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Trump calls his globe-trotting ex-diplomat ‘my envoy.’ Neither is in office.

After an anti-corruption crusader unexpectedly won last year’s presidential election in Guatemala, democracy teetered on the edge in the Central American country. Amid law enforcement raids on election offices and threats of violence, the Biden administration worked feverishly to lay the groundwork for a peaceful transfer of power.

But not Richard Grenell, a former diplomat and intelligence official in Donald Trump’s administration, who arrived in Guatemala in January, days before the new president was to be sworn in — and threw his support behind a right-wing campaign to undermine the election.

Grenell met with a hard-line group that sued to block the inauguration, which thanked him for his “visit and trust.” He defended Guatemalan officials who had seized ballot boxes in an effort to overturn a vote declared “free and fair” by the United States and international observers, and he attacked the U.S. State Department’s sanctions against hundreds of anti-democratic actors.

“They are trying to intimidate conservatives in Guatemala,” Grenell said in a television interview. “This is all wrapped into this kind of phony concern about democracy.”

Grenell’s intervention highlights the extraordinary role he has carved out in the three years since Trump left the White House. From Central America to Eastern Europe and beyond, Grenell has been acting as a kind of shadow secretary of state, meeting with far-right leaders and movements, pledging Trump’s support, and at times, working against the current administration’s policies.

It’s unusual for a former diplomatic official to continue meeting with foreign leaders and promoting the agenda of a presidential candidate on the world stage. Grenell’s globe-trotting has sparked deep concern among career national security officials and diplomats, who warn that he emboldens bad actors and jeopardizes U.S. interests in service of Trump’s personal agenda. In the process, Grenell is openly charting a foreign policy road map for a Republican presidential nominee who has found common cause with authoritarian leaders and threatened to blow up partnerships with democratic allies.

“I think Trump and Grenell would upend American leadership of the free world, from Truman on the left to Reagan on the right, and replace it with something much darker,” said Daniel Fried, who spent four decades in top State Department posts, including as an assistant secretary of state and a director of the National Security Council. “It’s transactional. Democratic values are irrelevant, and it’s isolationist.”

Grenell declined to talk on the record about his overseas work.

His profile is rising in Trump’s MAGA movement, which hails him as a champion of the “America First” platform. Trump and his supporters view a second term as an opportunity to elevate his most loyal backers, who potentially would test traditional guardrails against abuse of executive power.

The former president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., in an online chat with Grenell last month, touted his record as ambassador to Germany and called him a “top contender for Secretary of State.”

“Your name comes up a lot in some very high levels. You’re in there with the base,” Trump Jr. said, adding that Grenell was “probably the only ambassador who spoke truth to power.”

Grenell calls himself a diplomat but acts as a rapid-response, war room director, perpetually exalting Trump and trolling his political foes on social media and in interviews.

“Grenell fulfills the top priority that Trump is looking for in his second term, which is absolute loyalty,” said Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, who has called Trump “unfit” to be president and warned about a potential administration of enablers. “What a president’s advisers owe him is their opinions on what’s right, their sound judgment.”

Grenell is in regular contact with the former president and his family, though it’s unclear when or if he’s acting on Trump’s directions. Earlier this year, Grenell attended a small, private funeral for Trump’s mother-in-law, according to other guests. Social media posts show several visits to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., and his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. In an unusual statement by an ex-president, Trump gave one of Grenell’s recent foreign trips his blessing, calling him “My Envoy.”

In Guatemala, Grenell claimed on social media that he met with more than 45 political and business leaders during a days-long trip. In the Balkans, where he worked as an envoy under Trump, he’s continued to talk to heads of state who are separately engaging with the Biden administration. Last year, as Turkey threatened Sweden’s pathway to joining NATO, Grenell tried to broker a meeting between Trump and the Turkish president, according to two people close to the former president who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung declined to comment on whether the former president endorses Grenell’s foreign activities.

