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Trump's strong reaction to leak of British memos puts a chill on diplomacy

Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- When a cache of sensitive, embarrassing U.S. diplomatic cables was leaked nine years ago, a chill ran down the spine of many ambassadors and their staffs. Confidential memos, some criticizing key foreign partners, were suddenly blanketing the press. It made for a few awkward tete-a-tetes, a scramble for damage control and strained relations.

"We thought the sky was falling," recalled Jeffrey Feltman, then assistant secretary of State for the Middle East.

But while a couple of diplomats lost their jobs, the damage was not permanent.

"It quickly evaporated," Feltman said. "There was a genuine sense of betrayal, but in the end all these countries had an interest in talking to us."

Amid a similar scandal that erupted this week, the difference this time around may be Donald Trump.

British Ambassador Kim Darroch might well have survived the leak of his candid, unfavorable views of President Donald Trump -- had Trump not spent two days on Twitter lashing out at the veteran envoy and making his position untenable.

 

The episode has left many foreign service officers, both from the U.S. and other countries, wondering if they can have faith their reports will remain confidential. And if leaks occur, will governments and leaders react coolly and calmly -- or will they exploit the situation and take it personally, as Trump did?

The mission for officials at embassies the world over is to provide unvarnished accounts of the people and politics they observe to their bosses back home.

His defenders say that is exactly what Darroch -- who privately described Trump's administration as "inept" and "dysfunctional" -- was doing. And he was not alone.

Anyone who has spent time speaking to foreign envoys stationed in Washington is familiar with the negative opinions that many have of Trump and his often chaotic administration.

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