Collateral Damage

Britain, America, and Europe in the Age of Trump


By Kim Darroch

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One of the UK's most experienced and respected diplomats reveals the inside story behind his resignation—and his perspective on the challenges of Brexit and the Trump White House.

"@realDonaldTrump: The wacky ambassador that the UK foisted on the United States is not someone we are thrilled with, a very stupid guy . . . We will no longer deal with him."

Kim Darroch is one of the UK's most experienced and respected diplomats, and this unvarnished, behind-the-scenes account will reveal the inside story behind his resignation; describe the challenges of dealing with the Trump White House; and offer a diplomat's perspective on Brexit, and how it looked to Britain's closest ally.

Darroch was the British Ambassador to the US as the age of Trump dawned and Brexit unfolded. He explains why the British embassy expected a Trump victory from as early as February 2016, what part every key figure—from Steve Bannon to Sarah Sanders—has played in Trump's administration, and what balanced policy makers on both sides of the Atlantic should consider during this era of seismic change and populist politics.

A riveting account from the best-informed insider, Collateral Damage charts the strangest and most convulsive period in the recent history of Britain and the US—and shows how thirty months threatened to overturn three centuries of history.



Leaks and Tweets

It’s going to be a rough few days, Ambassador, but we’ll get through this’

– the embassy media team, 5 July 2019

‘WE’VE GOT a problem. There’s been a leak.’

I looked at my chief of staff, poised in the doorway to my office. Normally a picture of unflappable calm and command, she looked anxious. The embassy media team were hovering just behind her.

It was Friday 5 July 2019, the day after US Independence Day: the embassy was half empty, with many staff away for a long weekend. And it was a typical summer’s day in the Swamp: hot, humid, soupy. As usual, the air conditioning, perfect in the rest of the building, wasn’t quite cutting it in my office; a consequence, I supposed, of inhabiting the largest space in the building. I was just seven days away from going on leave myself, to the refuge of our cottage in Cornwall and three weeks of messing around in sailing boats. My wife, Vanessa, would be returning to the UK that evening, to catch up with her 96-year-old mother. And I felt like I needed a break too, but not just to escape the heat. Being ambassador in Washington had always been a seven days a week, fifteen hours a day job. But even by these standards it had been a draining period: the President’s state visit to London, a succession of British ministers and parliamentarians in town, a speech at the Aspen Ideas Festival, a visit to Montana, and on the Washington circuit, a multiplicity of events every night at which attendance was obligatory–all against the background of the resignation of the British Prime Minister Theresa May and the competition to succeed her.

The words ‘there’s been a leak’ were ones I had heard regularly during my time in Washington. They usually related to the porous state of the plumbing and guttering in the outwardly majestic ambassadorial residence next door. Indeed, a bucket was permanently stationed in the corner of the master bedroom, there to catch the contents of Washington’s occasional fierce cloudbursts. But it was instantly clear to me that this was a different kind of leak. The media team told me that the Mail on Sunday had tipped off one of the Foreign Secretary’s special advisers that they had a stash of communications from the Washington embassy to Whitehall. The newspaper had sportingly provided a handful of screenshots of individual pages, prompting a bizarre parlour game: how quickly could we identify the full documents from the pages provided? We passed the test: within an hour, we knew, with one exception, what they had.

The senior team assembled around my conference table. Copies of the leaked texts were handed around. The Mail on Sunday were telling our London colleagues that they had a lot of material, more than twenty-five pages. The three documents we had identified were cables (diptels–diplomatic telegrams, in Foreign Office jargon) from the previous three weeks: on the state visit, on President Trump’s 2020 campaign launch, and on US policy on Iran. These were sensitive but on a quick skim, I reckoned the blowback should be manageable. But they came to considerably less than twenty-plus pages: so what else did the Mail have?