“There has been no discussion of who will serve in a second Trump Administration.” Cheung said. “President Trump will choose the best people for his Cabinet to undo all the damage Crooked Joe Biden has done to our country.”

Asked if he’s seeking a Cabinet-level position, Grenell has told reporters that he’s busy campaigning for Trump’s reelection.

Federal law requires many people paid to advocate on behalf of foreign interests to register with the Justice Department and disclose their activities. When Grenell joined the Trump administration, amid revelations that his former public relations firm was paid by a nonprofit funded by the Hungarian government, his lawyer at the time said he did not need to register as a lobbyist. Bloomberg and the New York Times recently reported that Grenell and Trump’s son-in-law and former adviser Jared Kushner are proposing major real estate developments in the Balkans that could pose conflicts of interest if either of them served in another Trump administration.

“This is private sector investment. This is not political,” Grenell said in a recent interview with an Albanian television station. “Jared and I are both not in government and we are on the outside.”

Kushner did not respond to The Post’s requests for comment.

The arc of Grenell’s political career tracks Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party.

A native of Grand Rapids, Mich., who obtained a master’s degree in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School, he served as a spokesman for various Republican politicians and then for the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for several years. During a brief stint as a spokesman for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, Grenell deleted numerous snarky and sexist social media posts and apologized. (He resigned after some religious conservatives rejected him for being openly gay.)

He would not issue a public apology like that again. The following year, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “He always says that after cancer, he’s fearless and lives life without regrets,” said former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who is close with Grenell.

Grenell’s aptitude for tormenting liberals and journalists, viewed as a liability by the Romney campaign, became an asset after Trump’s election. The president who relished weaponizing social media against his political foes named Grenell, a Fox News contributor, as ambassador to Germany.

Grenell immediately offended his new host. Shortly after Trump pulled the United States out of the nuclear deal with Iran in May 2018, Grenell demanded that German businesses cut ties with Iran even though the country remained part of the agreement. One month later, some German politicians called for Grenell’s ouster after he said he wanted to “empower other conservatives throughout Europe” and praised an Austrian political leader allied with the far right. He also pushed a major drawdown of U.S. troops in Germany, which had failed to meet NATO targets for defense spending.

“He really animated the America-first ideology through diplomacy, and that was equal parts confidence, savvy, creativity and online snark,” said U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a Trump ally and friend of Grenell’s. “It was effective. He got Germany to be less of an economic welfare case for the United States.”

Seasoned diplomats criticized Grenell for upending relations with a foreign partner, and later, for boosting Russian interests in the Balkans. While Grenell was still posted to Berlin in 2019, Trump tapped him to mediate between Kosovo and Serbia. Kosovo was recognized as a sovereign state by the U.S. but not by Serbia, long aligned with Russia. Grenell helped broker an agreement normalizing economic cooperation in the region. Kosovo’s prime minister accused Grenell of helping sink his left-wing administration and favoring Serbia’s president, but both countries subsequently honored Grenell for his work.

In early 2020, Trump appointed Grenell acting Director of National Intelligence, a sensitive post typically held by nonpartisan national security experts who have led intelligence agencies or served in the military. During three disruptive months as a Cabinet member, Grenell purged career intelligence professionals serving in what he characterized as a bloated counterterrorism bureaucracy, and he declassified documents sought by Republicans to argue against the investigation into Russian interference.

As Grenell stepped down in May 2020, Trump called him “the all-time great acting ever, at any position.”

He campaigned for the president’s reelection, and days after the vote, he and other Trump surrogates alleged at a news conference that “illegal votes” had tainted the results in Nevada. The state was soon called for Biden, but Grenell has continued to promote the false claim that voting fraud fueled his 2020 victory.

Grenell’s allegiance to Trump has proved fruitful during the Biden years.

In late 2021, he became a high-ranking executive at Newsmax, which has grown more popular with a right-wing audience that views Fox News as insufficiently pro-Trump. The Republican National Committee paid Grenell $135,000 for consulting that year, records show. Grenell received nearly $400,000 from two pro-Trump, tax-exempt organizations in 2022, the latest year tax filings were available.

