. I mean, remember – all of the political experts, all of the political elites, told us that you cannot win a Republican primary by doing that, by going after the policies of George W. Bush, or of Mitt Romney. They said that it was gonna be a recipe for disaster, especially in the Republican primary. And candidate Trump won the nomination. And then he turned his sights on kind of the policies of the Democrats, and was able to take on both political parties.When the entire political establishment, the entire kind of political reporting elites all said not only would Donald Trump lose, but that he would lose big and instead he won big. You look at the electoral college, and he won decisively. So I really think that we have yet to have the elites – the political elites – really be self-reflective about what happened. Why did they miss it so much? How did they miss this phenomenon? And I think that the answer is that the silent majority is moving to the forefront and that the elites on all sorts of levels, whether it’s the economy or in academia or in the media, are suggesting to the public that they lead the public. And I think that many of these industries, many of these elites, are beginning to lose their leadership positions because the silent majority is no longer listening to them.

Sylvia Cunningham: Can you get more specific with the idea of the silent majority? Is there a picture that you could paint of what that looks like or who that is?

RG: I think it’s the people who showed up in the voting booth and who were missed. I mean, I don’t think it’s rocket science. I don’t think it’s really that deep. I think it is the majority of people who are really working hard, who are really busy, who are focused on working enough overtime to take their kids on vacation once a year, and they get to go on vacation if they work enough overtime or if they save, or if they sacrifice in some other way, then they can maybe fly instead of drive to on vacation – that’s the way I grew up. And I think that’s the way the majority of people are. They don’t – most people are living paycheck to paycheck with just a little bit of money in the bank, and that money goes to, you know, their kids, or kids’ savings because schools are getting expensive. So those people who are so busy that they’re not able to sit in a chatroom and click and comment on political stories all day. That, to me, is the silent majority.

SC: You were a supporter of President Trump – of candidate Trump – from the very beginning. Did you have people in your circles who were surprised? Did you ever have to defend your choice of candidate?

RG: Sure, I had to do that with George Bush and Mitt Romney and all of the candidates that I ever support. There’s always people – and look, I love that because I usually live in a world that’s very different. It’s not, you know, I don’t live amongst people who are all the same. And I also think that my group of friends and family who disagree on politics – we don’t talk about politics a lot. I think that’s also the silent majority, the real people in the world. They’re not sitting around kind of debating politics all the time. They are debating issues. And I think coming from California, especially coming from Southern California – such a benefit to come from California, not from Washington, D.C. where, you know, in Washington, D.C., everybody talks about politics constantly. Even when you don’t want to talk about politics, you got to pick a side. And in the real world, and in Southern California I would count in the real world, even though it’s beautiful and the weather’s not the real world, we’re able to have smart conversations about issues, and it not be always partisan politics. And so I want to get beyond that too. And I think already what I’ve heard the last couple of weeks here is, you know, everyday Germans are really hungry for that as well. They don’t want everything to be partisan politics: they want to talk about issues. And also, nobody fits into a perfect box anymore. I certainly don’t.

JW: You’ve heard Richard Grenell, the new U.S. Ambassador to Germany. When we come back, our conversation continues about the Ambassador’s start in Berlin. Stay tuned to KCRW Berlin on 104.1 FM.


JW: Hi, I’m Jennifer Wolf. You’re listening to KCRW Berlin on 104,1 FM. We return now to our interview with U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell. He started his tenure in the beginning of May, just as President Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. Upon the ambassador’s arrival to Berlin, he tweeted Germany should immediately wind down all business operations in Iran. This tweet earned him quite a bit of criticism from the German public and some politicians, who felt like it was an order. But Grenell told reporters Sylvia Cunningham and Monika Müller-Kroll that wasn’t his intention.

