Sunday 22 July 2018

And then I went and spoiled it all by saying something stupid: what happened when Leo met the Donald

President Donald Trump with first lady Melania Trump welcomes Prime Minister Leo Varadkar of Ireland, upon arrival at the White House. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
President Donald Trump with first lady Melania Trump welcomes Prime Minister Leo Varadkar of Ireland, upon arrival at the White House. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Jason O’Brien in Washington DC

The warning was brief, but pointed, and delivered in a clipped American twang that invited no discussion.

“Please be gentle of the furniture,” the White House staffer told a group of 20 Irish media who were anxious to get going. “Just be cognisant of that when you get into the Oval Office - things can get knocked over.”

Things got knocked over last year, she didn’t need to add.

“No sticks, no selfies, no selfie sticks, no flash photography,” she continued.

Some of you did that last year too.

Her worries proved largely unfounded; the grandfather clock was never in danger. In fact, the meeting of Leo and Donald was an altogether more cordial, open and sedate affair than Enda and Donald had been 12 months ago. The Donald even seemed to have a little fun – a couple of questions about golf possibly a fleeting glimpse of the life he could have been leading if he hadn’t won that damn election.

US President Donald Trump, his wife Melania and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrive at the annual shamrock presentation ceremony at the White House in Washington DC, USA. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire
US President Donald Trump, his wife Melania and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrive at the annual shamrock presentation ceremony at the White House in Washington DC, USA. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire
US President Donald Trump, his wife Melania and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (left) attend the annual shamrock presentation ceremony at the White House in Washington DC, USA. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire
US President Donald Trump makes a speech as (left to right) Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Melania Trump, US Vice-President Mike Pence and Karen Pence look on at the annual shamrock presentation ceremony at the White House in Washington DC, USA. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire
US President Donald Trump (C) picks up a bowl of shamrocks as Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar (L) and US first lady Melania Trump look on in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / Mandel NGANMANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Indeed we can probably thank the US President for the extra space yesterday. Many of the senior staff on the Oval Office couches to meet Enda last year are either now out of favour, like Jared Kushner, or out the door, like Steve Bannon.

When we bundled in the door shortly after 11am – knocking over only a potted plant - the couches were empty. Not for long.

Meanwhile, the two men we were all so anxious to see were already seated beneath the famous painting of George Washington, and already in conversation. They had met for the first time just minutes earlier. Small talk, it is safe to assume, is not a forte for either.

Leo was gamely recounting some of his adventures in Texas and Oklahoma earlier in the week, and Trump was nodding along benignly. It was like a young fella trying to get his dad interested in his homework. “Fantastic,” Trump said at one point. It’s not often he’s happy to see the press.

"It's my great honour to have the very popular Prime Minister of Ireland with us and we're having some good talks about trade and about military and about cyber, and all of the other things that we are talking about," Mr Trump said.

If the military angle was news to Leo, he didn’t show it.

They made for an incongruous double act, both dressed in navy suits with white shirts, and with off-green ties and a generous helping of shamrock, both clasping their hands and looking ahead rather than at each other as they talked. It was awkward. But how could it not be?

Leo had an Ireland and American flag pin on his lapel. The Donald, unsurprisingly, just had the stars and stripes. America First, baby!

But, unlike last year with Enda, when Trump pouted and glowered, his back hunched over, he was noticeably more relaxed yesterday or, perhaps more accurately, noticeably less bored.

Begorrah, maybe Ireland could get something out of this after all?

Their bilateral meeting was to take place immediately after so the question options were minimal. But there was that invitation to Trump last year to visit Ireland – a parting time-bomb from Leo’s predecessor. Tick tock. So, will Donald come over?

"I will, I love it, I have property there and I may never get to see it again," Trump said, in one of those answers of his that start off okay before veering off course like a wayward tee shot by a poor golfer. 

