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Grenell says he has support at home for global push to decriminalize homosexuality

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U.S. Ambassador Grenell Attends Merkel Reception
U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell attends a reception for the international diplomatic corps hosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel at Schloss Meseberg palace on July 6, 2018 near Gransee, Germany. -
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BERLIN — U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell says the Trump administration has strong backing at home from Republicans and even religious conservatives for his push to end laws that criminalize homosexuality in foreign countries, telling NBC News that he's "wildly supported by both parties."

In an exclusive interview in Berlin, Grenell says he has no concerns that the campaign he announced this week could trigger resistance from elements of President Trump's base, such as evangelicals who have pushed back against policies like gay marriage in the United States. He says the new global effort is focused narrowly on ending criminalization.

"This is a bipartisan push. People understand — religious people, individuals who may not always be in the LGBTI fight — they understand that criminalizing homosexuality is absolutely wrong," Grenell said. "It is unbelievable to believe that in today's world a 32 -year-old man in Iran can be hanged simply for being gay. That's unacceptable."

Grenell says he's spoken with senators who support leveraging U.S. influence by conditioning American economic aid on countries eradicating laws that outlaw homosexuality, but he declined to say which senators supported that measure

"That's certainly not going to be an easy task, but I think we've got some great support on the Hill," Grenell says.

While the campaign thus far has largely emphasized criticism of Iran for reported executions of gays, Grenell says the issue is much larger.

"This is not about Iran. This is not just about Iran," he says. "This is about 71 countries, and Iran is one of them."

Grenell sat down with NBC News as three U.S. officials say he is under consideration to be Trump's next ambassador to the United Nations, a post for which he was also considered previously. Trump's previous pick to replace former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Heather Nauert, withdrew from consideration over the weekend, creating an opening for one of the most prominent roles on Trump's foreign policy team.

"I serve at the pleasure of the president," Grenell said when asked if he was interested in the U.N. job. Pressed again on whether he would consider taking the position, he said: "I really serve at the pleasure of the president."

The Trump administration effort, first disclosed Tuesday by NBC News, aims at pressuring the 71 countries that still penalize homosexual activity to change their laws, including those that subject gay people to the death penalty or imprisonment. U.S. embassies in Europe and the State Department's human rights bureau are organizing the effort, which kicked off Tuesday with a strategy dinner that included a dozen LGBT activists from Europe flown in by the U.S. Embassy in Berlin.

The vocal push from Grenell, the highest-profile openly gay person serving in Trump's administration, stands in contrast to the administration's perceived record on gay rights. Vice President Mike Pence, in particular, has faced intense criticism from LGBT groups who argue he's supported policies that are anti-LGBT, such as opposing same sex marriage and opposing the lifting of the ban on gays serving openly in the military.

Asked whether Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump himself were on board with his efforts, Grenell said that "decriminalizing homosexuality is something that people absolutely agree is a policy that we have to move forward on."

Yet some LGBT groups were quick to dismiss Grenell's efforts, with some suggesting the Trump administration was trying to paper over its broader policies that have rolled back gay rights.

"We'd believe that the Trump administration will work to protect LGBTQ people around the world if they had not attacked LGBTQ people in the U.S. over 90 times since taking office," said GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

Stuart Milk, an LGBT activist and nephew of civil rights leader Harvey Milk, said it was "unique" to have a right-leaning administration "leading the charge on an issue that does make a difference in people's lives." Milk attended the strategy dinner with Grenell and said he would support anyone who wanted to take on decriminalization.

"My criticism of the Trump administration has been steady. I have actually said that policies coming out of the White House and statements have been life-negating, not just for LGBT people but for many, many communities," Milk tells NBC News. "But when any administration does something right, we're going to be there."

At Tuesday's dinner, activists from Turkey, Ukraine, Bulgaria and other European countries joined an Iranian expat and Grenell around a large table to hash out strategy for the campaign. Grenell says it will require "71 different strategies" to change the laws in countries that in many cases are dictatorships and monarchies where even domestic public pressure can be ineffective at exacting change.

While the campaign dovetails with the administration's longstanding efforts to isolate Iran diplomatically and shame its government for its behavior, it also risks creating new tensions with important U.S. allies if the same standard is applied consistently.

Homosexuality is also punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, whose monarchy Trump has defended in the face of human rights allegations. Pakistan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and other U.S. partners also have laws on the books used to penalize same sex activity.

"No one is saying this is going to be easy," Grenell says. "We can have these conversations of human rights with our allies that clearly make homosexuality a crime and are not great on women's rights as well. We have to be able to do both."

Nevertheless, the outsize emphasis on Iran — the Trump administration's top geopolitical foe — came into clear focus as the activists gathered with Grenell at the U.S. Ambassador's Residence.

Hourvash Pourkian, who was born in Iran but left for Europe before the 1979 Iranian Revolution, says it's incumbent upon the U.S. and European countries to call more attention to Iran's rights abuses against gays. But she suggested there was little likelihood anything would change while the current Tehran government is still in power.

"I don't know if there is any possibility to negotiate with Iranian diplomacy," Pourkian says. "I don't think so. They refuse. For them, it doesn't exist."