RG: Because I was really presenting it as a moral question. What I said is that you should. You should wind down, or you should not do business with the mullahs. And that’s what we believe and that’s what the U.S. policy is. So it’s not a directive. Businesses get to choose. But again – they get to choose. Either they’re going to do business in a very small market of Iran or they’re going to choose to do business in a very large market of the United States. And by the way, businesses across Germany have already told us, there’s no question there. We’re always going to choose the United States in that scenario.

MMK: What do you think is going to happen? Do you think there could be a compromise or is that off the table?

RG: No, I think you’ve got to look differently at this issue. And if you look at EU three statements from the foreign ministers about the Iran deal, I was very encouraged. Because although they say in their – well, we think the JCPOA and the Iran deal is the way to go – further down, and a lot of people didn’t read further down, but further down in that statement, they agree with the United States that Iran is a serious threat. And they agree that the ballistic missile technology is a serious threat. They believe that Iran has been bullying in the region and supporting terrorism. Where we disagree is that the EU three believes that the JCPOA will solve those problems, or at least give us the best shot at solving those problems. The United States believes that you can support the JCPOA deal and Iran still is going to get a bomb. We think that just by saying we support the JCPOA is not enough. What I’ve been trying to tell German foreign ministry officials and German officials that I meet is to say what I would rather hear is for you to unequivocally say that Iran cannot get a nuclear weapon. And let’s talk about the ways in which we believe that Iran shouldn’t. Because then you’re emphasizing what we all agree on, which is the goal. We disagree on the tactic of how to get there.

SC: Ambassador Grenell has been described by German media in many ways. In a recent profile in the German magazine Der Spiegel, he was called “Trump’s man,” “an unusual diplomat,” and “inconsistent.” We asked Grenell how he would describe himself.

RG: What I usually describe myself as a – is a consistent conservative, and a consistent conservative is probably an inconsistent defined political person. And what I mean by that is, you know, I think I’m consistently for smaller government and more personal responsibility. But that cuts across a lot of different issues in different political ways. So I’m very comfortable with my positions. I don’t feel that I’m inconsistent, but from a purely partisan political criteria, I’m very inconsistent.

SC: In that same article, one thing that you said was, “I think it’s a huge advantage for Donald Trump that people can’t predict him.” Why is being unpredictable a good trait in your mind?

RG: For me, I think that the number one example to give you in that is that there is a difference between a threat of military action and a credible threat of military action. We’ve had presidents in the past that have issued threats of military action, only to then go on and mock those who start wars, or mock military action, or mock those who want to grow the Pentagon’s budget, and so I think what happens then is you undercut your credibility if people don’t believe your threat of military action is actually credible. So I actually truly believe that a strong military, a credible threat of military action coming from the Commander-in-Chief means that diplomats like me are going to be more successful. When I sit across the table from somebody and we’re debating an issue, and we’re trying to settle the issue calmly and through diplomacy, I can’t be wimpy. I have to be very forceful. If you want to avoid war, you better have diplomats that are really tough and that are sitting across the table recognizing that if we fail to solve this issue peacefully across the table – maybe we’re screaming, maybe we’re hollering, maybe we’re really intense – but if we fail to do it here, then the very real threat of military action comes after us and that’s not a pretty picture. I don’t want to fail as a diplomat, and the only time I fail is when military action comes.

MMK: We moved on to North Korea, specifically the on-again, off-again nature of the June 12 summit in Singapore. Could we expect it to happen after all? This is what the ambassador had to say:

RG: Well first of all, foreign policy is not linear. It’s not a picture that you can capture, and it’s really a video. It’s a real, live stream. And so I’ve actually been frustrated and surprised at how many people have looked at the North Korea issue and immediately in the picture snapshot that they’re looking at, say “oh well, it’s over, isn’t that terrible.” This is a running video and in order to be strategic, in order to solve problems, you have to be able to, you know, watch kind of the negotiations play out, so this is absolutely not over. By the way, I firmly believe that we’ve already achieved some positive things. We’ve gotten the return of hostages, the North Koreans are already dismantling some of their programs, so I would say that Donald Trump’s very credible threat of military action, while also making diplomacy and talking a priority, have driven the North Koreans to the table, along with the very real, very important diplomatic move that President Trump made early on, which was telling the Chinese: “we’ve seen you vote for multiple rounds of international sanctions at the UN. We’ve seen you raise your hand a number of times, but you haven’t really implemented those sanctions.” And so there’s a difference between raising your hands at the UN and saying “yes, let’s put sanctions on a country” and then having the political will to actually implement those sanctions. The Chinese hadn’t done that until President Trump said: “Look, if you help us out on this issue of North Korea, which is a very scary national security threat for us, if you help us out on North Korea, by implementing the sanctions that you voted on, you’re going to get a better trade deal.”

And what I love about President Trump doing that is he’s intermingling all of the assets that the U.S. government has at its disposal to solve problems. We’re not just going to make an argument on a purely moral basis. We’re not just going to say “you’ve got to do the right thing,” but we’re also going to make that argument while utilizing the other assets of the U.S. government. And once we pressured the Chinese to implement those sanctions, we saw the North Koreans come to the table pretty quickly.

JW: That was U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell talking about North Korea. When we come back, we continue our conversation with the new ambassador on transatlantic relations and the conflict over President Trump’s trade policy. Plus, he lets us in on his private life – including how he’s adjusting to life in Berlin.


JW: You’re listening to KCRW Berlin, I’m Jennifer Wolf. KCRW Berlin reporters Sylvia Cunningham and Monika Müller-Kroll spoke this week with new U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell, the highest-ranking openly gay official in the Trump administration. They asked him about Twitter – where he’s an active user.

SC: High-ranking German officials, they don’t use Twitter in the same way it’s used by President Trump, or members of Congress, or you. Have you had the feeling that you’ll have to take a different approach, maybe that you’ll have to use social media in a different way when you’re here in Germany?

RG: I think there are very interesting, powerful German politicians that are using social media. I would say that there are very interesting powerful politicians in France and Austria that are using social media. I think it’s generational, and I think if you want to be authentic, then you should find ways to be authentic, and to put out diplomacy kind of messages. I think it’s also very important that we correct the record on what a diplomat is, because I don’t believe that a diplomat is somebody who’s weak or doesn’t represent their country, or tries to kind of cut the baby in half, so to speak. What I believe is that diplomats are there to avoid war and to avoid conflicts getting out of hand. And so you have to be somebody who’s approachable, and who wants to talk about issues. I’m a staffer at heart, you know, I’m not going to be the ambassador that’s going to go around cutting a lot of ribbons, like politicians do. What I want to do is create a to-do list of all the things that I have to do, and my team has to do, and we’re going to just go through that to-do list and get things done. And so I very much want to be someone who works, listens, and accomplishes tasks, not just kind of talks about them with other elites.

MMK: So I wanted to talk about German Chancellor Merkel. She is one of those politicians who is not active on Twitter, though she does look out for what President Trump has to say on the platform. And you had the chance to meet her, prior to your arrival, in Washington. And you said you admire her. What do you admire about her?

RG: Well I met her and it was just such an honor to meet her because she’s, you know, leading the largest economy in Europe, and so you have to respect that. She’s a calm leader, she’s very strategic. So I’ve watched her over the years, and it was a complete honor to meet her at the White House. But she’s also very approachable and someone who you know wants to look at solutions. And so when we were at the White House, we had some time to kind of explore some solutions to different problems. And I know we’re going to be able to forge forward, move forward on a variety of issues because we’re both interested in solving problems.

MMK: It sounds like you really appreciate her, how she’s managed to maintain Germany’s economic power and Germany is an important player. This brings me to the recent trade issues. Because right now Germany is concerned about U.S. pending tariffs. President Trump exempted Europe from tariffs until June 1. What’s going to happen?