The detective work continued. Bewilderingly, judging by the screenshot, the remaining text was from 2017, two years earlier, and was a letter, not a cable. Cables usually had a wide circulation, in the hundreds: letters generally had more sensitive content and a much smaller readership. So the letter format alone was worrying. As was the fact of the long gap between this and the other documents, suggesting that someone had been curating my output for years, and selecting the most combustible material.

The minutes ticked past. My concerns mounted. While those around the table continued to chew over the leaks already identified, one of my private office team, at her desk immediately outside my office, scrolled through the document archive. I heard the photocopier whirring before she emerged with a sheaf of copies in her hand.

The remaining leak was a confidential letter from me to Mark Sedwill, cabinet secretary and national security adviser, dating back to mid-2017. This had been written as input for a top-level discussion of UK-US relations, some six months into the new US administration. My mood sank. This was really bad.

The National Security Council had been created by David Cameron and William Hague when the coalition government took office in 2010, in part as a reaction to claims that the previous government had decided to go to war in Iraq without proper consultation of senior cabinet ministers. As national security adviser from 2012 to 2015, I had organised its work. So when I wrote that letter in 2017, I had known what was required: a frank, unvarnished assessment of the Trump administration, seven months into office.

The letter had provided exactly that. Given its sensitivity, it had gone to a very small number of people in Whitehall. It had described the infighting inside the White House chronicled daily by the US media, drawing on dozens of sources inside the building. It had summarised the policy missteps, especially the executive orders banning travel from several Muslim countries, a measure quickly blocked in the US courts. It had highlighted the damaged relationships with NATO allies, in the wake of President Trump picking fights with many of them at a NATO summit, as well as hinting that he didn’t agree with the cornerstone of the alliance, Article 5, which states that an attack on one is an attack on all. And it had assessed the growing cloud of scandal swirling around the administration, centred on accusations of collusion between the Trump campaign and agents of the Russian state. The letter had also, however, highlighted his killer instinct for the vulnerabilities of his opponents; his Teflon qualities; and his extraordinary empathy with his political base, who treated him less as a politician, more as a messiah. But I immediately doubted that these more positive comments would be given any prominence in the media.

I remembered that one of my predecessors, my close friend Nigel Sheinwald, had gone through a comparable experience when a less than totally flattering letter he had written about Barack Obama’s qualities as a presidential candidate had leaked to a (different) newspaper. Nigel had survived. Obama’s team had declined to respond to the leak. Was there any chance that the Trump White House might behave similarly? I had my doubts.

I returned briefly to the residence over lunchtime, for a meeting with a personal trainer with whom I was signing up: a specialist in dealing with chronic back pain. We agreed a schedule of appointments through to November, though I warned her–I hoped in jest–that I might be out on the street by Monday. She looked bemused.

The rest of the day was a rolling series of meetings. Sometimes stories take the government by surprise. But when there is some warning, the media machine swings into pre-emptive action. The aim is to produce a succinct, objective, calm, and factually correct text which presents government policy in the best possible light, and to which everyone sticks, whether sitting in No. 10, a Whitehall outpost, or an embassy thousands of miles away. And if, as is usually the case with stories involving the Foreign Office, another country is involved, the Holy Grail is a press line which the relevant foreign government has also agreed to use.

So my team talked to London and agreed some press lines. My media team telephoned the White House to warn them of the impending story. We had good relations with the White House press office, and they responded reassuringly, promising that they wouldn’t react and would try to play the whole thing down. I then phoned the White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, who was a good friend, to tip him off personally on what was about to unfold. Mick, too, was reassuring: ‘This stuff happens to us every day.’ But he added, ominously and, it turned out, presciently, that he couldn’t predict how the President would react. The media team, drawing on their conversations with the White House, told me they thought it would be rough, ‘but we’ll get through it’.

