In This Strange Election Year, Foreign Embassies Find Little Access to Democrats

WASHINGTON — Last July, as Joseph R. Biden Jr. was about to accept the Democratic nomination for president, the British ambassador to Washington invited a few of the former vice president’s close friends and advisers to an intimate dinner.

Among those who attended, according to one of the guests, was Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, who now holds Mr. Biden’s seat in the Senate. Others included Senator Tim Kaine, the Virginia Democrat and 2016 vice-presidential nominee, and Terry McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor and Democratic Party chairman.

In years past, the British Embassy would have had a direct line to officials in both presidential campaigns — Democrat and Republican — to coax information about the policies and priorities of the next American leader, which the ambassador would have cabled back to the Foreign Office in London.

But in this strangest of campaign years — disrupted by a pandemic and haunted by fears of foreign influence — such privileged access to the Democrats has been cut off. The ambassador, Karen Pierce, has had to content herself with cultivating people one step removed from Mr. Biden’s inner circle.

Mr. Biden’s campaign, concerned over any possible perception of foreign meddling in the presidential election — or any comparison to Russian interference on President Trump’s behalf in 2016 — has ordered its high command to refuse nearly all conversations with foreign officials or members of Washington’s diplomatic corps, campaign officials said.

That has left the emissaries along Washington’s Embassy Row to woo Mr. Biden’s informal and unpaid political advisers, or lawmakers who are close to him, for any crumb of information that might be spilled during the gossip swapping that is the lubricant of their lavish parties and quiet soirees.

“During any campaign in normal times, any embassy that considers itself worth its salary is trying to get to know as many people as possible,” Ambassador Pierce said in an interview this week. “That would be the same whether it’s the Republican or Democratic candidates.”

The night before the July dinner, for example, the embassy had hosted a similar gathering with prominent Republicans, according to a person familiar with the event.

For decades, Britain and other allies used to dispatch junior diplomats to travel with the Democratic and Republican campaigns, where they could pick up policy insights and forge ties with future White House advisers.

For some foreign officials, who spent the past four years assiduously cultivating Mr. Trump, his family and his senior aides, the prospect of a Biden victory is forcing a sudden shift in focus.

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“A lot of these foreign governments, especially those in the Middle East that thought Trump was going to win again, are panicking now that reality is setting in,” said Mr. McAuliffe, who has known Mr. Biden for 40 years. “So they’re scrambling to meet with anybody they can that has a connection to Democrats.”

Diplomats have invited Mr. Biden’s friends and associates to cocktail receptions and pool parties. Many have tried to pick up insights by attending public appearances by his paid campaign officials, like a Chamber of Commerce video chat last month that featured his chief foreign policy adviser, Antony J. Blinken, who served as deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration.

The British Embassy also has reached out to experts with ties to Mr. Biden by inviting them to take part in video calls on policy issues, such as climate change, the future of artificial intelligence, or women, peace and security.

While the Biden campaign has only a handful of paid foreign policy advisers, there are dozens of people who do not have a formal role and volunteer their assistance and ideas. The majority of them have irregular contacts with Mr. Biden’s formal advisers and do not feel as bound to avoid embassies and other foreign officials.

In strikingly similar statements, representatives of Mr. Coons and Mr. Kaine said the senators regularly meet with ambassadors as part of their duties as members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“The dinner with the ambassador for the U.K. was one of many such meetings over the past eight years,” said Katie Stuntz, a spokeswoman for Mr. Kaine. Also at the dinner was John Podesta, who was chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

A foreign official from one allied country said that the contacts have been strictly limited to people who make clear, at the outset, that they do not represent Mr. Biden or speak for his campaign.

Still, the limitations have not stopped some envoys from trying to send a message to Mr. Biden.

Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to Washington since 2008, has been telling Democrats in the capital that his country’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with Israel was not a coup for Mr. Trump but something they “took off the table” for Mr. Biden, according to senior Democrats who have spoken with him.

Being held at arm’s length has provoked complaints among some foreign officials who are irked at being treated as suspiciously as diplomats from Russia or China. Others have been bewildered as to why their longtime contacts in Washington’s Democratic circles have suddenly gone cold.

Last summer, a senior official who was part of a high-level delegation from a Middle Eastern country asked for a meeting with Mr. Blinken. The request, which was shared with The New York Times, stated that Mr. Blinken and the senior official “are friends on a personal level.”

The response came several hours later. “Unfortunately, Tony is prohibited from engaging with foreign officials, including diplomats, through the conclusion of the election in November,” it said.

Still, at a time when even unsubstantiated allegations about the foreign dealings of Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter, quickly become campaign fodder, most envoys understand the ethics line that has been drawn.

At the Embassy of Qatar, officials have played host to Democrats close to Mr. Biden who now are working at think tanks or other private-sector jobs in Washington’s national security establishment, for discussions on foreign and domestic policy. Most of the larger events are held at either the embassy or the ambassador’s residence, with its lush gardens and elaborate display of roses, in suburban Virginia.

One senior Qatari official said the larger dinners and round-table discussions almost always include a mix of Democrats and Republicans. Qatar also hosted a dinner for Democratic policy advisers at think tanks last spring, and smaller gatherings are often held at the homes of other Qatari diplomats.

But the Qatari official said embassy officials try to avoid contacting Mr. Biden’s team for what he described as ethical reasons.

Even informal advisers to Mr. Biden who have steered clear of the embassies’ outreach acknowledge that the campaign’s edict against foreign contacts does not stop the usual networking of Washington.

“Any diplomat would want to understand the dynamic of who is in power and who is out of power — that’s their job,” said Lee A. Feinstein, a former diplomat and adviser to Democratic presidential campaigns who is now dean of the Hamilton-Lugar School of International Studies at Indiana University.

Foreign officials who have failed to heed what George P. Shultz, who was Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, referred to as “garden diplomacy” may now find themselves scrambling to sow contacts with Democrats after four years of trying to decode the Trump administration’s policies, Mr. Feinstein said.

“You plant the seeds and harvest them,” he added. “That’s a much better position to be in, rather than pulling an all-nighter.”

Lara Jakes and Jonathan Martin reported from Washington, and Mark Landler from London.

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