Peter Hoekstra, the newly minted US ambassador to the Netherlands, held his first conference with the Dutch media at his new residence in the Hague on Wednesday.
It did not go well.
Dutch journalists peppered Hoekstra, who became Donald Trump's ambassador after serving 18 years as a Republican congressman from Michigan, with questions on unsubstantiated claims he made in 2015 about the chaos the “Islamic movement” had brought to the Netherlands.
“There are cars being burned, there are politicians that are being burned,” he had said at a conference hosted by a conservative group. “And yes, there are no-go zones in the Netherlands.”
The comments have widely been described as inaccurate, and reflect certain conspiracies about sharia law that crop up in some circles of the far-right in the West. When pressed by the Dutch reporters, Hoekstra declined to retract the comments or give specific examples to back them up.
In fact, after saying that he would be “revisiting the issue,” he simply refused to answer the question at all.
But the reporters were not done with the line of questioning yet. Instead of moving on, another reporter would simply ask a variation on the question again.
“Everybody there had one question: that crazy statement you made, are you going to withdraw it?” said Roel Geeraedts, a political reporter at the Dutch television station RTL Nieuws in a phone interview about the event. “We were not getting answers, so we all kept asking it.”
Geeraedts published a segment with video of the remarkable exchange on social media.
After at least one person had asked the question, Geeraedts followed up to ask Hoekstra about a John Adams quote - Adams was the United States' first ambassador to Holland - that was mounted right behind the ambassador. Hoekstra said he had read the quote, which expresses Adams' hope that only “honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”
“If you're truly an honest and wise man, could you please take back the remark about burned politicians or name the politician that was burned in the Netherlands?” Geeraedts asked.
An uncomfortable silence followed the question.
“Thank you,” Hoekstra said, before trying to call on someone else over the clamour of the reporters in the room.
“Excuse me, I asked you a question,” Geeraedts said.
Another journalist jumped in.
“Mr. Ambassador, can you mention any example of a Dutch politician who was burned in recent years?”
Again, silence, as Hoekstra stared around the room.
“This is the Netherlands, you have to answer questions,” another reporter said.
Sherry Keneson-Hall, an embassy counselor who was helping run the news conference, pushed back, asserting that Hoekstra was answering the questions.
At least one more journalist fired the question off. Reporters had asked the question at least five times.
“We were all astonished that he didn't want to take back the comment. It was simply untrue, so why not take it back?” said Geeraedts. “It was awkward, to be honest.”
Hoekstra has been in hot water in the Netherlands for the remarks since he was first confronted by a Dutch journalist, Wouter Zwart, in December. Hoekstra falsely claimed to Zwart that he had never made the remarks and called them “fake news.” Moments later, he denied that he had called them fake news.
Video of the bizarre exchange, juxtaposed with his “no-go zone” remarks, went viral, and the episode drew a slew of critical headlines in the United States and the Netherlands.
Hoekstra's silence when faced with reporters' questions on Wednesday drew a similar response.
“Embarrassing performance from controversial ambassador,” read a web headline at De Telegraaf, one of the country's largest newspapers. “Ambassador Hoekstra lost his way again in The Hague,” read another. “Very uncomfortable meeting between ambassador and journalists,” went RTL Nieuws.
Hoekstra pointed to the public regrets he had made for the exchange with Zwart on Wednesday. But he did not clarify whether the apology was meant to include the no-go zone comments when asked on Wednesday. At one point, he seemed to indicate that he was most concerned about the interview, not the statements.
“It is not about my personal views anymore. This is about the views on the policies of the United States of America as directed by this administration,” he said. “One interview is not going to have an impact. The other thing I just want to reinforce, this relationship has been maintained by countless people over the last 400 years, this is not about me.”
A CNN report published this week documented multiple times Hoekstra had referred to “no-go zones,” in European cities during appearances on conservative media, including talk radio, and a print op-ed, and unearthed other instances where he had given fuel to conspiracy theories about Muslims.
He speculated that some 10-15 percent of the Muslim community in the world - 270 million people - were radical Islamist militants and appeared to imply that Huma Abedin had “egregious” ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, a claim that The Washington Post's fact-checker Glenn Kessler, and other publications, have determined as “bogus.” On another far-right show, Hoekstra said he had considered the possibly that President Barack Obama might be intentionally aiding the rise of Muslim extremists.
The State Department did not return a request for comment.
Geeraedts said he believed that Hoekstra's behaviour confirmed some suspicions the Dutch have about the Trump administration.
“A lot of Dutch people have seen the press conferences of the White House and seen how some questions are not answered,” he said. “Everybody knows about 'alternative facts.' And this fits that picture.”
He said that the press corps' unwillingness to let the question go was a spontaneous response, and said he had seen a similar tactic employed on a smaller scale when Dutch politicians gave evasive answers to direct questions. But he said politics in the Netherlands differed a bit from the current situation in the United States.
“In the Netherlands you don't get a straight up answer, if you ask straight up questions,” he said. “But you hardly get false answers.”
The Washington Post