On which note I took Vanessa to Dulles Airport to catch her flight to London. The generous Virgin team in Washington usually let us use their business lounge, even though we generally flew in economy. So we had a cheerful hour over cocktails, looking forward to swapping the Washington sweatbox for some honest Cornish rain. Not wanting to put her on edge, I mentioned casually that there might be a brief flurry in the Sunday papers about a leak from the Washington embassy: it would blow over…

Saturday was an agony of waiting for the British Sunday papers to hit the streets. The hours crawled past, each one more sluggish than its predecessor. Earlier in my career, I had been head of News Department and FCO spokesman. Every couple of months, I would accompany the then secretary of state, Robin Cook, to one of the Sunday morning political shows. I would need to brief him on the contents of the Sunday papers–which involved going to the newsstand outside Victoria Station at about 11 p.m. on Saturday to buy all the first editions. Nowadays, one would go online. But the image of the Victoria Station newsstand remained lodged in my mind. I whiled away the hours playing tennis, going for a swim, watching a Washington Nationals baseball game on TV. But I kept visualising the bundles of newsprint hitting the pavement–one of which would determine my future.

Around 5 p.m. Washington time, announced by a vibrating mobile phone, the first Mail on Sunday article landed in my email inbox. The first of several: it turned out that the newspaper had filled most of its first five pages with extracts from my reporting. And the reality–the screenshots of the pages–looked, well, terrible. As I had expected, on the front page at least, they had highlighted the criticisms–words like ‘inept’ and ‘deeply dysfunctional’, together with the comment that the administration, already mired in scandal, could be at the beginning of a downward spiral leading to disgrace. I had said that the President ‘radiated insecurity’. Further in, the lead article had highlighted one particular sentence: ‘We don’t really believe this administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction riven; less diplomatically clumsy and inept.’

It wasn’t all like that. At one point, underlining Trump’s talent for eviscerating his opponents and his seeming indestructibility, I had likened him to that figure from Eighties cinema, the Terminator. The reference featured briefly in the inside pages. So did my judgement that, notwithstanding the administration’s performance to date, there was a credible path for Trump to win a second term. But how many readers would reach the inside pages?

And there was a piece about me. Parts of it looked like a cut-and-paste reworking of a friendly Financial Times profile from a few months earlier. The piece observed in apparent wonder that I had been brought up in a council flat in Abingdon, Oxfordshire while attending Abingdon School, at that stage a direct grant establishment, now a fully fledged public school of some repute. I couldn’t object to this: it was true (though my father, were he alive, would have pointed out that it was only for three to four years, while he saved to buy a house). Other parts were more questionable. The article asserted that I was a rabid Europhile, simply on the basis that I had twice worked in Brussels in the UK representation to the European Union, the second time as ambassador. But in mitigation, it asserted that at the same time I was deeply patriotic, on the grounds that the protective case for my mobile phone featured a Union Jack. Ye shall know them by their phone cases.

So overall, it was about as bad as it could be; a template for despondency rather than relief. Notwithstanding it being Saturday night, the story went immediately to the top of the UK media, leading all the bulletins. The embassy press secretary who had drawn the short straw of weekend press duty was besieged. So were her counterparts in Whitehall. The line was straightforward: ‘We don’t comment on leaks; ambassadors are paid to be candid and offer an honest unvarnished assessment of developments in their host countries.’

That Saturday night, the US media didn’t really catch up. But we knew it was coming. And by Sunday morning, though it had broken too late for the US newspapers, it was leading most of the US news channels and spiralling across social media: top on both sides of the Pond. I got a mid-morning phone call from Vanessa, who sounded shocked. She said she had been woken by her mother at 7 a.m. with the words: ‘You have to come and look at the television! Kim is all over the news.’

