'As much as we love Ireland... we want the US companies back' - White House press secretary Sean Spicer
The one sentence you do not want to hear when you ask about the future of jobs supplied by US firms in Ireland begins: “As much as we love Ireland…”
White House press secretary and communications director Sean Spicer stokes the embers of a fire into a steady flame then settles into the leather chair.
From his office window, there is a startlingly pretty view of the snow-covered lawn. The White House St Patrick’s Day festivities are wrapping up and Taoiseach Enda Kenny is determined that his final trip to DC is seen as a complete diplomatic triumph.
The spin is that this was the visit where he became friends with President Trump, secured the future of the undocumented Irish and eased fears over American jobs in Ireland.
But friendship is one thing and business is another. President Trump knows the difference. Perhaps Taoiseach Kenny does not.
Now the party is over, and President Trump’s press secretary is speaking with the Sunday Independent. The encounter is deeply sobering and lays bare the challenges that the Trump presidency poses for Ireland.
The one sentence you do not want to hear when you ask about the future of jobs supplied by US firms in Ireland begins: “As much as we love Ireland…” but that is exactly how our conversation about American taxation reform opens.
I had pointed out to Mr Spicer that while Enda Kenny was doing laps of Washington, President Trump had tweeted about his upcoming “big tax cuts” for American businesses. I say the ‘America First’ model, placing its own economy front and centre, does not tally with allowing a vast number of US companies in Ireland to save billions in tax.
Mr Spicer tells it straight.
“Look,” he says, “those jobs, in a lot of cases, moved to Ireland because of a more favourable tax climate, a more favourable business climate. Our job now is to get them back, unfortunately.”
“Absolutely,” he replies.
“I think the president wants to talk to the auto sector and also to other [industries] to get American manufacturing back and to bring back jobs to America again. We have lost a lot of jobs. Ireland is a small country but I think it is a good example of what we should be doing to attract companies.”
Ireland has 140,000 US jobs in Ireland. Does the United States want those jobs back in the US?
“Well, of course. We want to bring back as many jobs to the US as possible. I think Ireland is small in scale, but it is a good example of what happens if you institute a healthy business and regulatory climate.”
How does the US plan to make this happen?
“Well the president has already talked about it.
"He has talked about creating a more favourable tax climate. Creating more favourable business regulation. We have got too many American companies who tell us they can’t hire people or they can’t hire more people because they are paying too much or our regulations are driving out business.
"They can’t compete globally. And that’s what they need to address. It’s a multi-pronged approach.”
Can America match our [corporate] tax rate? Or get it even lower?
“The president wants to get it as low as possible.”
He continues: “We are going to have tax reforms after we get healthcare completed.”
When does he see this starting?
“I think we are looking at late spring to summer. But it’s a total package. It’s about taxes. It’s about regulation.”
So [Ireland] is going to feel some hurt?
“Well look, obviously I don’t want you to feel that, but I think we need to compete more aggressively to get, not just jobs back, but we need American companies to grow.”
As a positive, I ask how Ireland can capitalise on President Trump’s new US administration.
“I think there are a lot of business opportunities. Ireland has done very well in tax and business, growing their economy, and I think that there are a lot of economic partnerships that can exist to grow jobs, to grow the economy. Ireland is very strategically located and offers a lot of opportunities for people who want to do business in Europe.”
Would he see Ireland as the gateway for people who want to do business in Europe going forward?
He laughs: “Well, I might! I do. But I think that is not one I would want to speak out about on behalf of the administration. I think, as an Irish-American, I am very proud of what Ireland has been able to do over the last several decades.”
Can he give an example of business opportunities for Ireland?
“Yes, I think there are a lot of pharmaceutical companies and technology companies that have moved over there. I think we can have a very healthy relationship for US companies that maybe want to expand into Europe. Em [but] obviously we want as many jobs here in the United States [as possible]. I think Ireland teaches us a lot about how a healthy business climate can attract business.”
You know President Trump better than most people. What advice would you give our next incoming leader on how to deal with the US president and build a relationship?
“I wouldn’t dare give another leader advice. We have to be very careful about trying to tell [anyone] particularly what their domestic policy is.”
But he adds: “I think the Taoiseach has done a great job in Ireland. Unemployment is way down. More people are working. You have a transportation problem in Dublin because more people are working. That’s a good thing.”
Is Enda Kenny admired?
“Again I don’t want to... I think, on the economic front, he has done a phenomenal job.”
