Earlier this year, by the narrowest of margins, the Senate confirmed Sam Brownback to serve as the U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom in the Trump administration. The expectation was that Brownback, having ruined Kansas’ state finances as a two-term governor, would maintain a fairly low profile in a position that has limited legal or political power.
Perhaps those expectations were mistaken. Reuters reported the other day Brownback took an interest in a right-wing activist who’s currently in a U.K. jail – and Brownback directed his concerns directly to the British ambassador.
Brownback raised the case of the activist known as Tommy Robinson in a June meeting with Sir Kim Darroch, Britain’s Ambassador to the United States, according to a British official and two sources close to the organizers of a pro-Robinson demonstration planned for London on Saturday.
Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, though he also uses other aliases, is a founder of the English Defense League, which has organized violent demonstrations against Islamic immigrants in the UK in the past decade. More recently, Robinson has branded himself a journalist and campaigner against Islamic extremism, a move that won him contacts with American anti-Muslim activists.
Robinson was arrested in late May outside a courthouse in Leeds, England, while making video recordings about a trial related to child molestation and jailed for 13 months for violating English law limiting publicity during criminal trials.
The underlying controversy is of interest to observers in the U.K., but for reasons that aren’t at all clear, Brownback reportedly pressed the British ambassador to treat the right-wing wing activist more sympathetically. If not, according to Reuters’ reporting, Brownback said the Trump administration would publicly criticize the British government’s handling of the case.
I should emphasize that the Reuters piece hasn’t been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News. That said, if the reporting is accurate, it raises some questions that deserve answers.
Why would Brownback think the legal fate of a fringe anti-Muslim activist in the U.K. falls within his purview? For that matter, how did Brownback hear about the case in the first place?
The fact that British officials were willing to talk to Reuters about this suggests they weren’t altogether pleased with the Kansas Republican’s tactics, which raises the related question of whether Brownback, if the claims are true, was freelancing or whether the administration has a genuine interest in the controversy.
A State Department spokesperson said the “characterizations” of Brownback’s meeting with Darroch by Reuters sources were “completely false,” but he didn’t elaborate.
Postscript: For what it’s worth, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon also appears to be a Tommy Robinson supporter, reportedly telling a British radio host that that right-wing activist is “the backbone of this country.”