U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, the highest-ranking openly gay person in the Trump administration, has a brusque style that has offended some in his host country and journalists alike, but that hasn’t stopped him from appearing on the short list for President Trump’s next pick for national security adviser.
In fact, that style might help him. Grenell’s open confrontation with German officials and members of the media echo Trump’s brashness with traditional U.S. allies and accusations of “Fake News.”
National security experts who spoke with the Washington Blade said Grenell’s temperament and style fit Trump’s approach as president, which might make the ambassador an appealing choice for national security adviser.
Mark Groombridge, a gay D.C.-based national security expert and “Never Trump” Republican who’s known Grenell for close to 20 years, said Grenell knows how to play the game.
“I think, personally, he disagrees with a number of President Trump’s foreign policy positions, but also knows there’s no point going against him,” Groombridge said. “But there’s one thing that this president values more than anything, and that is loyalty. And Ric knows how to play that game very well.”
Despite an anti-LGBT record that has offended many in the LGBT community, Trump’s selection of Grenell as national security adviser would also be a milestone because he’d be the first openly gay person in that high-ranking position. Moreover, Grenell has spearheaded the Trump administration’s global initiative to decriminalize homosexuality (in so much that it exists), and could carry out that mission in his role as a senior Trump adviser.
In the aftermath of his dismissal of John Bolton as national security adviser, Trump himself has told reporters he has “five people that want it very much,” whom he called “good people I’ve gotten to know over the last three years.”
Media outlets have identified the five as Grenell as well as Stephen Begun, lead envoy on North Korea; Brian Hook, U.S. special representative on Iran; Douglas Macgregory, a retired Army colonel and conservative commentator; and Robert O’Brien, special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.
Grenell, 52, is reportedly lobbying Trump to become national security adviser, and heavily so. It doesn’t hurt that Grenell, according to Politico Playbook, made himself seen Thursday at the Trump International Hotel in D.C. — a surefire (if unseemly) way to get Trump’s attention, and was also seen leaving the West Wing at the White House on Friday at around noon.
As ambassador to Germany, Grenell has won allies in Trumpland, including Donald Trump Jr. and Trump himself, who reportedly approves of Grenell’s approach and public berating of the U.S. ally.
Following Trump’s dissolution of the Iran nuclear deal, Grenell right from the start has worked to deter German investment in Iran. Just days after his confirmation, Grenell tweeted in rather dictatorial fashion, “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.” A look at his Twitter reveals he continues shaming German officials for interactions in Iran.
Additionally, Grenell has helped browbeat Germany into spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense, suggesting if the country doesn’t meet its NATO obligation, the United States would otherwise move U.S. troops stationed there to Poland.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Grenell’s style “took getting used to,” according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. The liberal minority party in Germany called for Grenell’s expulsion, but he has remained in place.
Groombridge said Grenell is right on the money in his approach as U.S. ambassador to Germany.
“A lot of people think that the role of an ambassador is to improve relations between the United States and the country that you’re serving in,” Groombridge said. “That is absolutely not the job of the ambassador. The job of the ambassador is to promote U.S. interests, and sometimes those interests align, and sometimes they don’t. [Grenell] is doing exactly what President Trump appointed him to do, and he’s doing it beautifully.”
But there’s more to Grenell’s resume. Grenell in the Bush administration served as spokesperson for four different U.N. ambassadors, including John Bolton during the height of the Iraq war.
Groombridge, who served with Grenell at the United Nations, said his combative style was evident in those days in dealing with journalists and the international organization.
“I worked with Ric at the U.N., and he was very combative up there,” Groombridge said. “And a lot of people didn’t like him up there in the journalistic community, but Ric’s job wasn’t to get along with journalists like you. It was, sure there’s always going to be spin, but to promote U.S. national security interests.”
Another gay D.C.-based national security expert, who has known Grenell for years and spoke on condition of anonymity for greater candor, said Bolton’s tenure was “by far” Grenell’s favorite of the four ambassadors.
“He enjoyed the combative nature of it,” the expert said. “And to a certain degree, what we’ve seen Ric do by way of whether it’s Angela Merkel and European attitudes or whatever, being the spear carrier, if you will, for the pugnacious Donald Trump, Ric learned that style under John Bolton.”
But that very allegiance to Bolton could be a strike against Grenell in his bid to become the next national security adviser.
After all, Trump clashed with Bolton because of his neo-conservative worldview — which includes support for previous U.S. regime change efforts in Iraq and Libya and prospective ones in North Korea, Iran and Venezuela — and objections to bringing the Taliban to Camp David days before the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Groombridge said because of Grenell’s ties to Bolton, the chances of Trump selecting him as national security adviser are “pretty low.”
“Ambassador Bolton overreached and Ric would know that that’s not going to serve him particularly well,” Groombridge said.
