US diplomats struggle to navigate racial protests, Trump's messages, charges of hypocrisy

Some U.S. envoys voiced support for protests, as adversaries sought an advantage

June 2, 2020, 6:21 PM

President Donald Trump's administration has come under criticism at home for using strong-arm tactics to clear protesters in the nation's capital or failing to address the anger over racist incidents that has fueled demonstrations and led to some violence across the country.

But that response has also undermined America's message on the world stage, leaving the U.S. open to attacks of hypocrisy from foreign adversaries or facing condemnation from key allies.

For U.S. diplomats, it's become a difficult position as they struggle to respond to protests at embassies overseas, criticism from local governments or press and their own emotions over the crisis back home after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

"As Americans, it is a difficult moment for all of us. Each of us should take the opportunity to reflect upon that tragedy (of Floyd's death) and what we can do in our lives to both bring about healing and to address its underlying conditions and causes," Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun wrote to all department staff Monday night in an email obtained by ABC News.

In the week since the Minneapolis police officer asphyxiated Floyd with his knee -- the latest in a long line of unarmed African Americans killed by police -- some U.S. ambassadors have spoken out about the protests ricocheting across the U.S. and demanding racial justice. But their statements have been sneered at by adversaries like China and Iran, quick to highlight racial tensions in the U.S., and undermined by Trump's actions, particularly after law enforcement used munitions and force to remove peaceful protesters assembled across from the White House on Monday.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump listens to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a cabinet meeting at the Cabinet Room of the White House, Oct. 21, 2019, in Washington.
President Donald Trump listens to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a cabinet meeting at the Cabinet Room of the White House, Oct. 21, 2019, in Washington.
Alex Wong/Getty Images, FILE

The day after that clearing operation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned Hong Kong's government for barring a peaceful vigil for the anniversary of the China's brutal crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing. For the first time in 30 years, a permit for the annual demonstration was rejected, with officials citing restrictions because of the coronavirus.

Pompeo blasted that as Beijing moving "to deny Hong Kongers a voice and a choice, making them the same as mainlanders. So much for two systems."

Online and overseas, he has been challenged by critics condemning the Trump administration's assault on the peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park.

Hong Kong's pro-Beijing chief executive Carrie Lam condemned what she called a "double standard" from senior U.S. officials, saying during a press conference, "They take their own country's national security very seriously, but for the security of our country, especially the situation in Hong Kong, they are looking at it through tinted glasses."

"Your boss gassed peaceful Americans exercising their 1st Amendment rights yesterday for a photo op. You're a disgrace," responded Jennifer Rubin, a conservative columnist with the Washington Post, tweeted at Pompeo.

Unlike his deputy Biegun, Pompeo has not sent a department-wide email about the tumult in the country. Biegun's note, which encouraged senior officials to lead dialogues about racial issues with their staff and asked all employees to complete an unconscious bias training course, said he and Pompeo "recognize this has been an extraordinary time in history, and a challenging time for you and your families," although it's signed by Biegun alone.

When law enforcement cleared Lafayette Park Monday, police were seen on camera by ABC News affiliate WJLA assaulting two Australian journalists, hitting a cameraman in the chest with a shield and a television correspondent in the back with a club.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne expressed "strong concerns" about the incident, and Australia's ambassador to the U.S. Arthur Sinodinos said the State Department is assisting the embassy in filing a complaint with the appropriate authorities and requesting an investigation.

PHOTO: A crowd marches to protest the death of George Floyd on the Hennepin Avenue Bridge over the Mississippi River, May 31, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
A crowd marches to protest the death of George Floyd on the Hennepin Avenue Bridge over the Mississippi River, May 31, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

In his own statement, the U.S. ambassador to Australia Arthur Culvahouse did not apologize for the incident or comment on it directly.

"Freedom of the press is a right Australians and Americans hold dear. We take mistreatment of journalists seriously, as do all who take democracy seriously. ... We remain steadfast in our commitment to protecting journalists and guaranteeing equal justice under law for all," the statement said.

