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U.S. envoy's unorthodox diplomacy stirs stiff response in Berlin

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany has asked the U.S. government to clarify remarks by President Donald Trump’s new ambassador to Berlin after he told a right-wing website he wanted to empower “other conservatives” in Europe.

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The comments by Richard Grenell, a former U.S. spokesman at the United Nations and an outspoken defender of Trump, drew criticism from politicians across the German political spectrum, warning him not to meddle in domestic politics.

“We have asked the U.S. side for clarification, and whether (the remarks) were made as reported,” a foreign ministry spokesman said.

The issue would be looked at again on Wednesday when Grenell is due to make his first official call at the ministry, the spokesman said.

The political appointee caused anger on his first day in Berlin with a tweet telling German companies to wind down their business from Iran after the U.S. withdrew from a non-proliferation deal with Iran.

In a further breach of protocol, Grenell also invited Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, a critic of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policies, to an embassy lunch during his June 12 visit to Berlin, Spiegel magazine reported.

Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, spokesman for the Austrian government, dismissed criticism of the meeting with Kurz.

“It is important, especially at times like these, to maintain contact with the closest associates of the U.S. president, especially on issues such as trade and transatlantic relations,” he said.

In an interview with Breitbart News at the weekend, Grenell attributed the groundswell of conservatives across Europe to the “failed policies of the left”, adding: “I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders.”

In the same interview, he described himself as a big fan of Kurz, the head of the conservative People’s Party and who shares power with the far-right Freedom Party in Vienna. An embassy spokesman said Kurz had requested the meeting.

Merkel declined to comment on Kurz’s planned visit to the U.S. embassy during his visit to Berlin. “Like many others, I have taken note of this,” she said in a cool remark at a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu said that he had also had a brief meeting with Grenell during his Berlin visit. “I was asked by the American ambassador to meet him at the airport,” he said. “I wouldn’t draw any great meaning into that.”

Rolf Muetzenich, deputy leader of the Social Democrats in parliament, said Grenell’s remarks should be raised quickly with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“Clearly the U.S. ambassador sees himself as an extension of a right-wing conservative world movement,” he told Reuters. Muetzenich added that Grenell’s actions violated the 1961 Vienna Convention, under which diplomats do not interfere in the domestic affairs of a country.

Grenell, like Trump an avid Twitter user, defended himself. “I stand by my comments that we are experiencing an awakening from the silent majority - those who reject the elites & their bubble. Led by Trump.”

Not all German politicians have been hostile. Jens Spahn, perhaps the most prominent critic of Merkel within her Christian Democratic Union party, has been photographed repeatedly with the new ambassador since he arrived in Berlin.

Reporting by Hans-Edzard Busemann and Andreas Rinke in Berlin and Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich in Vienna; Writing by Andrea Shalal and Thomas Escritt; editing by Richard Balmforth