The American Embassy in London is currently leaderless. In January, Donald Trump said that he would pick his friend and supporter Woody Johnson, the owner of the New York Jets, as Ambassador to the Court of St. James. But as with many other appointments in the Trump Administration, this one has yet to be made official.
On Sunday night, when the Embassy put out a series of tweets in response to this weekend’s terrorist attack in London, they were issued in the name of Lewis Lukens, the charge d’affaires and acting Ambassador, a career diplomat who has served in Australia, China, Ireland, Iraq, and the Ivory Coast. (From 2008 to 2011, Lukens ran the executive secretariat at the State Department.)
“It is with a heavy heart I offer my condolences and support to the people of the United Kingdom. America grieves with you,” the first tweet said. “The response from emergency services, law enforcement & officials in Ldn–as well as ordinary Londoners–has been extraordinary,” Lukens went on in a second message. And he added, in a third tweet, “I commend the strong leadership of the @MayorofLondon as he leads the city forward after this heinous attack.”
Nothing remarkable there, you might think. The United Kingdom is one of America’s closest allies. London is home to tens of thousands of Americans, and every year countless other Americans visit the city as tourists. When a close friend suffers a vicious attack, surely the least you can do is offer condolences and best wishes.
In pointing to the resolve of Londoners in the face of the second terrorist strike on their city in three months, and the second horrific attack on Britain in two weeks, Lukens was only echoing what many other people around the world were saying. Having survived Hitler’s Blitz and numerous terrorist attacks over the decades, Londoners, and Britons generally, take pride in their durability and ability to bounce back. (When, on Sunday, the New York Times printed a front-page headline that said Britain was “still reeling” from the shock of the Manchester attack, many Brits scoffed.)
Lukens was just doing his job, then. The only thing that made his tweets in any way remarkable was that they came after Trump, his boss, had issued a series of tweets that infuriated many Britons and left many Americans wondering whether there was any limit to how low he could stoop.
It was bad enough that, on Saturday, in the initial moments after the attack, as people were still fleeing from the scene and confusion reigned in London, Trump retweeted an unconfirmed story from the Drudge Report, which said that a suspected terrorist attack was taking place. The President has sixteen different intelligence agencies working for him and instant access to 10 Downing Street—if he wants a first-hand update from London he can get it. Instead, Trump was circulating speculation.
Shortly after that, at 7:17 P.M. on the East Coast, Trump issued a tweet, saying, “We need to be smart, vigilant and tough. We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!” There was no expression of concern for the dead and injured and their families; no expression of admiration for the bravery of the British police, who were rushing into a deadly situation; no expression of solidarity with the British people and the British government. Instead, there was only a blatant effort to make political capital out of an unfolding tragedy.
Evidently, someone around Trump alerted him to how this might be received. Or perhaps Trump cottoned onto it himself. At 7:24 P.M. he tweeted: “Whatever the United States can do to help out in London and the U. K., we will be there – WE ARE WITH YOU. GOD BLESS!”
He might have left things there. But no. On Sunday morning, he was back on Twitter, making another political point: “We must stop being politically correct and get down to the business of security for our people. If we don’t get smart it will only get worse.” Twelve minutes later, he took a shot at Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London: “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!’ ”
Even by Trump’s own debased standards, this last tweet bore closer inspection. For one thing, it misrepresented Khan, who is the first Muslim to be elected mayor of London, making it sound as if he were somehow playing down the deadly attack. Trump had plucked a few words from a statement Khan issued early on Sunday morning, in which he said he was grieving for the victims, asserted that the terrorists “would not win,” and explained to his constituents some of the extra security precautions that were being taken in the wake of the attack. “Londoners will see an increased police presence today and over the course of the next few days. There’s no reason to be alarmed,” Khan said.
Even though many people on social media quickly pointed out that Trump had twisted Khan’s words, he didn’t retract or correct them. Instead, he went out and played golf for the second day in a row. As of Sunday night, neither he nor the White House had issued a formal statement on the London attack.
By then, though, many Britons had taken to Trump’s favorite medium and made perfectly clear their feelings about him and his unsolicited comments. “Cheap nasty & unbecoming of a national leader,” David Lammy, a former Labour minister of higher education, wrote. “Sort of thing that makes me want to quit politics on a day like this.” “Utterly horrid man,” Sam Baxter, a local Conservative councillor from Warrington, Lancashire, said. “Wonder how he’d react if Theresa May put snarky tweets out during a mass shooting in the US?”
Perhaps the most magisterial response came from the author J. K. Rowling. Referring to Trump’s jibe at Khan, she wrote: “It’s called ‘leadership’, Donald. The terrorists were dead 8 minutes after police got the call. If we need an alarmist blowhard, we’ll call.”
The criticism didn’t have any effect, of course. On Monday morning, Trump was back on Twitter. Instead of correcting his tweet about Khan, he fired off another fusillade of messages about his travel ban, saying that the Justice Department “should ask for an expedited hearing” before the Supreme Court and “seek much tougher version!”
Shortly before ten A.M., Trump criticized Khan again, tweeting: “Pathetic excuse by London mayor Sadiq Khan who had to think fast on his ‘no reason to be alarmed statement.’ MSM is working hard to sell it.” And the President of the United States is working hard to undermine what little favor and credibility he had left in the world.