Sir Kim Darroch on Trump, leaks and the art of the resignation
October 26, 2020. Series 2. Episode 13
Sir Kim Darroch is the US Ambassador who, after his unflattering views of President Trump were leaked, found himself persona non grata in the White House. In this episode Sir Kim gives a full and detailed account of the crisis that led to his shock resignation last summer. And he explains how he managed and coped with the high-profile political scandal that brought an end to his 42-year diplomatic career. With just days to go to the US election, Sir Kim, whose memoir Collateral Damage is now available, also shares his unique and waspish insights on the President and his Democrat rival Joe Biden. And he predicts who he believes will win the most important political contest on the planet.
Kim’s Crisis Cures:
1. A half-hour walk: “Just get away from it, leave your phone at home and ground yourself in a different reality.”
2. The fiction trilogy Three Body Problem: “I love to read and this is a stunning work which conjures up images that just transfix you.”
3. Five Easy Pieces: “I’m a movie buff and this Jack Nicholson film is my favourite film of all time.”
Collateral Damage: Britain, America and Europe in the Age of Trump: https://amzn.to/3DoS05S
Sir Kim Darroch’s admission that he still feels ‘bursts of anger’ gave a glimpse of the impact his resignation as US Ambassador has had on him. His concern, that an otherwise stellar diplomatic career would be defined by the events of last summer, is real and raw 15months on. As a resigning recidivist myself, I found Kim’s detailed account of the thought process that led to the decision to quit, fascinating. As we discussed, resignations are lonely decisions that, in the end, are values based. That Kim’s only regret (anger of the leaks aside) is that he didn’t quit sooner, speaks volumes about his integrity. In terms of precedent and practicalities, his stepping down was, of course, inevitable. How can a US Ambassador do his job, unwelcome in the Washington corridors of power? But I couldn’t help but wonder how amusing it would have been for the PM to keep Kim in place, if only to get even further up President Trump’s nose.
Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm
Some Velvet Morning Website: www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk
Host – Andy Coulson
Producer – Louise Difford
00:00:00.00 Intro music
00:00:18.21 Andy Coulson:
Hello and welcome to Crisis What Crisis? a new podcast designed to be a useful field guide as we all try to navigate and come to terms with a dramatically changed world. Whether it’s personal, professional or both, crisis is without doubt the new shared experience. I’m Andy Coulson, a former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and one time inmate of HMP Belmarsh. For the last four years I’ve put all of my experience, the good and the bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders and I can tell you that the bad has been just as useful as the good. And that got me thinking that there are plenty of great podcasts out there where you can hear stories of success but there are far fewer where you can benefit from the experiences of those whose lives have properly unravelled.
00:01:06.17 Andy Coulson:
So, in Crisis What Crisis? I’ll be talking to the embattled, shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, resilient, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. Some names will be familiar, some less so, but all our guests will talk about their crises honestly, often with humour but always in the hope that what they have to share might be useful to anyone facing down their own demons and challenges. Put simply these are crisis stories worth sharing. If you agree, and enjoy what you hear please do give us a rating and review, that way even more people will hear them and that, in the end, is what it’s all about.
00:01:43.20 Andy Coulson:
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00:02:17.12 Andy Coulson:
Our guest today is Sir Kim Darroch, one of the UK’s most experienced and respected diplomats. As ambassador to the United States, it was on his watch that Donald Trump confounded the consensus on both sides of the Atlantic to become president. Thereafter a big part of Kim’s job was to try and make sense of the new president’s unorthodox approach and to feed his analysis back to his political masters in Westminster. In other words, he was our eyes and ears at a critical time for the special relationship. And he was good at it. Indeed long before the world was waking up to the possibility of a Trump presidency, Kim predicted that what then seemed ridiculous, the possibility of a man who’d never served a single day in public office, reaching the Whitehouse was more than likely to happen.
00:03:03.04 Andy Coulson:
He continued that work until, in July 2019, a diplomatic crisis erupted. Confidential missives written for just a handful of politicians and civil servants found their way to the Mail on Sunday. In them Kim gave a candid view of Trump and his administration: inept, deeply dysfunctional and radiating insecurities is the short summary. The president reacted in a characteristically thin-skinned manner and Kim, now a Washington ambassador unwelcome in Washington, resigned.
00:03:33.22 Andy Coulson:
It was the end of a stellar career for an unorthodox diplomat who once lived in an Oxfordshire council flat. Kim’s brilliant new book, Collateral Damage, charts his time as our man in Washington and is a fascinating account of modern diplomacy at a time of crisis for the US and the UK. Thank you Kim, for joining us today. How are you?
00:03:53.24 Kim Darroch:
I’m well thanks, Andy. Thanks for the invitation, it’s a pleasure.
00:03:57.06 Andy Coulson:
We should start I think with a legal disclaimer because we’re talking immediately after a very significant development in your story, the arrest of a British civil servant accused of the leak that cost you your job effectively. Obviously we can’t go into any detail about what is a live investigation but you felt strongly that that investigation should happen.
00:04:17.22 Kim Darroch:
Andy, what happened to me, the leak and its repercussions leading to my resignation, sent shock waves through system, or through the Foreign Office and I believe has had a chilling effect on what senior diplomats put into their reporting, because people see what happened to me. And life will, and does, move on but it is crucial for, I think, for the UK and the government that diplomats feel free to report frankly and clearly about what is going on in the countries where they are assigned. And so what we have at the moment is news of an arrest. I know no more than has been in the newspapers. I don’t know if it will lead to charges, let alone a conviction but in itself it will send an important message and that’s probably all I should say at this stage.
