U.S. diplomats scrambled Friday to salvage their nation’s bonds with Africa, Haiti and even the celebrated “special relationship” with Britain after President Donald Trump, in the span of a few hours, deeply offended much of the world with the most undiplomatic of remarks.
Trump’s description of African nations as a “shithole” and other inflammatory comments became the latest and perhaps most direct test of whether America’s global partnership can withstand its president’s loose lips. In Washington and far-flung foreign capitals, U.S. officials launched into urgent cleanup mode.
As world leaders denounced the comments as racist, Trump’s ambassadors to Botswana and Senegal were both summoned to explain his remark, as was the top U.S. diplomat in Haiti, where there is no ambassador, State Department officials said. In addition to the Africa slur, Trump during a meeting Thursday with lawmakers questioned why the U.S. would need more Haitian immigrants.
The White House, too, was reeling from the fallout. Staffers fanned out to do television appearances in support of Trump and reached out to Republicans on Capitol Hill to co-ordinate damage control.
Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein, in charge of U.S. public diplomacy, said Trump has the right to “make whatever remark he chooses,” calling it the benefit of being president. He said Trump’s comments notwithstanding, it was diplomats’ obligation to send the message to other countries that the United States cares “greatly about the people that are there.”
“Will they have to work extra hard to send it today? Yes, they will, but that’s OK,” Goldstein said. “That’s part of the responsibility that they have. It doesn’t change what we do.”
Shock and disgust
African leaders have expressed shock and disgust at Trump’s comment.
The chairman of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, calls the remarks “unfortunate” and says he is “all the more dismayed as the USA is a unique example of how migration contributes to nation-building based on values of diversity, tolerance and opportunity.”
Botswana’s government called Trump’s comment “reprehensible and racist” and summoned the U.S. ambassador to explain.
South Africa’s ruling African National Congress called Trump’s comments “extremely offensive.” Deputy Secretary General Jessie Duarte said developing countries do have difficulties, but the United States has millions of people out of work or without health care, and “we would not deign to make comments as derogatory.”
The U.S. Embassy in South Africa says the United States “deeply respects the people of Africa” as President Donald Trump’s remark about immigrants from Africa causes outrage across the continent.
The U.S. embassy says on Twitter “there has been no change in our dedication to partners and friends across the continent.”
In Kenya, East Africa’s economic hub, political activist Boniface Mwangi pleaded: “Please don’t confuse the #shithole leaders we Africans elect with our beautiful continent.”
Please don’t confuse the #shithole leaders we Africans elect with our beautiful continent. Our leaders are shit like dotard Trump. Our motherland is the most blessed continent that has been raped by imperialists in collaboration with our shitty misleaders for generations. pic.twitter.com/hJVYYo0VlC
What could diplomats say?
But how does anyone — even a seasoned diplomat — explain to a foreign leader why the U.S. president would use such a demeaning epithet to describe their country? What could they say to keep the relationship on track?
State Department officials said they were advising diplomats to prepare to get an earful, and to focus on listening to and acknowledging those countries’ concerns. Rather than try to interpret or soften Trump’s…