Jeremy Hunt has tried to end the war of words between Donald Trump and Britain's ambassador in Washington. But his open warning to the US president – that Trump's foul-mouthed broadsides against Sir Kim Darroch are “disrespectful and wrong to our Prime Minister and my country” – is bound to backfire. Instead of calming the situation, Hunt is pouring more fuel onto the fire. Trump lobbing another grenade across the pond later in the day is now virtually guaranteed.
Of course, as Foreign Secretary, Hunt has a responsibility to defend his employees. In a distant second place to Boris Johnson in the Tory leadership contest, Hunt may have also calculated that standing up to the American bully will score him points among Tory members as a patriotic Brit who loves his country.
But if Hunt thinks a brushback will get Trump to keep quiet and move on, he is sorely mistaken. This is the kind of public spectacle the Donald lives for. And now that the fight is in the public domain, Trump is not going to drop it. Indeed, it’s about as likely as Theresa May salvaging her political career.
Trump, after all, is a man who relishes name-calling. He takes pride in calling his political opponents “wacky,” “crazy,” “disgraceful,” “dumb,” and “not very smart.” He blasts the Australian PM in a phone call. He threatens tariffs on neighbouring Mexico. He threatens to leave Nato in order to scare the Europeans into spending more money on their militaries. He labeled Darroch “a pompous fool” just this morning. How many times has Trump smiled in glee as thousands of his hardcore supporters in red “Make America Great Again” hats chant for Hillary Clinton’s incarceration?
In deliberately stepping into the ring and playing the hero to Trump’s villain, Jeremy Hunt is exposing himself to punches in all directions. What foreign leaders don’t seem to understand is that the best way to handle the mercurial and moody American in the White House is to let him rant and rave like a five-year old until he uses up all his energy or turns his attention to another target.
The White House aides who have survived Trump’s tantrums are the ones who shut up and eschew the spotlight. Those who visibly push back by leaking to the press or contradicting him in public are the ones who eventually see their influence capped or their careers ended early.
One of the basic traits of a diplomat is reading the signs of foreign leaders and anticipating their reactions. Hunt is either clueless as to what makes Trump tick or is so desperate to be seen as the courageous, strong-willed Brit whose destiny is the PM’s residence that he is letting ambition get in the way of his current position.
The quickest way to end the silliness is to let Trump exhaust himself. Hunt is instead poking the bear in the eye with a stick.
If Hunt somehow pulls off a miracle and beats Boris in a one-on-one contest, his first order of business as the new PM will be healing a wound between Washington and London he helped infect. But whatever happens, if Hunt wanted to end this bitter row, he has made a bad mistake in going after Trump.