00:05:28.05 Andy Coulson:
I suppose some people might say though, Kim, that although you were pretty sharp with your views about Trump and his administration, what you were revealing wasn’t exactly Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But you clearly you felt that there was an important principle at play. But I suppose it goes to a broader point really, that at a time when we have an American president who takes to Twitter to break what are the normal conventions of diplomacy almost on a daily, if not hourly, basis, you clearly still feel that that principle should hold. And that although diplomacy, politics has changed so much, it’s important that that principle stays in place.
00:06:11.11 Kim Darroch:
Yeah, I mean, two things I’d say in response to that Andy. First of all, yes, if you were embedded in Washington with the twenty-four hour news channels on constantly, in the extraordinary environment that then and still does surround the Trump administration, there was nothing in my reporting that you would have found very surprising. And though some of my American friends say to me, ‘blimey, you really understated that, it was so much more extraordinary than that’ but what I was reporting… I mean, the purpose of the letter that caused all of the uproar was a summary for ministers, I think it was about four or five sides long, for a very senior ministerial meeting of what had, how the Trump administration had performed over its first six months.
00:07:17.06 Kim Darroch:
Now, I worked for twenty years in reasonably close proximity in the second half of my career to ministers. You were in government too; you know what life is like. They just have a huge workload with parliament, with their ministerial, with their departmental business and with the public-facing requirements of the job. And I just thought that there was a fair chance that they might have picked up a few headlines about the Trump administration but really wouldn’t understand anything like quite how it felt if you were sitting watching it twenty-four, seven in Washington. So the purpose of that passage was really to bring that home to people who had had other priorities and other things to focus on as they came into the meeting.
00:08:10.05 Kim Darroch:
Of course, the other thing I’d say about the letter is that although it used the descriptions that you have mentioned about the first six months of the administration, it also said that the president himself had an almost indestructible quality and no matter what was thrown at him he just kind of emerged from the chaos and all the shell blasts and was still standing. That he had 40% of the American people and more than 80% of the Republican Party strongly behind him who, seemingly, didn’t really care what all the newspapers and the media were saying about him, they still supported him and still do, by the way, and still do. So, even if the first six months seemed to have gone pretty mixed record at best but you might say pretty badly, I said in the letter explicitly, ‘do not rule out this guy getting re-elected, these are extraordinary times’. So you know, that was why I wrote as I did.
00:09:29.01 Kim Darroch:
On the second part of your question, look, I would just say, if sent abroad in part to influence the countries to which we are assigned, the governments of the countries to which we are assigned, and partly to tell government, our own government about what is going on. What is going on that you won’t necessarily read in the foreign news coverage of the British newspapers or even in terms of very confidential letters, like the one I sent, in the much wider circulation cables that we send, the telegrams, the diptels. And honestly Andy, if we have to write that in some sort of code because you can’t trust your colleagues back in London to treat these reports with the appropriate levels of discretion, then we’re kind of lost. You know, we’ll just get to a place where we only ever report things by telephone and even then we sort of speak in code. And people who need to make decisions in London about international issues and International crises will do so on the basis of woefully inadequate information. So I think it’s important, even in this day and age, with twenty-four hour news media, that we do the job that I was doing.
00:10:50.17 Andy Coulson:
Very good, we’ll get into that and obviously the events themselves in a bit more detail shortly. But do you mind if we go to the beginning of your story, Kim? Because people who listen to this podcast will know that I’m always interested in the roots of someone’s crisis, someone’s resilience. Why and how are they able to cope when crisis comes along. And your background is an unusual one for a diplomat. You were born in country Durham; your grandfather was a miner. Your first six years were spent in Nairobi where your dad was a teacher. Your parents split up during that time and Kim, you never saw your mother again, did you?
00:11:26.07 Kim Darroch:
No, no I didn’t.
00:11:28.02 Andy Coulson:
I mean, that kind of experience, at such a young age, can impact someone’s character, obviously it can impact their life. Clearly for you though, it created a resilience. Is that fair, is that how you see it?
00:11:41.23 Kim Darroch:
Well do you know, I don’t go in for deep, sort of, self-analysis. So I don’t know really what effect that early family history had on me. But I was always conscious that there weren’t any big sort of advantages to which I’d been born in life and that I’d have to make my own way. And I had no sense, I guess, of any entitlement. So that also makes you think, well you’re on your own here and it’s up to you. And my father was away a lot during the week because he was initially teaching in another part of the country. So it was actually my grandmother who brought up my brother and me in this little village school. She was the village schoolmistress, in a little village, no more than a few hundred inhabitants, if that, in the middle of Berkshire, a very isolated place. So I guess you get used to looking after yourself there. Whether that breeds resilience for everyone I don’t know but I’m used to life not going all my way, let me put it like that.
00:13:11.16 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, you say in the book that had you stayed with your mother you don’t think that you would have gone into the Foreign Office. You describe it using that sliding doors analogy, don’t you?
00:13:23.11 Kim Darroch:
Yeah, I mean, we all go through, and we look back on it, we all of us have them, these moments when what seem like small decisions or small moments, sometimes of chance, actually change the course of your life. Now, whether I stayed with my father or my mother when they split up, is obviously not a small thing, it’s quite a big thing. But had I stayed with my mother we would have stayed in Kenya where she stayed and I can’t see how I would have ended up in the Foreign Office.
00:13:59.16 Kim Darroch:
I might have still gone to university, whether I’d gone to a British university or not, I don’t know, I have no idea what I would have ended up doing. I find it hard to imagine after doing more than forty years in the foreign service, it’s hard to imagine myself doing anything else. But all of those chance factors including my then girlfriend, later to be my wife, planted, it was she who planted the idea of going into the foreign service with me and you know if I’d stayed in Kenya we would never have met. So there’s a lot of chance in my life and in everyone’s I think.