It is difficult to convey how the next few hours felt. There were moments when I was overwhelmed with dread at how the White House would react. I knew the President was spending the weekend at his New Jersey golf club. I could imagine him coming into the locker room after his round, there to meet some faceless adviser, who would pour poison into his ear about what the British ambassador had written, and then stand back and watch this notoriously thin-skinned individual erupt. There were minutes when I thought back on my years of public service and wondered what kind of a mark this would leave on my record. Was this to be how it ended? And there were more reflective moments when I thought to myself… that I had finally fallen off the tightrope. Particularly in the second half of my career, I had done some high-profile jobs–Foreign Office press spokesman, Europe adviser to the Prime Minister, ambassador to the European Union, national security adviser–in which I had carried out large-scale press briefings or appeared before parliamentary committees. The objective, at these moments, had been twofold: convey government policy accurately and persuasively; and avoid yourself becoming the story. There had been breaches–I had been named in a few articles. And during my time in Brussels, some Eurosceptic MPs and MEPs had attacked me publicly, apparently for just being in the job (I used to joke that I understood how the scientists, engineers and officials attacked during Stalin’s Great Purge must have felt). But on the whole, and thanks to a large measure of luck, I had stayed on the tightrope and got away with it–until the 2019 weekend from hell.

In practical terms, it was another day of rolling meetings. The weekend notwithstanding, the embassy team gathered in the upstairs flat in the residence. We monitored the three main cable news channels, checking for nuances of difference in the coverage. I was fed regular updates from the FCO and No. 10 on how the story was playing in the UK. So there was intense activity all around me. But personally, I felt increasingly numb and detached. It was an out-of-body experience, in which I floated above the scene, disconnected from the mayhem unfolding below. Was this really all about me? Would I wake up in an hour and discover, like Bobby Ewing in Dallas, that it was all a dream? And everyone in the room knew that this was just the prologue: what counted was what the occupant of the White House would say.

The dread was justified. The President arrived back from New Jersey by helicopter, landing on the White House lawn late that Sunday afternoon. As was the tradition, a group from the White House press corps were waiting to fire questions at him. And inevitably, one of the first was about his reactions to the leaks of my report. The President said, ‘The ambassador has not served the UK well, I can tell you that. We are not big fans of that man.’

My immediate thought was that, if this was it, it was survivable. Having escaped for a few hours in the late afternoon, the media and political teams returned that evening for a round-up of events and took the same view: it could have been worse. And Sunday night came and went without further comment from the White House. But I had always expected it to be a reckoning by Twitter; the President habitually saved his most personal attacks, and his most savage language, for his morning Twitter feed, his direct channel to his base.

And so it proved. On Monday morning, the President tweeted, ‘I do not know the Ambassador, but he is not liked or well thought of within the US. We will no longer deal with him.’ He then mysteriously digressed into an attack on the Prime Minister: ‘What a mess she and her representatives have created. I told her how it should be done, but she decided to go another way. The good news for the wonderful United Kingdom is that they will soon have a new Prime Minister.’

As I read ‘We will no longer deal with him’, it flashed instantly through my mind that it was all over. But I didn’t, at that moment, pursue the thought: with new information coming on stream at every moment, there was no space to think things through. No. 10 were saying that I continued to have the Prime Minister’s full support. The Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, also issued a statement saying that he supported me, while adding that he didn’t fully agree with my assessment. This qualification was something of a blow, but understandable: in my days as a press spokesman, I would have advised the Foreign Secretary to say exactly that for the sake of the relationship between the US and the UK. The British media were speculating on where former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson MP stood on the issue, given that he was hot favourite to succeed Theresa May as Prime Minister.

And out of the blue, there was an emergency debate about me in the House of Commons. The chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat MP, had put down an urgent question on the leaks of reporting from Washington. The minister of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Sir Alan Duncan (another close personal friend, I should declare), made a characteristically forthright statement in defence of me while also insisting on the importance of diplomats worldwide being able to report freely and frankly. The Hansard report of the subsequent debate, which I read a few hours after it took place, provided a reassuring picture of near complete support.

