June 5, 2018 / 10:18 PM / 2 months ago

State Department defends U.S. envoy's remarks after outcry in Germany

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department on Tuesday defended remarks by the new U.S. ambassador to Germany that drew condemnation from across that country’s political spectrum, saying that U.S. envoys “have a right to express their opinions.”

U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Allen Grenell is pictured in Berlin, Germany, June 4, 2018. Picture taken June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

“Don’t we as Americans have the right to free speech?” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in response to questions about U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell’s comments in an interview he gave last weekend to Breitbart News.

Grenell, a former U.S. spokesman at the United Nations and a strong supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump, told the website that “I absolutely want to empower” European conservatives who are “experiencing an awakening from the silent majority.”

He was referring to recent elections that have catapulted conservative parties in Germany, Italy, Hungary and Austria, which he said showed “a groundswell of conservative policies that are taking hold because of the failed policies of the left. There’s no question about that, and it’s an exciting time for me.”

Grenell’s comments drew criticism from German politicians, including warnings against interfering in domestic politics. Germany has asked the U.S. government for clarification on the remarks and the issue is expected to come up when Grenell pays his first official visit to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin on Wednesday.

Asked whether it is State Department policy for U.S. ambassadors to advocate for particular political parties, Nauert responded, “Ambassadors have a right to express their opinion. They’re representatives of the White House, whether it’s this administration or other administrations.”

Nauert noted that in a comment he posted on Twitter in response to the outcry over his interview, Grenell denied that he was endorsing any particular political candidates or parties.

“What Ambassador Grenell was doing was merely highlighting that there are some parties and candidates in Europe who are doing well right now,” Nauert said.

In the same tweet, however, Grenell also said that, “I stand by my comments that we are experiencing an awakening from the silent majority - those who reject the elites and their bubble. Led by Trump.”

It is the second time that Grenell has stirred controversy since taking his post in May.

Hours after his arrival, he posted a warning on Twitter for German companies to “wind down their operations” in Iran following Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and reimpose U.S. sanctions on Tehran.

Reporting by Jonathan Landay; editing by Mary Milliken and James Dalgleish

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