Last year, Grenell was elected to the board overseeing the Conservative Political Action Conference, a standard-bearer for the conservative movement that has become an unofficial arm of the Trump campaign.

“You probably all have heard the buzz that Ric Grenell is probably likely to have an extremely important role in a Trump administration,” K.T. McFarland, a CPAC board member who served briefly as Trump’s deputy national security adviser said at its February conference. Another speaker drew applause when he started a question to Grenell this way: “Let’s say that you’re the next secretary of state …”

After Trump’s defeat, Grenell was no longer a diplomat — but a private citizen who continued traveling and meeting with world leaders.

Grenell returned to the Balkans in November 2021 — days after dining with Trump at Mar-a-Lago — amid renewed tensions between Serbia and Kosovo. Trump released a statement calling Grenell “My Envoy” and touting their 2020 economic deal in the region as “historic.”

As Grenell criticized U.S. policy during his trip, Kosovo’s president met with senior Biden administration officials in Washington that same month.

On his repeated trips to Kosovo and Serbia, he has used his stature in the region to boost Trump’s allies, to denigrate Biden’s efforts at negotiating a new peace deal, and to push for private developments.

In Serbia, Grenell is often greeted as a quasi-official, reflecting a perception that he speaks for Trump and could play an important role in a future administration. “He is undoubtedly Serbia’s friend,” Serbia’s ambassador to the U.S., Marko Duric, said in an interview last year. “He was while he had the official post, and has remained so today. Everyone in Serbia appreciates that very much.”

At times, that affinity has brought him close to officials tied to the Kremlin. Grenell partied at a cabaret club in Belgrade in 2021 with Serbia’s finance minister, a close ally of President Aleksandar Vučić, who has faced scrutiny in the U.S. for his authoritarian leanings and connections to Russia.

Grenell’s deep Balkan ties helped pave the way for the estimated $1 billion in real estate projects he is now pursuing with Kushner’s investment firm, Affinity Partners, including a luxury hotel and offices in downtown Belgrade and a resort on an island off the Albanian coast. “I was ecstatic to be able to get Jared and Affinity to look at the project and invest in it,” Grenell said in the recent Albanian television interview, adding that he expected the deal to attract “a flood of investment.”

In the fall of 2023, Sweden’s drive to enter NATO was being held up by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose erosion of civil liberties and ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin had badly strained his ties to the United States. In Congress, some key lawmakers were demanding a commitment from Turkey before ratifying the sale of $20 billion in U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets.

Amid those tense negotiations, Grenell, a fierce critic of NATO and the Biden administration’s foreign policies — made a startling offer: A meeting between Trump and Erdogan, who was coming to New York City for the United Nations General Assembly, according to the two people close to the former president.

Grenell proposed a Sept. 12 meeting, according to one of the people familiar with the request. Grenell had long opposed Sweden joining NATO, skeptical that it would meet the alliance’s benchmark of spending at least 2% of gross national product on defense.

It’s not clear how Grenell proposed to broker the meeting, or who he was representing.

But the idea alarmed the Trump confidants, who were concerned about the location and security risks of Erdogan meeting with the former president.Ultimately, Trump decided against it, according to the two people.

Halil Mutlu, Erdogan’s cousin and the head of his political party’s operations in the United States, said that he was not aware of the proposed meeting and that Grenell was not working for his organization.

A review of Grenell’s public statements shows that he has pulled back on his criticism of Erdogan. In 2016, Grenell complained that Erdogan was “too close to Islamists,” and as recently as June 2022 he said the Turkish president “views dissenting voices as terrorists.” But in a May 2023 podcast, Grenell argued that Western media unfairly demonized Erdogan in a complicated political climate. “He’s standing up for Turkey,” he said.

In January, the Turkish Parliament voted in favor of Sweden joining NATO. Earlier this month, when Biden invited the Swedish prime minister to the State of the Union address to celebrate NATO’s expansion, Grenell mocked the foreign leader for applauding the American president.

