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Tuesday January 21st, 2020 8:46AM

In a divided Washington, British ambassador was a bridge

By The Associated Press
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WASHINGTON (AP) — In America's deeply divided capital city, British Ambassador 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 Darroch 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 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 Darroch'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. Darroch'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 Trump started tweeting about Darroch, 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 Darroch, 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 Darroch's storied career as a diplomat and civil servant, and a reminder of how quickly fortunes can rise and fall in 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 Darroch's spokesman at the embassy until last year.

Darroch 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 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, Darroch'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 Trump to lose to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, Darroch 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 Trump's political advisers and longtime friends, including Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and Michael Cohen, Trump's longtime lawyer and fixer who is now in jail for campaign finance violations tied to hush money payments he made on Trump's behalf.

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

Darroch'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, Darroch 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.

Darroch'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 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 Darroch 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," Haass said.

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Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.

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Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

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