Following Mr Kenny’s comments that President Trump’s comments on immigration were “racist and dangerous”, and Mr Kenny’s subsequent refusal to apologise, how does President Trump feel? “I think [President Trump and Enda Kenny] spoke in the Oval Office today and he [Enda Kenny] told him: ‘look you won’. [Mr Kenny said] ‘You have done everything as a politician’ and he has been in politics more than 20 years. I think [President Trump] astonished people in our country and a lot of other world leaders. He showed that he spoke for the American people and he defied a lot of political conventional wisdom. I think there are a lot of leaders, not just throughout our country, but throughout Europe and the rest of the world, who are now looking to emulate the kind of campaign and message and agenda the president here has set.”
Should Enda Kenny apologise for the comments?
“It’s not for me to tell a leader what to do. But I think the president today really found a kinship with him.”
On the subject of the undocumented Irish in America, do they have anything to fear going forward?
“I think President Trump has made it clear that his number one priority in dealing with immigration is to focus here on the people who are a threat to our public safety and that he is going to get through the rest of people who are here, illegally, in due time. For now his focus is on those who have committed a criminal act or who pose a threat to the USA.”
I ask if the Irish will get a special deal and Mr Spicer laughs: “I don’t want to say that.”
Is it naive to think that we will get a special deal?
“I don’t know that we look at someone’s nationality when we do that. So I don’t want to [comment] but I think that we know where we are now. And our focus is on dealing with people who pose a threat to our public safety. Then the President has made clear that we have got a lot of work to be done on both legal and illegal immigration in terms of reforming our visa system and in terms of looking at the American-based immigration system.”
I point out when we talk about Irish people living in America we use the word ‘undocumented’ but that does not negate the fact that they are still ‘illegal’. How are they any different to any other nation?
We are called ‘undocumented’ but really they are illegal, I say.
“That’s right. That’s what I am saying. So you can’t start… but it’s not for me to get into.”
Before our interview, I stood in on the back of one of his daily press briefings. The packed, airless room with no clocks and the glare of the world’s media trained on the podium is the pit Mr Spicer must venture into each day in defence of Mr Trump.
But rather than the loud-mouthed, gum-chewing aggressor we have become used to seeing in edited clips on social media and lampooned on Saturday Night Live, it seems the press secretary has a double-edged relationship with the American press.
Jokes and friendly teasing and banter fly back and forth between more tense interactions with journalists. Some attendees seem to treat the daily catch-up as more of an entertainment reality show than a serious political briefing.
When he gives one particularly colourful answer, a cameraman beside me roars with laughter: “We get to live this. This will go down in history,” he chuckles.
But at times, as an article in Vanity Fair once described, Mr Spicer is the subject of “a rare and cruel, and occasionally darkly funny, form of public torture”.
After the press conference I say to Mr Spicer: Can I ask you a very human question?
“Sure, I love human questions.” Does it ever mentally exhaust you?
“No I think it’s exhilarating,” he laughs.
“You have got to love what you do and I feel very passionate about what I do and the agenda that the president has set and that’s what helps tremendously.”
But you go to bed at night knowing you could wake up to anything your boss tweets that you then have to go out and defend?
“Well it means you never have a boring day. It’s always going to be exciting. You never know what the next day is going to bring.”
So how does he deal with the stress?
“You enjoy the downtime. You try to separate. When I go home I usually keep up with what’s going on and then spend some time with the kids or go to sleep. You have to try to decompress a little.”
Do you do mindfulness to help with the stress?
“I try to read the Bible and I pray and centre myself.”
Behind him on the wall are eight clocks — seven from time zones around the world. The eighth, simply marked ‘POTUS’, is always set to his boss’s wristwatch.
He works 18-hour days, getting up at 5am and home each night around 11pm.
Does he worry about burn-out?
“If you love what you are doing you don’t notice it. I have been bored before in my life and that’s a horrible experience, when you are trying to count the hours and pass the time. Here we are constantly clawing for more time. But obviously for me the one big trade off is time with my family.”
What’s the one thing you have learned about this job that you didn’t know before?
“You can’t be prepared enough.”
Do you care what people think of you?
“Of course I do. Who doesn’t? I am human.”
Do you ever let it get to you?
“I try not to. But there are certain things that you see or read. So of course. The goal is to take it in my stride. I understand that this comes with the role. But no one likes anything negative. I mean there is not a person with a heart that doesn’t want to be,” he trails off.
Do you go to a therapist or what do you do to handle it?
He laughs: “No. I try to read fewer and fewer Twitter comments.”
Do you read what people say about you?
“Of course you look here and there.” I tell him he is torturing himself.
“But you know... I was in Nashville last night and there were so many amazing people that tell you they are praying for you that they think of you… and that means a lot, too.”
What’s the most hurtful thing you have ever read about yourself? “Anything that deals with my family is off limits.”
Do you ever fear for your own personal safety?
Do you read the Irish press? “I will now,” he smiles.