Leo is not a golfer but chipped in that he “is willing to learn” if the US President was willing to travel. (Wasn’t it just 13 months ago that Leo said he wouldn’t invite him?)

Trump was already considering another shot – at re-election, and the 35m strong Irish-American vote.

“That could happen,” he replied when asked about a visit next year. “Well, maybe - maybe if that helps, right?” he laughed.

Leo engaged a fixed grin. He might get an invite but an endorsement was still unlikely. Leo later dodged the question on whether he had formally given Trump an invite, or if we can blame it all on Enda.

The Taoiseach has largely enjoyed this trip though. He often seems more comfortable debating political theory than engaging one-to-one with people, and where better than Washington for an anorak to indulge?

He has performed particularly well at the more highbrow pow-wows this week, including at the Brookings Institute and SXSW in Texas. But Enda’s hoary old ‘hail fellow, well met’ act was certainly missed elsewhere.

At the Ireland Funds dinner, for example, Leo was guest of honour but visibly wilted when faced with a wave of Shannons and Shauns who wanted to bleat about Irish America. 

Enda’s approach, which often valued sentiment about the auld sod over substance, worked a treat there. A few dollars more were regularly squeezed from the land of opportunity by shaking hands, grinning inanely, posing for selfies and generally buzzing around the room like a child who had necked too many shamrock shakes. It’s not easy. 

Leo is far more reserved, even stand-offish. Yesterday, that seemed to work. The Donald, long accustomed to dominating rooms, was happy to dominate the conversation when Leo struggled to get a few words out.

“I was telling President Trump I was here as a congressional intern back in 2000 but they didn’t let me into the White House,” Leo said at one point. 

Donald opened the door: “But now we do. You've made great progress.” Just the right side of condescending, perhaps.

There was no handshake drama, either, and if Trump had any issue with a gay man leading the St Patrick’s Day parade in his own city of New York, he didn’t express it.

"It goes right past Trump Tower," Mr Trump said with a smile. "I would watch it all the time.

“That's good, I'd like to do it with you,” he added.

Perhaps if they’d left it at that, Leo would be waking up to better headlines.

But the St Patrick’s Day programme in Washington contains plenty of more elements, all of which have a big media presence and all of which could trip you up. Or you could simply trip yourself up.

Buoyed up by what he described as a “good meeting” with Trump in which they discussed (and the Taoiseach relayed the items in this order) Doonbeg, trade, the undocumented Irish, and Northern Ireland, Leo went a little off script at the Speaker’s Lunch hosted by Paul Ryan on Capitol Hill later in the day.

With the US President and other leading politicians from across the US divide enjoying an amiable atmosphere, some flat looking Guinness, and beef tenderloin, Leo decided to recount his first encounter with the now most powerful man on earth.

It was about golf. Leo should have remembered he is not a golfer. 

About four years ago, the Donald rang him out of the blue to express concern that a wind farm would take away from Doonbeg's landscape and affect his golf business. At the time, Leo was the minister for transport, sport and tourism.

After initially dismissing the call as a “pisstake”, Leo said he would “endeavour to do" what he could and contacted Clare County Council after the call.

The council ultimately turned down the planning application for the wind farm.

"The President has very kindly given me credit for that but it would probably have been declined anyway," Leo said, to much laughter.

The use of “pisstake” didn’t go down too well over here. The rest of the story didn’t go down too well back home.

Later yesterday evening, Leo returned to the White House for the traditional shamrock ceremony in the East Room. He had managed to take his foot out of his mouth by then, and was presumably thinking about using it to kick himself.

Donald, now joined by the First Lady Melania, was proclaiming the two leaders were “fast friends”.

"I look forward to your return next year," he added. "In fact, we'll see you for about, what? Seven more years, I think. Right? Right? About seven. That's sort of an interesting concept. Right? That's what is going to be.”

But don’t worry folks, Donald can only be in power in Washington for another six St Patrick’s Days, maximum.

And Leo will have learned a lot from his first.

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