00:14:41.08 Andy Coulson:
Yes, you touched on it, Kim, modestly, but there were no silver spoons in your background. You won a scholarship to Abingdon, one of the last of the direct grant generation.
00:14:53.04 Kim Darroch:
That’s right, yes.
00:14:54.00 Andy Coulson:
Walking to school every day from the, as we touched on, the nearby council flat where you lived for a while with your grandmother and your brother. But you were by no means a star pupil. Disruptive, I think, is the word that you use in the book, which you attribute to a lifelong resistance to authority. Not exactly the usual back story of a top diplomat is it?
00:15:16.18 Kim Darroch:
I guess, I guess that’s right although you find a lot of very different people in the Foreign Office and you know there’re some pretty extraordinary characters, especially back in the Foreign Office, the senior people in the Foreign Office that I joined, they seemed like colossal figures to someone newly in but there were some real characters there, I can tell you. Yeah, it’s not a classic route but I would say in a brief plug for my old institution, do you know from the moment I got in, no one ever asked me which school I’d been to, let alone which university I’d gone to. No one ever asked me what degree I’d got and no one ever asked me why I’d only got a lower second degree. All that mattered to them was how you performed in the office and how you were doing whatever the job that they’d assigned to you. So in that sense the Foreign Office is a genuine meritocracy.
00:16:19.15 Andy Coulson:
As you say, encouraged by Vanessa, you decided that a life in the civil service was for you. You ripped through the system pretty quickly it seems, from an outside perspective. You landed some big jobs, most of them putting you at the centre of some important and pretty technical negotiations that brought you into very close contact, very quickly, with some leading politicians. How was that, in those early days, if you like, Kim, of your life in the civil service, how did you find being around power? How did you find being around crisis? Because I’m guessing that pretty swiftly you were involved in some reasonably difficult moments?
00:17:01.15 Kim Darroch:
You know Andy, first of all, the longer that you work with politicians in a sense and I can put it this way, the more normal they become to you. When you’ve been in the foreign service two years and your first job is in the, rather unglamorous, protocol department dealing with the privileges and the immunities of the embassies of diplomats in London and then you get catapulted, as I did, into the most junior press spokesman job in what was called then, News Department, and you find yourself as the guy who gets the Friday night duties and the weekend duties and stuff happens then, look, it’s a hell of a jump what I had been doing and I was still only kind of three years out of university.
00:17:48.11 Andy Coulson:
Just to take it to Trump, briefly, this is another wall that he’s kind of knocked down, obviously, he’s not a journalist but my god he understands the media. And that system that you’ve just very eloquently described, he’s broken that system, he’s jumped over the journalists. This is not about a careful briefing from a press advisor and you choose which lines you take and which you don’t and out you go. He doesn’t care about any of that, he’s broken the whole machine. Does that worry you?
00:18:20.12 Kim Darroch:
Well I mean, it’s… does it worry me? This is going to sound a shocking thing to say, social media has changed the world, it just has in lots of ways and one of them is the way in which politicians can do exactly what you’ve described, which is to basically jump over the mainstream media, the established media, and talk direct to their base. No one has ever done it like Donald Trump and that’s just, I think, a fact. But I think in future there will be lots of people who try to do it like him but there is an extraordinary talent, of sorts, in the way that he communicates to his base via Twitter.
00:19:12.05 Kim Darroch:
So the world has changed, the world has changed. By the way, Trump wasn’t always like that. If you go back to the early days of his campaign, when I got to Washington, January 2016, he was actually brilliant at manipulating the mainstream media too. But the mainstream media got to a place where they would rather show an empty podium awaiting Donald Trump making a speech than any of the other candidates speaking. Add that to his fame from The Apprentice, as a reality TV star, and no wonder when he got on the stage with sixteen others for the primary debates, republican primary debates, 2016, he was the one everyone recognised and then they liked what he was saying and he leaped out ahead immediately and they never really got even challenged, no one even got close to him.
00:20:04.13 Kim Darroch:
So that’s using the media was one of the ways in which he won. But as it became clear that he was actually going to win the nomination the mainstream media looked more at what he was saying and basically turned against him. So for the second half of his campaign when he was running against Hillary Clinton, that’s when he talked about the fake news and basically was at war with the mainstream media. And he would point out the sort out the media pen in his huge rallies and basically encourage the crowd to shout abuse at them. And the whole relationship with the mainstream media soured over the second half of that 2016 campaign and his use of Twitter became more and more the main route by which he communicated to the American people.
00:20:53.02 Kim Darroch:
By the way, he’s never really used Twitter to try and win over the undecided, let alone to build bridges towards the democrats, he used Twitter, almost entirely, to talk to his base. But his base is extraordinarily solid. He’s never fallen below, even at his most difficult moments, he’s never fallen below 80% or so approval amongst republic party voters. Which I think is a rating that probably exceeds Ronald Reagan’s.
00:21:17.17 Andy Coulson:
But then on Friday July 5th 2019 your chief of staff walks into the office in the embassy and tells you ‘we’ve got a problem, there’s been a leak’. Just tell us Kim, about the sort of hours and days that kind of followed thereafter. And how that, what I’m interested in is how are you coping, how are you dealing with it? Given your rich experience in being around crisis, your crisis muscle is pretty well exercised but suddenly you’re the crisis. How did that feel, how did you handle it, what happened?
00:21:48.01 Kim Darroch:
Okay, well I tell you the story Andy but preface it by saying I am not claiming that I handled it well or badly, I’ll just tell you what I did and others can make a decision, make a judgement on how well I handled it. When they came in with the story it’s one of those moments when you don’t quite stop breathing but you get this terrible sinking feeling and you instantly start thinking about the worst and how bad this could be. And then we managed to get out of London, or London managed to get, I think it was one of the special advisors in the commons managed to get out of the newspaper, little extracts from all the documents that they had got.