But what remained in my mind, of course, were the handful of dissenting views. There had been a furious intervention in the debate from Sir Bill Cash MP, who described my ‘toxic attacks on the US President’ as ‘completely unjustified’, adding that as chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee he was ‘more than well aware of my prejudices’. (To give his remarks some context, I had appeared before his committee several times in my EU days, tasked with explaining and defending government EU policy: he has no more knowledge of my personal views or ‘prejudices’ on anything than he has of whether there is life elsewhere in the universe.) And for good measure, Dominic Raab MP, a former cabinet minister and one of the unsuccessful candidates for the Conservative leadership, said on Newsnight that I was wrong to have included ‘personalised remarks’ in my confidential reporting; while also perplexingly arguing that, by contrast, for Boris Johnson to say publicly, while mayor of London, that Donald Trump was ‘stupefyingly ignorant’ was completely fine.

The team also kept me updated on the war on social media: I was apparently well ahead on body count. One comment in particular caught my eye. Mia Farrow, icon of 1970s cinema and star of Rosemary’s Baby, tweeted: ‘The Ambassador is only saying what everybody knows. Trump continues to disgrace America, at home and abroad.’ Actually, I didn’t say anything remotely so forthright: but she was trying to help, and anyway, it would have been unwise to take issue with Satan’s mother.

I was scheduled to have lunch that day with one of the senior Arab ambassadors. She was a longstanding friend and exceptionally well connected: knew everyone, was invited to everything. My plan had been to use the meeting to catch up on the latest on senior adviser Jared Kushner’s long-awaited proposals for an Israel–Palestine peace settlement, and to find out when her country’s leader would next be in Washington. In the event, we mostly talked about the leaks. She commiserated, and said that every ambassador was saying the same as me. But there was an air of finality about the discussion; I sensed that she didn’t expect to see me again.

Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade, arrived in Washington that afternoon on a long-scheduled visit. I was due to accompany him on most of his calls the following day, including those to his counterpart, commerce secretary Wilbur Ross, to Ivanka Trump in the White House, and to a couple of Republican senators. I was also due to attend a dinner at the US Treasury that evening in honour of the ruler of Qatar: though the host was Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, there were rumours that the President would attend. I quickly calculated that my participation (or not) in these events would demonstrate the scope and severity of the President’s injunction against me.

I talked briefly to Liam Fox, who was as friendly, measured and supportive as I could have hoped. And then I stepped back onto the diplomatic treadmill, hosting a reception at the residence for the departing head of corporate affairs at the embassy. As I delivered some valedictory remarks–mostly, in the British tradition, jokes and unflattering stories about him from his colleagues–I was conscious of a slightly edgy atmosphere, and became aware that the guests from the administration were looking warily at me. Is he going to say something about the leaks? Is he going to get emotional? They should have known better: Brits don’t emote, least of all in public. Afterwards, some of the embassy staff came with me to a well-known Mexican restaurant in Washington, Lauriol Plaza; nothing like a couple of margaritas to make the world look a better place.

Tuesday started ominously. I was told that Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin wanted to speak on the telephone. I had breakfast with Liam Fox and his team, and went into the embassy, in part to show them that I was still alive. I then heard that Wilbur Ross was no longer available to meet Liam–though strangely, he could take a telephone call from him at any stage during the day. The lie of the land could not have been clearer if someone had taped a ‘get lost’ message to a brick and thrown it through a window of the residence.

I phoned Mnuchin mid-morning. Sounding understandably uncomfortable, he said that it would be inappropriate for me to attend the Qatari dinner, given recent events. I said I was sorry to miss it, but I understood. I decided on the spot also to pull out of the meeting with Ivanka Trump; I could see myself being blocked at the White House security gates. Meanwhile, my congressional team were checking whether I would be welcome at Liam Fox’s two meetings that afternoon with prominent Republicans, the North Carolina congressman George Holding and the long-serving senator from Iowa, Chuck Grassley. Quick answers came back from both: ‘Of course!’