In August, following a tumultuous presidential campaign in Guatemala, Bernardo Arévalo, a left-leaning academic, defeated Sandra Torres, a former first lady backed by the right-wing ruling class. U.S. officials then watched in alarm at what Arévalo described as a “slow-motion coup,” driven by business and political elites opposed to his anti-graft platform. Guatemalan authorities seized ballot boxes on flimsy claims of voter fraud, tried to dissolve Arévelo’s party, and opened a criminal investigation into him.

Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress recognized his victory as the European Union warned of “a grave threat to democracy” in a country with a long history of corruption. The Biden administration responded aggressively, dispatching members of Congress and top diplomats. In December, the State Department restricted the visas of nearly 300 individuals in Guatemala, including 100 lawmakers, it said were trying to undermine the rule of law.

That same day, Grenell blasted the moves as politically motivated and circulated unproven claims of election fraud made by the nation’s attorney general, who was previously restricted from visiting the United States after the State Department cited her for corruption and obstructing investigations.

Grenell was in Guatemala City by Jan. 11, four days before Arévalo’s inauguration. He met that evening with leaders of a right-wing group, Liga Pro Patria, which had recently tried to block Arévalo’s inauguration in court. Among the activists in a photo of the meeting posted online was Steve Hecht, a political website editor in the group, who said in an interview that Liga Pro Patria invited Grenell to Guatemala to seek the backing of a powerful messenger allied with a former U.S. president.

“People couldn’t believe it,” Hecht said. “Here’s a former, high-level U.S. official who, for whatever reason, came here, and we really appreciated him speaking out.”

Fernando Linares Beltranena, a former lawmaker who also attended the meeting, said he agreed with the group that the State Department had meddled in the Guatemala election. “He told us that when he gets to the State Department, if Donald Trump arrives, then heads will roll,” Linares Beltranena said.

The next day, Grenell ate lunch with outgoing president Alejandro Giammattei, whom he called “a great U.S. ally” on Instagram four days before the State Department restricted the former head of state from the U.S. due to “involvement in significant corruption.” (Giammattei has denied any wrongdoing.) The president’s press agency released a photo of his handshake with “my friend, diplomat Richard Grenell.”

“They are running around labeling everyone who disagrees with them as “undermining Democracy,” Grenell said on X, in several posts bashing the State Department’s efforts to safeguard Arévalo’s presidency.

To Guatemalans on the far right questioning the legitimacy of Arévalo’s election, Grenell’s visit was a sign that help was on the way. To former and current U.S. officials concerned about the peaceful transfer of power, it was a red flag.

“People in Guatemala were asking me, ‘Who is this guy?’” said Francisco Villagrán de León, a career diplomat recently appointed Arévalo’s envoy to the U.S. “Why is he meeting with these known election deniers?”

Grenell briefed the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala about his concerns. But he continued publicly attacking the Biden administration’s support for Arévalo, even as political chaos threatened the inauguration.

The swearing-in was delayed by nine hours amid shouting matches in Congress over new leadership, street protests and a temporary suspension of Arévalo’s party. Arévalo was finally sworn in after midnight.

“It took me back to Jan. 6,” said U.S. Rep. Norma J. Torres (D-Calif.), a member of the U.S. delegation to the inauguration who was holed up for hours during the unrest. “It was very, very tense.”

Vice President Harris hosted Arévalo at the White House on Monday.

Meanwhile, Grenell is providing cover to Arévalo’s political opponents. Mario Duarte, a former Guatemalan intelligence official who has circulated many of Grenell’s social media posts, met with him in Guatemala and again at CPAC last month.

“In Guatemala he is seen as an important part of team Trump,” Duarte said. “I hope someone like Ric Grenell is in a position of influence of power when Trump wins — God willing.”

Mary Beth Sheridan in Mexico City and Claudia Méndez Arriaza in Guatemala contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post
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