Outside the U.S. embassies in London, Dublin, Berlin and Paris in recent days, hundreds of demonstrators have marched in solidarity with U.S. protesters. The European Union's top diplomat Josep Borrell said Tuesday that Floyd's death was an "abuse of power" by law enforcement and warned "against the excessive use of force."

At least one U.S. envoy has spoken out to defend Trump's actions on Monday. Ambassador Jim Gilmore, the U.S. permanent representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Tuesday that "local law enforcement, supported by their governors and local authorities," had an "obligation ... to restore order in their communities."

"The President has vowed to take swift and decisive action and he has called upon governors to do the same," said Gilmore, the former Republican governor of Virginia and chair of the Republican National Committee. He added that protesters have a right to march, but, "those who break the law through acts of arson and looting, however, must be arrested and held accountable for their transgressions."

Other ambassadors, particularly those career diplomats in the Foreign Service, have voiced support for the protests.

U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe Brian Nichols released a statement Monday that candidly spoke about his pain and anger at Floyd's killing, writing, "As an African American, for as long as I can remember I have known that my rights and my body were not fully my own. ... In a long, unbroken line of black men and women, George Floyd gave the last full measure of devotion to point us toward a new birth in freedom."

But Nichols rejected the idea that U.S. officials can't speak out against injustices, at home or abroad.

"I have also always known that America, conceived in liberty, has always aspired to be better -- a shining city on a hill -- and that is why I have dedicated my life to her service," he said. "Americans will continue to speak out for justice whether at home or abroad. We can meet the ideals of our founding, we will change this world for the better."

Nichols was summoned by the Zimbabwean government Monday to protest comments Trump's national security adviser Robert O'Brien made to ABC's "This Week" Sunday.

O'Brien labeled the southern African country as one of America's "foreign adversaries" seeking to take advantage of the racial protests. Zimbabwean Minister of Information Nick Mangwana rejected that, tweeting, "Zimbabwe does not consider itself America's adversary. We prefer having friends and allies to having unhelpful adversity with any other nation including the USA."

PHOTO: People march through Parliament Square in central London, May 31, 2020, to protest against the recent killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis.
People march through Parliament Square in central London, May 31, 2020, to protest against the recent killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis.
Matt Dunham/AP

Asked what O'Brien was basing that on, a State Department spokesperson told ABC News Monday, "We remain deeply troubled by the Zimbabwean government's use of violence against peaceful protestors and members of civil society, as well as against labor leaders and opposition leaders in Zimbabwe. The Government of Zimbabwe has not arrested a single person in connection with any abduction since 2018, nor has it investigated and held accountable those responsible for human rights violations and abuses."

U.S. diplomats in Africa seem particularly outspoken about the issue of these racial protests across the U.S., as they compete with strong Chinese influence and growing Russian involvement across the continent and battle the perception that Trump, who referred to its 54 nations as "s---hole countries," and his administration do not care about Africa.

The U.S. embassies in Kenya and Uganda tweeted that they are "deeply troubled" by Floyd's death and that there should be a "full investigation." The embassy in Tanzania also shared the Department of Justice's statement announcing its probe into what happened.

U.S. ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo Mike Hammer had a more personal message Friday, tweeting in French that he was "deeply disturbed by the tragic death of George Floyd" and that the Justice Department will conduct a thorough investigation.

"Law enforcement must be held accountable worldwide. No one is above the law," he added.

That has been a common theme in many embassies' messages, as U.S. diplomats seek to promote the rule of law in their host countries.

"The U.S. stands for human rights & freedoms for all, as enshrined in our Constitution. We will not avert our eyes to injustice at home & abroad. We'll support peaceful public assembly, constructive dialogue, rule of law, as we work toward a more peaceful, democratic world," said Rebecca Ross, spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

Hours earlier, Russia's embassy in Washington condemned U.S. law enforcement's "unacceptable" use of rubber bullets and tear gas against personnel from state-run Sputnik news agency, even though Russian police similarly used batons and force to beat back protesters in Moscow last year.

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