He Threw ‘Spaghetti at the Wall’ for Trump. Now He’s After a Top Job.

Richard Grenell speaks at a Trump rally in Florence, Ariz., on Jan. 15, 2022.  (Adriana Zehbrauskas/The New York Times)
Richard Grenell speaks at a Trump rally in Florence, Ariz., on Jan. 15, 2022. (Adriana Zehbrauskas/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — Richard Grenell’s quest to be secretary of state in a second Trump administration began late on Election Day in 2020, when the defeated president dispatched loyalists to run shambolic “stop the steal” operations in battleground states.

President Donald Trump tapped Grenell — his combative former ambassador to Germany, acting national intelligence chief and special envoy to the Balkans — to fly by private plane to Nevada, where Grenell ensconced himself, his dog Lola, lawyers and a crew of activists in a suite at the Venetian Resort, which served as the group’s war room in Las Vegas. In a dayslong spectacle, the Trump team filed a lawsuit and aired false accusations of fraud, including one wrongly implicating hundreds of members of the military.

It was all a sham. Grenell told the team in the war room, two GOP operatives recalled, that the Nevada vote was not, in fact, stolen. The operatives, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal from Grenell, said he told the team that the goal was simply to “throw spaghetti at the wall” — the operatives described Grenell making a theatrical tossing gesture as he spoke — to distract the media from calling Nevada while the election battle in neighboring Arizona played out.

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In retrospect, one of the operatives said, the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol should have subpoenaed everyone in the room, including the operative himself.

Grenell declined to be interviewed on the record, though he said in an email that he was going to “do what I want with the final product to correct the record and show the mistakes.”

This article is based on interviews with 40 people, including nearly three dozen Republicans. Most asked for anonymity because they did not want to harm their chances of roles in a future Trump administration or to unleash the wrath of Grenell, who frequently savages those he disagrees with on social media. One Republican former operative said that after a recent disagreement, Grenell combed five years’ worth of the operative’s tweets to fuel an online attack that lasted for weeks.

To his detractors, Grenell is a caustic opportunist of modest achievement who scaled the heights of an administration in which pit bull partisanship was prized. Susan Rice, President Joe Biden’s former domestic policy adviser and a former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, has called him “one of the most nasty, dishonest people I’ve ever encountered.” Brad Chase, Grenell’s former business partner, who fell out with him over his conversion to Trumpism, said he was a “soulless, shameless sellout.”

To his supporters, Grenell is a loyal, tireless messenger for Trump who transmits the former president’s demands with an efficient bellicosity that stifles naysayers.

“President Trump trusts him as a pair of safe hands in deconstructing the administrative state and confronting the deep state,” Steve Bannon, the former Trump strategist and host of the “War Room” podcast, said in a brief interview. “There’s so much that’s got to be taken apart and jettisoned.”

Either way, several people close to the former president say that Grenell has a good chance of landing a top foreign policy job in a second Trump administration — if not as secretary of state, which requires Senate confirmation, then perhaps as national security adviser, which does not. They note that Grenell has spent the past 3 1/2 years leveraging his Balkan contacts in business ventures, including with an important partner — Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law — and that he brings a bombastic bravado to American diplomacy held in high regard by the former president.

“If you want to avoid war, you better have a son of a bitch as the secretary of state,” Grenell said in a March episode of “Self Centered,” a current events podcast. America needs a “tough” chief diplomat, he said, “who goes in to these tables and says, ‘Guys, if we don’t solve this here, if we don’t represent peace and figure out a tough way, I’ve got to take this file, go back to the United States and transfer it to the secretary of defense, who doesn’t negotiate. He’s going to bomb you.’”

Privately, Grenell has on occasion implied to former Trump administration colleagues that the secretary of state job has been promised to him, although two people in Trump’s inner circle say such certainty from any jobseeker is premature.

One person close to Trump said the former president has raised questions about Grenell’s communications work for foreign clients, prompted by Grenell’s Balkans work and a request from him last year that Trump meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

Concerns over conflicts of interest might seem ironic coming from Trump, who used the presidency to benefit his businesses. But the person close to Trump cited two conversations in which the former president said that he does not like his advisers traveling the world making money from their association with him.