00:22:38.09 Kim Darroch:
And most of them were some fairly recent cables about the first Trump 2020 re-election rally, about Iran, about the state visit and one other which I can’t quite remember. And then there was this extract from a highly confidential letter. Cables go to a wide audience, a few hundred people around Whitehall usually, this letter had gone to about six people. And we had to identify which it was. And that took rather longer than identifying the very recent cables. But about an hour and a half after we first learnt of the leak we got the, I remember the photocopier going in the outer office and my thinking that must be it. And then they brought in, because we had a rolling meeting going on with the senior people in the embassy, and they brought in several copies of the letter and as I read it and I realised this was as bad as it could be, because it was this letter six months after the start of the administration giving a very frank and unvarnished account of how it was doing. It contained a number of predictions which, by the way, all came true but that’s all in the history books.
00:23:58.15 Kim Darroch:
And then the world starts to revolve rather quickly. A few things were going on and so your mind’s occupied with all the questions that are coming at you. You’re talking to, or my press team were talking to London about what we would say when the article appeared. Because we still knew it’d be on Sunday so there was about thirty-six hours until this appeared, how we would handle it. We were discussing what we would do with the administration to handle it. So we were thinking about who we would talk to and what we would say and so on.
00:24:44.03 Kim Darroch:
And there was stuff going on about whether any of us had any idea, we were checking up on the distribution on it and telling London ‘well it only went to about six people so I don’t know how this could have leaked’ and this kind of thing. So the first few hours are taken up with this kind of pre-emptive work to try and minimise the consequences of the story when it broke. And your mind is filled with that when that is happening. And then you just basically’ and this is when it gets quite difficult because you have this continuing feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach about how it was going to be and…
00:25:34.18 Andy Coulson:
But you were able, sorry Kim, to interrupt, but you were able to park the dread? You were able to kind of put aside the personal feelings and see it from the outside looking in?
00:25:50.07 Kim Darroch:
Yeah, while there was stuff to do, Andy, while there was stuff to do and there was a lot of stuff to do in those first few hours, and then there’s the normal work of the embassy going on as well, so there’s people coming in with stuff to clear, with questions to ask, ‘will you do this or this or this?’ and so on. And so the day is still full. And it’s not until the evening comes around that you start to think about what might happen in more depth. And Vanessa had gone back to a few days earlier to London. She wasn’t staying in London, she was staying elsewhere in the country to see her mother, who was ninety-six. So actually she was going back that day so I took her to the airport and warned her there was a story on its way while downplaying its likely impact, because I didn’t want her then to share my feeling of dread for the next twenty-four, forty-eight hours.
00:26:52.06 Kim Darroch:
And then I went out for something to eat with some of the senior people in the Embassy and we talked more about what was going on. And then managed, I’m glad I did, because I didn’t get much sleep for the next twenty-four, forty-eight hours, to get some sleep. And then the next day, the Saturday, people came around to clear press lines, to tell me what was going to be said when the story broke. Remember we’re five hours behind in Washington, so by the time I got up it was already early afternoon in the UK and it was waiting for the story to drop. Because nowadays, of course, it all appears on the websites before it actually appears in the paper.
00:27:33.07 Kim Darroch:
Being old fashioned, having been the former Press Spokesman, because as well as doing the junior press minister job, I was the Foreign Office Press Spokesman in the late nineties, I used to go with the then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, to do the Sunday morning shows and you wanted to see what was in the newspapers before they appeared on… it was David Frost in those days. And so I would always go to the newsstand outside Victoria Station at about ten o’clock on Saturday night to pick up all of the newspapers, first editions, and spend the next two or three hours skimming through them so that when I saw Robin Cook the following morning at about 6..00am I could brief him on what was in the papers. So in my mind my fate was still going to be determined by a tied up pile of newspaper landing on the pavement outside that Victoria Station newsstand.
00:28:31.04 Kim Darroch:
But I was kind of thinking already by then, knowing how the president tended to react to any criticism, that he was going to react badly to this and that he would say something publicly and this would fuel an already huge story. And then, actually, the first press cuttings beeped onto my phone at about six o’clock on Washington time and we went through them all. And of course, as you would expect, you don’t blame journalists for this, they had picked up the most stridently critical passages of the letter about the performance of the Trump administration and that was the front page. And there was a lot more stuff on pages, two, three, four and five plus a bit about me and photographs and this kind of thing. So it was as bad as it could be. And they’d already ignored the other cables.
00:29:33.14 Andy Coulson:
Of course. How quickly, Kim, because what you’ve described there is the scene of a crisis, in your case in an embassy, but it’s exactly the same in Number 10 as you also know that there’s a crisis, there’s a proper problem but life goes on, business continues around you, and you’re trying to make sense of it. You’re trying to get ahead of it obviously, you’re trying to get to the end point. How quickly did you conclude that with all this different stuff going on, yes, you’re trying to find out who the leak is, yes, you’re trying to find out the exact content, but in the end your future will be determined by the reaction of a president who is famously thin-skinned but who also, you know, is not afraid of breaking usual protocol around… because this is not the first leaked memo from an embassy by any means, but you know that this is a man who’s not afraid to chuck the rule book out the window. How quickly did you get to that point and realise it’s just really going to be dependent on what he says?
00:30:41.17 Kim Darroch:
From the moment that I read The Mail on Sunday piece on my iPad or my iPhone at about 6.37pm on Saturday night. And I mean, some of the people, senior people in the Embassy came round and sort of shared the misery but from that second I thought the thing that counts here is what the President is going to say and I also suspected that he would react pretty harshly, pretty badly because you know that’s what he does.