I took a couple of phone calls from colleagues in London: Mark Sedwill, cabinet secretary, and Simon McDonald, Foreign Office permanent secretary. Both insisted there was strong support in London, including in Parliament. Simon would ask how reporting on Brexit by the US Embassy would look if published. (I subsequently discovered from friends inside the US system that the US Embassy in London’s reporting on the performance of the May government and its handling of the EU departure process made my comments on the Trump administration look like a prolonged round of applause.)

The meetings that afternoon in Congress went fine; indeed, better than fine. Congressman Holding joked that he was glad to see that I was still alive. Senator Grassley said pointedly: ‘Ambassador, you are always welcome here.’ Otherwise, both members of Congress knew Liam Fox well, and promised strong support for a future US–UK free trade deal.

On my return to the embassy, I took a phone call from Vernon Jordan. I had met Vernon within a few weeks of my arrival. He is near legendary in the US. A highly successful lawyer and a leading figure in the African-American community, he had in his early career been a prominent civil rights activist. When he first came to lunch with me, he told me the story of his game-breaking 1961 court victory, when he forced the University of Georgia to accept its first African-American students, and then personally escorted them onto the campus through a large crowd of angry protesters. Vernon told me how sorry he was about what was happening and that I was guilty only of telling the truth. From this heroic figure, that meant a lot.

The afterglow of Vernon’s words survived through the next meeting: a drink with the visiting House of Commons arms export controls committee. They, understandably, wanted the inside story on the leaks and the US reaction, rather than an exposition on US arms control policy. They were warm, sympathetic and supportive. But the glow faded somewhat when I went back into the embassy, where I was ambushed by my political team. It was 10 p.m. in the UK; and the political event of the moment had been a televised debate between the two remaining candidates for the succession to Theresa May, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and his predecessor in the role, Boris Johnson. The team told me that Hunt had volunteered strong support for me–‘if I become Prime Minister, Darroch stays’–and had challenged his opponent to make the same commitment. Johnson had failed to do so. Instead, he had ducked and weaved and argued that this was not something that should be debated in public. And Johnson’s apparent failure ‘to back the British ambassador in Washington’ had become the lead story out of the debate.

Someone thrust a mobile phone with the relevant clip from the debate between Hunt and Johnson into my hand. I watched but barely registered what I was seeing, distracted by the arrival of one of the media team brandishing a printout of the front pages of the UK newspapers. I was the lead story in at least two, The Times and the Guardian, though the latter headlined the President’s attack on the PM rather than his comments about me. But the Times headline was chilling: ‘I won’t deal with British Ambassador, says Trump’. The sub-headline twisted the knife: ‘President puts pressure on embattled envoy’. Even as I despaired at the words, however, I had to laugh at what lay immediately alongside them. The Times had chosen to place immediately next to their Trump story a large photograph of Snowball, a cockatoo with the most extraordinary golden plumage on its head. Snowball’s presence on the front page was apparently the product of his talent for previously unseen cockatoo dance moves–rather than, say, any passing resemblance to the most famous coiffure on the planet. The British sense of humour really is matchless.

I then went back to the flat in the residence. A call came through from a longstanding contact who happened to be the political editor of a leading UK paper. I had been avoiding calls from journalists all day; this one I took. After asking how I was, he invited me to comment on the debate between Hunt and Johnson. I declined. He then paused before saying, ‘I’m wondering whether you are going to fall on your sword.’ I said instantly, ‘Why should I?’ But he had articulated exactly the question that was starting to bounce around in my head.


On Sale
Oct 13, 2020
Page Count
384 pages

Kim Darroch

About the Author

Kim Darroch, Baron Darroch of Kew, was appointed British Ambassador to the US in 2015. He resigned in 2019 after a series of cables containing unflattering descriptions of President Trump were leaked to a nineteen-year-old freelance journalist and Brexit Party employee and made public. Darroch received a life peerage in November 2019 and began teaching at Harvard in the Spring of 2020.

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