Trump talks to Grenell regularly and a year and a half ago was heaping praise on his pugilistic loyalty. “Ric Grenell: a fighter,” Trump said in Arizona in October 2022. “We have a great, great man. A great fighter. He’s got a lot of future.”

‘I Get to Make Money’

Grenell has since been busy in the Balkans. He has made plans with Kushner for a luxury hotel, apartment complex and museum in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, on the site of the 1999 NATO bombing that destroyed the headquarters of the Yugoslav army. He is also developing two other luxury tourist sites, one on an Albanian peninsula and the other on a Mediterranean island off the Albanian coast.

“I’m working on projects, private equity projects, that I get to make money on,” Grenell said in a television interview in Albania last year. “No one should ever apologize for wanting to make money.”

Grenell’s connections to the Balkans also flow through the right-wing outlet Newsmax, where he is an analyst and vice president for international development. Last year, Newsmax entered into a multiyear agreement with Telecom Serbia, the Serbian state carrier, to broadcast Newsmax content in Eastern Europe. Newsmax said in a statement that Grenell was not involved in the negotiations over the deal.

Grenell has also teamed up with an arms dealer and former Newsmax pundit, John Cardillo, to explore ammunition manufacturing opportunities in the Balkans, according to two people they told about their venture. Cardillo, whose company is called M42 Tactical, was recently sued for allegedly pocketing nearly $200,000 he was paid by a Ukrainian emigre, Michael Bogachek, to supply body armor to police in Ukraine that was never delivered.

Cardillo agreed to repay the money but has not, Bogachek’s lawyer said. Cardillo declined to discuss his work with Grenell, saying only that “they were private equity deals in the private sector and had nothing whatsoever to do with any public interest.”

Grenell has worked hard to aid not only Trump but also his family. He helped Melania Trump secure $500,000 for two speeches on two consecutive days in 2022, including one for Fix California, an election integrity and voter engagement group Grenell founded in 2021. Last month, Grenell introduced the former first lady at a Log Cabin Republicans fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. He has publicly lauded Trump’s daughter Ivanka as the first White House official to recognize Grenell’s status as America’s first gay Cabinet member.

In an episode not previously reported, Grenell last year proposed an idea to underscore the former president’s complaints that the indictments sought by special counsel Jack Smith were political. Grenell suggested that Trump join him on a visit to the former Kosovo president and prime minister, Hashim Thaci, in prison in The Hague, Netherlands, where he awaits trial on war crimes charges. Thaci was also indicted by Smith, who oversaw war crimes prosecutions in The Hague before he was named special counsel. Thaci has said politics underlie the charges against him.

Trump did not embrace Grenell’s idea. A person close to Thaci said he found the idea of Trump and a raucous media scrum in front of The Hague Penitentiary Institution amusing — but decided it would be best to focus on his own case.

Grenell has posted suggestions on social media that Thaci’s indictment was a Justice Department-led conspiracy.

A Rocky Road to Trump World

Grenell’s route to the Trump White House was circuitous. He grew up in Jenison, Michigan; graduated from Evangel University, a Christian college in Springfield, Missouri; received a master’s degree from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government; and held a half-dozen political communications jobs before landing in 2001 at the U.S. mission to the United Nations.

There he served as spokesperson for four U.S. ambassadors to the U.N., including John Bolton, who later became Trump’s national security adviser. Immersed in floor debate and policy meetings, Grenell fielded reporters’ inquiries during the fraught years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and built a reputation for testy, sometimes explosive, responses to queries and stories he disliked.

Jobless after Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, he eventually founded Capitol Media Partners, a communications firm that advertised a presence in several major cities. In reality, Grenell and his business partner, Chase, worked from their homes in Southern California. Grenell became an early and vitriolic Twitter user who insulted journalists, celebrities and politicians. He denigrated the appearance of women, including two former secretaries of state — Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright — and MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow.

Capitol Media had clients with interests in Iran, Kenya, Congo, Moldova, Afghanistan and Somalia, according to archived versions of its website. “A huge amount of it was media relations,” Chase said. “Whatever the cause was, we were communicating it to every major stakeholder,” such as investors, regulators and public officials.

In 2012, Grenell began a long-running animus with Rice, then Obama’s U.N. ambassador. He helped tank her nomination to be secretary of state by pointing out her support for Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, who was sponsoring violence in the neighboring Congo.

