British ambassador served as bridge in divided Washington

Ambassador Sir Kim Darroch abruptly resigned from his post Tuesday after blunt cables about President Trump were leaked to the British press. The ambassador had a direct line to top aides in the Trump and Obama administrations. 

Sait Serkan Gurbuz/AP/File
British Ambassador Sir Kim Darroch hosts an event at the British Embassy in Washington on Oct. 20, 2017. The ambassador resigned a day after President Trump called him a "pompous fool" after his blunt assessment of the administration was leaked to the press.

In America's deeply divided capital city, British Ambassador Sir Kim Darroch was often the bridge.

He had a direct line to President Donald Trump's top aides, as well as their predecessors from the Obama administration – and both often found themselves mingling at the same lavish parties The ambassador hosted at his stately residence in Washington. He convened discussions on policy and politics with lawmakers, journalists, and think tank scholars, sending dispatches on his conversations across the political spectrum back to London.

His private assessments were frank and unfiltered, describing the Trump White House as unpredictable, clumsy, and inept. To communicate effectively with Mr. Trump, the ambassador said, "you need to make your points simple, even blunt."

When some of those cables were leaked to a British newspaper, it initially appeared that the ambassador's strong ties to the Trump administration would inoculate him. White House officials were gracious and understanding when the British Embassy reached out to alert them to the leak. The ambassador's staff greeted him with applause when he arrived at the embassy on Monday morning, according to a person with knowledge of the week's events – one of several who spoke with The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss private interactions with the ambassador.

Then Mr. Trump started tweeting about the ambassador, calling him "wacky" and a "pompous fool," and the dynamic began to shift. By late Tuesday, when Boris Johnson – the front-runner to become Britain's next prime minister – pointedly did not defend Sir Kim, the ambassador concluded it was no longer tenable for him to stay on the job. He announced Wednesday morning that he was resigning his position.

It was a stunning end to the ambassador's storied career as a diplomat and civil servant, and a reminder of how quickly fortunes can rise and fall in Mr. Trump's Washington.

"It's heartbreaking that the president undermines U.S. diplomacy and erodes our alliances, and Sir Kim was caught in the crossfire," said Andrew Overton, an American who served as the ambassador's spokesman at the embassy until last year.

The ambassador joined Britain's foreign office in 1976 and held positions in Tokyo, Rome, and Brussels, then served as national security adviser. His appointment in Washington, one of the most sought-after diplomatic postings, was to be the capstone of his career.

He arrived in January 2016, when Mr. Trump still looked like a longshot presidential candidate and a proposal for Britain to exit the European Union appeared unlikely to pass. But the political atmosphere quickly shifted on both sides of the Atlantic.

"He took the job at a very different moment," said Amy English, the ambassador's former congressional foreign policy adviser. "By November of that year, it was a very different role. But Kim's calm and steady leadership was essential to steer U.S.-U.K. relations in this tumultuous time."

Although much of Washington expected Mr. Trump to lose to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, the ambassador spent that summer and fall building relationships with the billionaire businessman's friends and advisers. He mingled on the floor of the Republican convention in Cleveland and got to know Mr. Trump's political advisers and longtime friends, including Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump's longtime lawyer and fixer who is now in jail for campaign finance violations tied to hush money payments he made on Mr. Trump's behalf.

When Mr. Trump stunningly defeated Clinton, ambassadors and diplomats from other foreign embassies came to the ambassador asking for his help getting to know the incoming administration.

The ambassador's grand residence in northwest Washington became a go-to gathering spot for Trump administration officials. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway was a frequent guest at embassy parties. Then-acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker and former White House press secretary Sean Spicer celebrated this past New Year's Eve at a black tie party. Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, came for breakfast.

Ever the diplomat, the ambassador often singled out prominent guests in his welcome remarks, frequently delivered in front of an Andy Warhol painting of Queen Elizabeth II that hangs in the residence's main hall.

The ambassador's ties to the Trump administration extended beyond social calls. He developed a close relationship with former chief of staff John Kelly and spoke on a regular basis with current chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. He played a key role in organizing Mr. Trump's trip to Britain earlier this summer, a visit that was widely viewed in the White House and in London as a success.

Last month, during an interview with the ambassador at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said British ambassadors are often so plugged into American politics that it appeared they had their own seat at the table for key discussions. And he praised the British Embassy for being one of the "very few safe spaces" for Democrats and Republicans to come together.

"In a city that's become increasingly balkanized, I actually thought the British ambassador played an important role," Mr. Haass said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.

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