Groombridge added at the end of the day, whomever Trump selects “doesn’t really matter” because the next national security adviser will be subordinate to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and an “empty suit.”
“The person has to have a close link to Pompeo, and I don’t think there’s any discord or disharmony between Ric and Secretary of State Pompeo, but there’s not a natural affinity,” Groombridge said. “And I think Pompeo would view him as too closely aligned with Bolton.”
The anonymous expert said Grenell as national security adviser could make the same mistake as Bolton by “bringing a potential bias and frame to the decision-making process and squelching others.”
“People come in and don’t understand that their role is to create a decision-making structure and process that brings in the mainstream and the anti-mainstream thinking,” the expert said. “It’s a process to get all of the options on the table, and to have a disciplined process by which the right voices are in the room, the right voices are in the process and the president can get the best set of options in front of him.”
Intentionally or not, Trump would send a signal on LGBT rights by appointing Grenell — an openly gay person with ties to Log Cabin Republicans — as national security adviser. Not even former President Barack Obama, whose hundreds of openly LGBT appointees dwarfs the handful of Trump’s, made that distinction.
Charles Moran, managing director of Log Cabin Republicans, said the appointment of Grenell as national security adviser would be “fitting” because of the value of having openly LGBT people in government roles, especially in sensitive positions.
“It was not very long ago that LGBT individuals were denied jobs in government or security clearances over the threat of blackmail over being ‘outed,’” Moran said. “So having someone of Ric’s stature in this position would go a long way to closing that shameful chapter in our history.”
Groombridge said even back during his days at the United Nations, Grenell was openly gay — a rare risk for any government official during these years, let alone a gay Republican — and began his relationship with his now spouse Matt Lashey.
“I have conservative views on economics and foreign policy, on social issues, I’m about as liberal as you can possibly be,” Groombridge said. “And I think Ric is pretty much the same way, but, yeah, he was [out] to his credit, and I know his partner Matt, and they’re both wonderful people.”
It was that openness that hurt him in 2012 when Mitt Romney hired him as campaign spokesperson. Grenell was gagged and let go after a mere 12 days amid complaints from anti-LGBT factions of the Republican Party. Anti-LGBT radio host Bryan Fisher said, “If personnel is policy, [Romney’s] message to the pro-family community: drop dead.”
If Trump brought Grenell closer to his inner circle, it’s possible those voices would be heard again. Then again, the Republican Party may have changed in subsequent years. Barely a peep was heard about Grenell’s sexual orientation when Trump nominated him for ambassador to Germany.
Grenell has also taken on a global initiative to undo foreign laws criminalizing same-sex acts. More than 70 countries still have laws on the books making homosexuality illegal, and in some cases punished with the death penalty.
Moran was optimistic about Grenell being able to amplify that initiative as national security adviser as opposed to being an ambassador to just one country.
“Given that Ric is serving as point person on the president’s decriminalization effort, I think he would use that lens to bring clarity on regimes abroad that conduct human rights abuses, and could provide the president more awareness of the struggles LGBTQ individuals face in the 71+ countries that still criminalize homosexuality,” Moran said.
On the other hand, thus far, the global initiative to decriminalize homosexuality — which would require a foreign policy effort of Herculean proportions — doesn’t seem to have anything behind it other than tweets from Grenell and a forum he hosted in Berlin that included an Iranian gay activist who escaped the country.
Groombridge said the selection of Grenell would “symbolically” send a signal in favor of LGBT rights.
“I might help on the margins, but you have to weigh that with what President Trump has done with respect to LGBT rights overall,” Groombridge said. “He has been openly hostile to our community on employment, health care, education, family adoption rights, commerce, and certainly with respect to transgender rights.”
The anonymous national security expert said Grenell’s appointment in one sense would be a positive signal for LGBT rights, but was suspicious the Trump administration might use that signal to undermine them.
“In fact, I think he would be told he would have to drop kind of any gay agenda issues,” the expert said. “I still think it would be good for us in a way, but it wouldn’t necessarily be good for the national security adviser role, and I think it would really create a lot of interesting tensions. If anything, Ric could be used for the other side, which is to tell the gay community, or the trans community, to go take a flying leap.”
That has already occurred in Grenell’s capacity as a Fox News contributor, a role he had for some time and continued as a government official. On the air, Grenell unabashedly uses his sexual orientation to promote the Trump administration in ways other LGBT people may find offensive.
In one recent appearance after Pete Buttigieg criticized Mike Pence for being anti-gay, Grenell went on Fox News, called Pence his friend and accused the Democratic candidate of pushing a “hate hoax” against the vice president. (Pence’s notoriously anti-LGBT record, which includes signing a “religious freedom” bill as Indiana governor enabling anti-LGBT discrimination, says otherwise.)
Neither Grenell nor the White House responded to the Washington Blade’s request to comment for this article.