00:31:17.22 Andy Coulson:
And what he said, we should explain, well he said two things at different times, I think I’m right in saying. ‘The ambassador has not served the UK well, I can tell you that, we are not big fans of that man.’ And then later I think he says, ‘I do not know the ambassador but he’s not liked or well-thought of within the US, we will no longer deal with him.’
00:31:38.16 Kim Darroch:
00:31:38.20 Andy Coulson:
After you’d heard that first quite you’re thinking this is only really heading one way. After the second, that’s the moment where you think that’s me, this is now untenable.
00:31:49.21 Kim Darroch:
There’s twenty-four hours between my seeing and reading the piece in the newspaper and the president tweeting, which is kind of what I expected because I knew he was up in Bedminster where he owns a golf course, up in New Jersey. And I thought that people would brief him when he had finished his Sunday afternoon round of golf. So he didn’t… there was no Whitehouse reaction, I mean, we had talked to the Whitehouse and warned them that the story was coming and it was out there. We told them what press lines we were taking. They had said, ‘okay, we’re used to dealing with leaks, we’ll play it down, there’s no need to make a big thing of this but of course we don’t know what the president will say’. So they were, because they were friends of ours, they were doing their best.
00:32:38.03 Kim Darroch:
But I knew it didn’t really count. What counted would be what Trump said. And I knew he’d be coming back on Sunday afternoon and he landed on the Whitehouse lawn in his helicopter and there was a gaggle of the Whitehouse press corps there and that was when he said the first stuff about ‘we don’t like that guy, he’s not doing a good job for the UK’. And I thought at that moment that that was pretty bad and perhaps not survivable but if it had stuck at that maybe I could have… In theory maybe I could have clung on. But it would have been clinging on. So I was already thinking about my position, as it were.
00:33:28.16 Kim Darroch:
And then the following day he tweeted ‘We’re no longer going to deal with him’ and I was due to go to a dinner which the President might have attended, it wasn’t clear whether he was going to attend, he might have done, for the Emir of Qatar, an evening hosted by the Treasury Secretary, and I was disinvited from that. And Liam Fox, the then Secretary of Trade was arriving and I was going with him on cause in the Whitehouse and on Wilbur Ross, who was the counterpart of Liam Fox. Wilbur Ross suddenly phoned to say that he was mysteriously unavailable for a meeting but could talk to Liam Fox on the telephone which was all very mysterious. So you’re getting the lie of the land there.
00:34:18.09 Andy Coulson:
The draw-bridge was Bing pulled up.
00:34:20.23 Kim Darroch:
Exactly, exactly. So really from the moment of the President’s Whitehouse lawn comments I was starting to wonder if my time was up. And then the tweet that said we won’t deal with him and the evidence that they meant it kind of confirmed it in my mind. And then just to sharpen things further, someone, who I would call a friend, but a senior political editor from one of the British daily newspapers phoned me up and he said, ‘We’re wondering if you’re going to resign?’ And I sort of said, ‘I was only doing my job, why should I?’ But he absolutely pin pointed, in the way that good journalists do, exactly what I was thinking at the time. And over the course of therefore over the course of the Monday I was thinking that maybe I should go.
00:35:12.14 Kim Darroch:
But then there was stuff going on in London. So you know what it’s like, the hubbub around me actually intensified in the course of the Monday. London was back at work, there was an emergency question in the House of Commons put down by I think Tom Tugendhat, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which Alan Duncan, who was then Minister of State was answering. And there was just a lot going on. So you’re reading how the American press are playing it. You’re reading how the British press are playing it. You’re getting reports of this House of Commons debate. You’re getting people from London phoning you, well-intentioned, saying how are you? How is it all? And I’m feeling an out of body experience. Like I’m at the table with the team around me, firing all this stuff at me, it’s really hard to concentrate on any single piece of information because there is so much coming in. You know this Andy, you’ve been in crises, everyone suddenly thinks what they are learning might be crucial to what decisions you are taking and therefore everyone was firing and reporting in at the same time. I’ve been in lots of foreign policy crises but one of the real difficulties, you just get overwhelmed by incoming information at the moment where you want to sit back and try and take some clear decisions.
00:36:33.08 Andy Coulson:
And get back to basics, exactly.
00:36:35.00 Kim Darroch:
Go back to basics.
00:36:36.11 Andy Coulson:
And one of the basic elements here, Kim, is how do you find the room to think about, not to get too soft about it, but in the end the decision to resign is value-led. It is about your values and how you see yourself and your role and what is important to you. And you are clearly a man who has devoted a large part of his life to public service, you’re clearly a passionate patriot. And where do you find the room in amongst all that incoming to be able to have a conversation with yourself, if you like, that says actually who am I? What am I about? What do I think I should do in these circumstances?
00:37:21.08 Kim Darroch:
It’s sort of came, I mean, it built up as a sort of thought process but as I say, never a coherent thought process because it’s getting interrupted by people saying ‘you need to know this, you need to know this, this and this’. So with hindsight Andy, maybe I should have, if I’d been thinking really clearly, if I want to use self-criticism I would have announced my resignation on the Monday not waited until the Tuesday, Tuesday Washington time. But there was just too much going on and too many phone calls to handle and pieces of well-meant advice or support coming in from people and reports of this publication whatever to be able to sit back and think take half an hour and just think it though.
00:38:11.01 Kim Darroch:
But over the course of Monday night and into Tuesday, especially throughout a largely sleepless night, I did get a chance to think things through and my views started to crystallise. And the main thing about it was that you couldn’t do the job. I mean, what’s the job of the British ambassador? Part of it’s saying what’s going on in the county and part of it is trying to influence it in what’s happening on issues that matter to Britain in the direction of the British objectives and British interests. And it’s no good just reporting what’s in the newspapers; you have to get insights from your comments that are not available, I hope, to, excellent though they are, to members of the media. And you have to be able to get people to listen to you and you hope to get persuaded or influenced by what you’re telling them about what the British government hopes will happen.
