Peter Hoekstra, a former vice president of marketing at Herman Miller and the newly minted U.S. 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 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 clamor 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 behavior 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."
Update January 13, 2018
Embattled U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands Peter Hoekstra apologized Friday (January 12, 2018) for making unsubstantiated anti-Muslim claims at a conference in 2015, comments that have clouded his early days in his post after reporters confronted him about them.
Hoekstra, a former Republican congressman from Michigan and a Herman Miller executive, and recent political appointee, made the apology during an interview Friday with De Telegraaf, one of the largest Dutch newspapers, at the end of a particularly rough week for the new ambassador.
"Looking back, I am shocked I said that," he told the newspaper Friday. "It was a wrong statement. It was wrong."
Hoekstra made the remarks in question in 2015 during a conference on terrorism, talking about the supposed "chaos" brought to Europe by immigrants from Islamic countries and repeating a baseless nostrum about so-called "no-go zones" that is popular in right-wing media.
"Chaos in the Netherlands. There are cars being burned. There are politicians that are being burned," Hoekstra said at the time. "With the influx of the Islamic community - and yes, there are no-go zones in the Netherlands. All right? There are no-go zones in France."
Hoekstra said that he couldn't recall what his remark was based on.
"I mixed up countries. I was wrong. I can't recall how that could happen. I know: I was wrong," he said.
It wasn't immediately clear whether Hoekstra's apology extended to the other instances where he had repeated the no-go zone theory during appearances in conservative media, or other baseless remarks he had made about Muslims, such as speculating that 10 to 15 percent of the Muslims in the world - potentially hundreds of millions of people - were radical Islamist militants.
The State Department distanced itself from Hoekstra's remarks Thursday during a briefing in Washington but had declined to call them inaccurate.
"The ambassador made mistakes in 2015," Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Steve Goldstein told reporters. "Those comments were not the position of the State Department, and you will never hear those words from this podium."
The remarks have clouded Hoekstra's early days in the Netherlands, bringing criticism and controversy to the otherwise routine ritual of installing a new ambassador in a closely allied country. The Dutch media in particular has homed in on them, repeatedly questioning Hoekstra to provide the names of the politicians he said were being burned in their country, or retract the statements.
Before Hoekstra's arrival in The Hague in January, he told a Dutch journalist who questioned him that he had never made the statements and that they were "fake news." He later apologized. And during his first news conference with Dutch media at his new residence on Wednesday, his refusal to answer basic questions about the remarks - and the Dutch press corps' tenaciousness as they continued asking about it - drew a strong reaction in the United States.
"This is the Netherlands - you have to answer questions," one reporter said during the tense meeting.
The State Department announced the interview with De Telegraaf on Thursday after it, too, faced questions about Hoekstra's comments.
Hoekstra talked to the newspaper about his performance during the news conference, saying he felt like he had already apologized.
"How many times do I have to say sorry?" he said. The newspaper will publish the full interview Saturday, it said.
Goldstein, also a political appointee of President Donald Trump, had said during a Washington briefing that it was his belief that the ambassador should answer reporters' questions in the future.
"I have advised, as I've advised most people, that when reporters are in front of you, just as you are in front of me, that it's always good to answer questions," he said.