That same year, Grenell and Chase pitched an Iranian dissident, Alireza Jafarzadeh, on a plan to pay them between $15,000 and $25,000 a month to “help influence change for Iran” among elected officials and “other key audiences,” according to a copy of a Capitol Media Partners proposal. Jafarzadeh was a Washington-based representative for the Iranian resistance group known as the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or the MEK, which in 2012 was campaigning to be removed from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

There was already a crowded field of American politicians working for the group, among them Rudy Giuliani, who pushed the State Department to revoke MEK’s terrorist listing, which it did in September 2012. It is unclear exactly what Grenell did for Jafarzadeh or how much he was paid. Grenell would not comment, and Jafarzadeh would only say in a recent interview that he has had “no work-related relationship with Mr. Grenell for over a decade.”

Grenell’s next stop was brief. In a stint as a foreign policy spokesperson for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, he lasted only two weeks amid scrutiny of his social media posts, the most scathing of which he apologized for, and hundreds of which he deleted. Although Romney’s advisers urged him to stay, Grenell quit, angering his allies on the campaign, who say he cast homophobia on the far right as the reason for his departure, two of those allies said.

Grenell began the 2016 campaign as a fierce Trump critic: He called him “dangerous!” in a deleted tweet recovered by Politico and cybersecurity firm Nisos. But after Trump won the nomination, Grenell became a high-profile booster, aided by his work as a paid commentator on Fox News. That same year, Grenell’s company was paid $103,750 by a foundation mostly funded by Hungary’s far-right government, and he wrote opinion essays, which he has said were unpaid, defending a Moldovan oligarch who was put under sanctions by the State Department for corruption.

By 2018, Trump had nominated him to be his U.S. ambassador to Germany. Within weeks of arriving in Berlin, Grenell drew condemnation from both sides of the Atlantic after telling Breitbart London that he wanted to empower European conservative leaders who challenged “the failed policies of the left.”

Grenell’s comments so obliterated the neutrality expected of a diplomat that Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament and a former leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, called his behavior more like that of a “far-right colonial officer.” In Washington, Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., deemed the remarks “awful.”

Grenell plunged ahead. He gave interviews about his dog, hosted gatherings in the embassy residence and at the 2019 Munich Security Conference appeared on a panel with Stuart Milk, the brother of slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk, to call on some 70 countries to repeal laws that treat LGBTQ people as criminals.

“It’s not lip service,” said Miriam Richter, the Harvey Milk Foundation’s general counsel. “It’s something he feels very strongly about.” (Other LGBTQ groups have a much harsher view of his advocacy.)

In 2020, Trump named Grenell to temporarily replace the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, whom Trump had fired. Senate Democrats responded by requesting that the Justice Department investigate whether Grenell had violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, which generally requires that people disclose work in the U.S. on behalf of foreign governments. The letter cited Grenell’s work for Hungary and the Moldovan oligarch and noted that he had not registered under FARA.

It is unclear what became of the request — the Justice Department declined to comment — but Grenell was never meant to be a permanent intelligence chief. He was replaced after three months by Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, who won confirmation after Democrats concluded that although he was as partisan as Grenell, he was far less toxic.

During his weeks in the post, Grenell fired top officials and oversaw a wave of document declassifications aimed at discrediting the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s pro-Trump machinations in the 2016 campaign.

Trump was pleased.

“I think you’ll go down as the all-time great ‘acting’ ever, at any position,” Trump said at Grenell’s last Cabinet meeting.

In late 2020, eager for a diplomatic coup in the final days before the presidential election, Trump dispatched Grenell on a mission that has flummoxed Western diplomats for a decade: to try to coax Serbia into recognizing Kosovo, a majority-Albanian former province, as an independent state. Grenell courted regional leaders, largely ignoring U.S. and European Union diplomats who had worked on the issue for years.

Confident of a deal, Grenell proposed renaming an industrial reservoir bridging Kosovo and Serbia “Trump Lake” to memorialize his achievement. But negotiations failed after the war crimes tribunal in The Hague announced plans to indict Thaci, the Kosovo president. Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, increasingly fractious, still call the lake by two different names, neither of which is Trump.

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