00:39:08.19 Kim Darroch:
And for that you need really strong relationships at the very top of government and amongst the key people in all the various ministries. And you just are thinking to yourself when they say we’re not going to deal with him anymore and people are pulling out of meetings, maybe it would fade away, go back to something like normal, in about month or two, maybe not because the president is not known to forget his grudges overnight. And anyway even if it did fade away and you managed to get access again, would people tell you anything? Would they think this is going to be going in another report saying we’re a rubbish administration, we don’t know what we’re doing.
00:39:55.21 Kim Darroch:
So the more I thought about it, over the course of Monday and through Tuesday morning, the more I thought, there is really, you can’t do the job. You can cling on and it will be embarrassing and a bit humiliating and there’ll be endless speculation back in London about whether you’re about to go or about to be fired or whatever, particularly with the leadership election going on in the UK and the new prime minister coming in. And meanwhile all of those insights that you thought you were offering, that you believed was the job, wouldn’t be available to you.
00:40:33.11 Kim Darroch:
So this is where I go back to my first two years in the Foreign Office and then my time as Press Spokesman for robin Cooke. And the conclusion you reach over the next few days, especially if you’ve, you get there quickly if you’ve had the experience I’ve had, was if you’re going to go, get out ahead of the story and surprise people a bit by announcing you’re going. Don’t cling on and then make it look as if you’re pushed. Just make a clean break of it, just go. I was anyway in the last six months of my posting so it wasn’t like I was cutting off my career in its prime. Just get out of it. And you know, you think about the toll on your family of being on the front pages of the newspapers three days running, four days running, and you know you think I don’t need this anymore.
00:41:32.08 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, I remember, Kim, late in 2010, Ed Llewellyn who we’ve both worked with and is now the ambassador in Paris, he walked into my office in Number 10 and said, ‘we’ve got a problem there’s been a leak’ and it was the Wikileaks in the US embassy, I don’t know if you remember? And Ed and I went off to see the very embarrassed ambassador Louis Susman, who wanted to pre-warn us of the content of these leaks. And I can tell you that what was being said about David Cameron and George Osbourne for that matter, was less than flattering to put it mildly. And we were all, in fact as a government, we were all being characterised as paranoid and needy, which was pretty bloody rude apart from anything else. But our view, pretty quickly formed, was that these things happen. That the relationship was far too important to worry about a few days of embarrassing headlines. We’d get over it and of course we did. I remember the US embassy were relieved, to put it mildly, but it passed pretty swiftly. And the truth is, of course, if the Whitehouse had reacted in anything like that kind of fashion you’d have finished your posting, right?
00:42:34.09 Kim Darroch:
Yeah. That’s absolutely right Andy, and I occasionally use the Wikileaks example because what American embassies had said about DC and George Osborne I mean, they were saying it about governments all over the world. There was a great, fat set of leaks in that package and they were pretty much rude about everyone, everywhere. And by the way, I mean, I can’t claim I’ve seen the text, I know there’s been some pretty sharp reporting out of the US Embassy in London about for example Theresa May’s handling of Brexit.
00:43:12.07 Andy Coulson:
One would imagine.
00:43:13.16 Kim Darroch:
You’d imagine. So yeah, now one of my distinguished predecessors, one of my best friends, I won’t name him but he wrote some less than completely flattering things about Obama as a candidate, not Obama as president, as a candidate which leaked somewhere on the front page of a Sunday newspaper and the Obama team said absolutely nothing about it. Didn’t say anything. So you’re right, you know, it could have worked out differently and you know that’s the difference between the style of those two presidents. But I probably could have, in those circumstances, finished my posting.
00:43:51.07 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, so you don’t regret the resignation? Rear view mirror, very dangerous, but actually you rather wish you’d done it swifter, a bit quicker?
00:44:01.02 Kim Darroch:
Yeah, I wish I’d done it twenty-four hours earlier.
00:44:02.23 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, yeah. Boris Johnson didn’t help either, did he? Refusing to support you when he was asked about you in the Tory leadership debate which was kind of happening simultaneously, if you like. You knew Boris of course, as I mentioned earlier, when he was a reporter in Brussels. How big a factor was that, do you think?
00:44:20.11 Kim Darroch:
Look, it wasn’t a big factor and people sound surprised when I say this, but I’d already kind of reached the view, especially triggered, as I said, by a few journalists saying to me, ‘are you going to resign?’ Earlier. So I was already one foot poised out of the door. But it, you know, it did play a factor in cementing it. I mean, saying this story: Liam fox was still in Washington, he had some calls on the Hill that afternoon with a senator and a couple of congressmen and I’d gone with him on those, having checked beforehand that I was still welcome, they said, ‘of course you are’. Republicans, by the way, ‘of course you’re welcome’ they said. And then I got back to the Embassy maybe five thirty, six o’clock. And I remember that one of my political team said ‘we’ve just had the hustings between Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson and you’re one of the main questions and Hunt said he supported you and Boris said he didn’t, here’s the clip’. And do you know it was on his mobile phone and I was just thinking about that and thinking to myself, I’m going to go tonight, it’ll be announced tomorrow in London, I’m going to now go and sort out my resignation. And so I was watching it but not watching it, if you can imagine, I wasn’t really taking it in. So to this day I couldn’t give you a precise description of what Boris said. It would have been nice if he…
00:45:53.03 Andy Coulson:
He was noncommittal effectively.
00:45:54.14 Kim Darroch:
He was noncommittal. But look, you know, in the end he was…
00:46:00.16 Andy Coulson:
You and I have both advised candidates, ministers, prime ministers to be noncommittal.
