Monday 17 December 2018

'It seems all of our days are quite busy'

In a White House exclusive, press secretary Sarah Sanders talks to Jason O'Brien about working for The Donald and relationships with Ireland

Sarah Huckabee Sanders Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Sarah Huckabee Sanders Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Jason O'Brien

Jason O'Brien

The White House press office is a warren of pretty, plush - but tiny - rooms in the West Wing, with the constant rat-a-tat tapping of keyboards the only signal that this is where a little shape is put on the chaos before it is presented to the world.

Sean Spicer walks out of his former office, sees the Sunday Independent waiting patiently and says, with a laugh, "Be nice to her."

Sarah Sanders was parachuted into the role of White House press secretary last July, when Donald Trump decided Spicer wasn't dancing enough to his tune.

Given the frankly incredible approach of the Trump administration, it is arguably the most difficult job in media, probably an impossible challenge, and potentially career-defining, almost-certainly in a negative way. We can, however, confirm the carpets are nice.

"It seems all of our days are quite busy," she says, with a smile, and an American-sized portion of understatement.

She's wearing a dark green dress, and will attend an Irish-themed event shortly. The St Patrick's Day celebrations are also why Spicer is back inside. Yep, it's all about Ireland even when it is really all about expelling Russian agents, sacking Secretaries of State, law suits with porn stars... And that's just this week.

"I think the president has an interest in Ireland. I think he likes the tradition of St Patrick's Day at the White House. It's a mix of both a serious discussion early, paired with something more light-hearted in the evening," she says. "I think he enjoyed it last year. If he hadn't he probably wouldn't have done it again."

The Donald, of course, knows his own mind, even if the rest of us struggle to keep up. And that may impact adversely on some of those serious discussions earlier last Thursday, including the Taoiseach's plans to position Ireland as a "bridge" or between the US and Europe after Brexit.

Her boss, Ms Sanders feels, likes to do business face-to-face, and is unlikely to appreciate anyone else getting involved - even if the Irish delegation insists it only wants to smooth over potential "conflicts and disagreements".

"Typically the president likes to deal directly in conversations. He appreciates the strong relationship we have with Ireland, but I don't think (a role as an intermediary) would be necessary at this point," she says.

The Taoiseach repeatedly spoke of a role "in interpreting America's position better to the EU, and the EU's position better to America".

But The Donald is unlikely to bite, it seems. "He wants to strengthen the relationship we have with Ireland certainly. But I don't think that's impacted necessarily by relationships with other countries," Ms Sanders says.

Trade is a different matter, with Leo emboldened enough in last Thursday's meet to suggest a new deal for the EU with the US. And the Irish delegation, she feels, was also on a firmer footing with its attempts to deal on the 'undocumented'.

"The president is very big - whether it's trade or anything else - on things being very reciprocal and even, and having a fair playing field," she says.

John Deasy's plans to offer paths to citizenship for Americans living in Ireland in return for a deal on an estimated 10,000 Irish in America would seem an unlikely win, and a potential headache for the White House with likely subsequent requests from other groups.

But the Irish delegation also sees a potential green light.

"The integration discussion was very positive and there was a clear indication from the American side that there is a clear desire there to make something happen," one Irish source said.

Ms Sanders can trace her ancestry on her mother's side back to Ireland and has visited Galway before.

There has never been detailed discussion about a visit for her boss, she says, despite all the talk about Doonbeg, and his observation that it might help swing a few Irish American votes.

But Ireland is on his mind. Well, at times.

"He hasn't been shy about the fact that he wants to build up the jobs market in the US, and to bring back good talent from overseas. Ireland is one of those places."

And then Ms Sanders has to end our meeting.

There are fires to fight.

Sunday Independent

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