RG: What I love in working with the German government on is that they bring such a seriousness to the process. They’re prepared, they’re serious. They, you know, we’re both on the same side of so many issues. I’ve spent years at the UN, you know, planning peacekeeping operations, and it was always comforting to have the Germans in the room and part of the planning process, because they bring such a seriousness to the issue. So we do have some issues to work through, and there will be, I think, an adjustment on tariffs. There certainly will be an adjustment on the policy. As the president said, he wants our trade policy to be free and fairer. And I think there’s no question that there’s room for that. There’s a huge surplus here in Germany. She’s done an amazing job of getting that surplus. And I think an amazing job of outmaneuvering presidents before her. And so I think what we’re going to do is concentrate on getting to the facts, drilling down, looking at the different issues. It’s complicated because the European Union is so broad and the number of countries to negotiate with, it makes it complicated. I think what we found is that if we were just negotiating with Germany, it would be a lot faster and an easier process, but we’re not. So we’re trying to work through those issues, but I’m confident that we’ll be able to. There’ll be some bumps in the road and we’ll have to adjust policy, but there won’t be a trade war.

SC: Despite the current strain between the two countries, Grenell – who spent many years working at the United Nations – maintains Germany and the U.S. are consistently on the same side. We asked him how he planned to deepen the transatlantic relationship.

RG: First of all, I think that it’s important that we remind both publics, the publics in both countries, that we do have a deep friendship. That we have so much more in common than we don’t. Spending one minúte at the UN, you realize that Germans and the Americans are on the same side. So I want to go around and remind people that we do have this long history of being on the same side. Yes, we have differences, but I think that those differences can be worked out if we’re willing to roll up our sleeves and have those difficult conversations. So, at the end of the day, I think that the transatlantic relationship is going to be improved and deepened when we solve problems. Not talk over each other or not, you know, kind of say slogans back and forth where, you know, Americans say “oh let’s increase spending to 2 percent the GDP for your defense,” which is a commitment of the countries made to NATO. That can’t just be an American slogan, saying “increase it 2 percent,” and the Germans kind of come back and say well we have a process and it’s going to take us till 2030 or whatever. And this was a subject that the chancellor and President Trump talked a lot at about at the White House. And it’s a subject I want try to accomplish. But I think the way to do that is to dig down and to go to the next level instead of just talking about issues via a slogan, I think we’ve got to go in and figure out what the barriers are and how to work through those and to improve the procurement process and to look at the readiness issue of, you know, what the German military has, and get beyond just, I think, the words of conflict and dig down into, you know, what is behind those. What are the issues that we need to solve. And then try to solve them.

MMK: We then brought the conversation back to Berlin and asked the ambassador how he was settling into the city.

RG: I love the authenticity of Berlin. I’ve always encouraged people: “If you’re going to go to Europe, you’ve got to see Berlin, you’ve got to spend time in Berlin.” But I also say that about Germany. It’s a country that is well-run, safe, great economy, great people.

SC: In his move to Berlin, Grenell has kept up some of the same routines he had in the States. He runs regularly and plays country music in the car. And there’s another comfort he’s brought from home – his Blue Lacy dog, Lola.

RG: I got her in Los Angeles. And she is, as you know, my whole life. I went through cancer. I had non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma about four years ago. And not that I needed to be reminded of how great dogs were, but during that process it was unbelievable. When I would come home, after being at the hospital for a round of chemo, I’d come in the door very sickly and bald and, you know, looking terrible. She just knew that I was sick and would be with me and snuggle up to me and lick my head. And it was really unbelievable. She was so empathetic and different while I was sick. I think that loyalty is pretty amazing, especially when you’re in the world of politics and diplomacy. Having a dog reminds you that you’ve got at least one loyal fan.

SC: That was U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell who came to our studio for an interview earlier this week. For KCRW Berlin, I’m Sylvia Cunningham.

MMK: And I’m Monika Müller-Kroll.