00:46:05.13 Andy Coulson:
Exactly. He was going to deliver Brexit, he needed a free trade deal with the US, still does need a free trade deal with the US. And why would he want to pre-emptively commit to keeping me in place. I’m not saying he had definitely decided to get rid of me but he wanted to keep his options open. And do you know, if I had been his media advisor I would probably have said something like that to him.
00:46:39.22 Andy Coulson:
That’s pretty generous. Kim, that moment when you realise… listen, I think the way you’ve explained it and thank you for it and sort of rationalised it, I completely see it. But in the end a resignation is a values-led personal decision and only you can make it. Having made that decision, realising that your diplomatic career is over, how did you cope with that moment? And how have you coped afterwards as well; I’m interested in? Have you managed to stay away from the bitterness pit?
00:47:17.20 Kim Darroch:
Yeah. Do you know when I decided to make the phone call to the Foreign Secretary and he didn’t try and argue me out of it and said he would arrange for the statement and all the rest of it. The initial feeling, I mean, I talked to Vanessa before doing it so she was on board. In fact told me that she had thought from the first moment when the news broke that this is the way it would end up. So she’d got there before I had. But initially it’s a huge a kind of feeling of relief and a very strong feeling that I had done the right thing. Done the right thing for the government, for the UK and for myself.
00:48:09.21 Kim Darroch:
And I went out for a meal, again with some people, some friends from the Embassy. I think we did Mexican that night or maybe it was… Anyway and then I didn’t start to really have a chance to think it all through until they’d all gone and it was sort of midnight. And I knew the statement was being made because they’re’ five hours ahead so it would be made quiet early in the morning, sort of seven o’clock or maybe six am was going to be released. So there was a question of would I get any sleep before then. But the clock was ticking, the decision had been taken, and that was when I started to think about how all of this felt.
00:48:58.05 Kim Darroch:
And yeah, there are moments when you think forty-two years of public service and this is the way it ends. You think about how it will look to all your friends back in the UK. You will think about whether this is in fact the moment that will sum up your career. Whether everything else is just a footnote to this one story. And you think about who did it to you and why they did it. And to this day I am fascinated by the motivation of whoever did the leak. So there are moments where…
00:49:41.16 Andy Coulson:
Fascinated? Fascinated Kim or are you also angry?
00:49:46.06 Kim Darroch:
Do you know, the anger, I think I was very angry then. It’s a long time ago now, fifteen months, so it is just more… of course I still feel.
00:49:56.20 Andy Coulson:
Fifteen months is not very long when you put it in the context of such a long career.
00:50:01.00 Kim Darroch:
Yeah, of course I’m… I still get bursts of anger but you know it’s done and there’s no point in spending the next period of your life feeling bitter about what has happened, there just isn’t. So you have to move on. And I have to say that writing the book was, although the book is, begins and ends with this episode but it was a cathartic experience in terms of trying to write about, think about, and then write about what lay behind the election of Donald Trump, what lay behind Brexit. I mean, it was the first moment in forty years when I’d had time to really sit back and think and try and coalesce those thoughts into a sort of coherent piece of prose. The other thing is, of course, that things like having a family makes a huge difference.
00:51:07.19 Andy Coulson:
Of course, well it’s a great read. How quickly does life change for an ambassador who has resigned? I mean, how quickly and how did you adjust, to the kind of… because life is so frenetic, your book describes very well what life is like as an ambassador, particularly in Washington, it is non-stop. Constant activity, suddenly that all stops. And you’re looking at the news in a different way, you’re looking at everything in a different way. How was that?
00:51:43.00 Kim Darroch:
I thought I would miss all of that much more than I did. I missed it astonishingly little really. And I realised that forty-two years was probably a couple of years too many and that I had done enough of that for one lifetime. And there are things that you can go back to doing, reading and walking and sailing and things that you didn’t have time for before. So actually, you know, I mean, I’ve had much less difficulty than I expected to adjusting to normal life. And do I miss the six am phone calls from London because they’re five hours ahead saying what’s going on this? Do I miss all the paperwork? Do I miss being out on the Washington dinner circuit every night? Do I miss the transatlantic travel? I don’t.
00:52:52.19 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, I was going to ask you, you must have wondered with Covid how you would have handled it as an ambassador. Because it would have been a pretty sizeable challenge, to put it mildly.
00:53:04.06 Kim Darroch:
Well I’ve heard about how they are coping with it, of course, they’re coping with it in Washington. But it’s very difficult and very strange and you know when the pandemic broke and the lockdown happened, my main feeling again, was massive relief that I didn’t have to handle it.
00:53:25.12 Andy Coulson:
What do you think of Trump’s handling of it?
00:53:28.01 Kim Darroch:
It’s more of his playing to his base. And more of, if he, and I mean Biden is clearly favourite, judging by all the opinion polls, if Trump loses on the 3rd November, then he will have lost because he didn’t use his presidency to reach out to the undecided and to build bridges to the Democrats. And he just relied on his base. And he’s lost two sectors from his base, some from two sectors of his base, seniors and suburban women. And that he will have lost because of his failure to try and be president of all Americas, I think.
00:54:15.14 Kim Darroch:
And his handling of Covid, where he’s put so much emphasis on the economy, which was his trump card coming into the election, trump card, sorry, and nothing like enough empathy for the 215,000 American families who have lost people to the pandemic. But the important point here, Andy, history may try to say that Trump would have won, if he loses in 2020, that he would have won had it not been for Covid19. And I’m not sure that that is right. Remember in 2018 in the mid-terms, he did badly. There was a swing of something like 8% to the Democrats and he lost the House and he might have been in trouble in the Senate had it not been that all the seats under the American system, all the seats up in 2018, 90% of them were Democrat seats.
00:55:17.05 Kim Darroch:
So the idea that may be current in a month or two’s time that it was all down to the pandemic, I don’t buy that. I think Biden might have had a chance whatever, whatever. It would have been much more difficult if the economy had been booming but all this stuff about the greatest economy ever, it isn’t. I mean, the economy was strong before Covid but it’s usually quite strong, the American economy just is. It’s tremendously dynamic. But there are many points in recent American history where growth rates have been higher than they were under Trump and when more manufacturing jobs have been created and when unemployment was lower. So it would have been a close election even if Covid hadn’t happened.
00:56:04.12 Andy Coulson:
I’m going to advise you, if I may Kim, to not be noncommittal, give us a view then, you think that obviously it’s a fascinating election but if you were a betting man where would you put your money?
00:56:23.11 Kim Darroch:
If you held a gun to my head and said ‘go and bet this hundred pounds’ I would bet on Biden. And if you said ‘go on take a bigger risk’ I would bet on Biden and the Democrats retaking the Senate.
00:56:43.05 Andy Coulson:
00:56:43.15 Kim Darroch:
And there’s nothing dramatic in that by the way Andy, because I mean, the American people who put all the polls together and create the odds, the polls of polls, are saying 85% chance of Biden victory and 65% chance of the Democrats retaking the Senate. All that said, keep reading stuff about how polls are a good guide in normal elections but this is nothing like a normal election, with a higher percentage of postal votes than ever before and with literally battalions of lawyers both Democrat and Republican side lined up in each swing state to contest the result if there is any scope to do so. So this can get very, very messy.
00:57:32.06 Andy Coulson:
You’re in the Lords of course Kim, but one imagines there’s another big role for you. Has this experience made you allergic to public life, or not?
00:57:42.21 Kim Darroch:
I’m not sure that there is. But you know, I’m open minded on everything Andy.
00:57:55.21 Andy Coulson:
I’m very glad.
00:57:56.23 Kim Darroch:
Or I don’t expect any offers.
00:57:59.07 Andy Coulson:
Well, we’ll see. Kim, thank you so much for your time. We end our podcast, always, by asking the guest for their three crisis cures. So these are three things that kind of help you through tough times. Could you give us your crisis cures please?
00:58:18.17 Kim Darroch:
Well whether they’re cures or not, they’re things that they all focus on the same thing Andy, which is, getting away from the crisis, all the stuff that goes on around you and occupies all your thoughts and stops you thinking clearly and stops you not thinking about it. So there are three things that I do. The first is, and you know Vanessa and I have been doing this almost daily since we got back to the UK and it’s one of the things that really works for us, is you just need to go outside for half an hour, an hour’s walk. Preferably somewhere which has nice surroundings and just get away from it and have time to think and talk and try and get yourself grounded in a different reality.
00:59:17.11 Andy Coulson:
Stay away from the phone during that walk, presumably?
00:59:20.00 Kim Darroch:
Oh, completely, switch the phone off. I don’t even take it with me. Just get away from the phone. Because there is nothing that is going to happen that can’t be dealt with in an hour or half an hour later. Second thing is you need to, and this is all about taking your mind off it and escaping. The two other things I do are, number one, I read a lot. And a lot of people in public service just tend to read biographies, auto-biographies, histories, whatever. I read a lot of fiction and fiction takes me away from what is happening around me in the real world and gives me an escape.
01:00:09.20 Andy Coulson:
What are you reading right now?
01:00:11.05 Kim Darroch:
Well, it’s funny you should ask that. There is a trilogy, I like science fiction, I’ve always liked science fiction, JG Ballard is my favourite writer of all time, it’s a fiction called the Three Body Problem which is by a Chinese writer called Liu Cixin, I think that’s how you pronounce it and it’s become a phenomenon. It’s a huge best-seller, it’s been translated from the original Chinese into English. It’s won huge number of awards. Barak Obama is a huge fan so when you read the back cover the first thing it says is Barak Obama says, extraordinary work and then there’s lots more in that vein. It’s a work of the most stunning imagination which conjures up images which just transfix you.
01:01:06.06 Kim Darroch:
The third one is, and I’ve just got it really, I’ve been a film buff all of my life really, my daughter is too. And over the last forty years I haven’t seen nearly enough films. I mean, I try and get to the best films coming out every year but there’s huge gaps in it. And of course nowadays, with Netflix and HBO and Sky and all of those things, you can just go online and download them and catch up. So that’s the other way I get away from reality.
01:01:43.15 Andy Coulson:
A particular film, or a particular genre, director, that you go to particularly that’s kind of in the context of crisis?
01:01:52.05 Kim Darroch:
In the context of crisis?
01:01:54.10 Andy Coulson:
In the same way as you go to fiction, you go to a particular type of film?
01:01:57.24 Kim Darroch:
I love the films of the ‘70s. The great American directors of that period Francis Ford Coppola and others, Bob Rafelson, my favourite film of all time is Five Easy Pieces, which is a sort of road trip film starring Jack Nicholson. But Easy Rider and all those films are wonderful.
01:02:21.06 Andy Coulson:
Fabulous. Kim, thank you for your time, we really appreciate it. Congratulations on the book and it’s been wonderful to talk to you.
01:02:32.24 Kim Darroch:
Thank you, it’s great to be here, Andy, thanks.
01:02:36.00 Andy Coulson:
Thanks for listening to Crisis What Crisis? Do feel free to send us your feedback, you’ll find our contact details and our show notes giving you the key insights from our guests at crisiswhatcrisis.com. There are more useful conversations on the way so please do subscribe and if you like what you hear give us a rating and a review, it really helps. Thanks again.
01:02:58.17 End of transcription