Tuesday 19 March 2019

Taoiseach offers Trump a break from the usual shenanigans

In the White House

US President Donald Trump and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
US President Donald Trump and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

US President Donald Trump walked on stage in the East Room of the White House with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for the traditional St Patrick's Day shamrock ceremony to the familiar strains of 'Hail to the Chief'.

Mr Trump stepped up to the podium and remarked: "Oh that beautiful music, I can't talk over that.... it's too good, we'll let them finish out."

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In jovial form, Mr Trump then spoke of how delighted he was "to be here with my Irish friends".

Chaos has constantly swirled around the Trump administration, from strongly denied suspicions of Russian interference in the 2016 election to rows over his Mexican border wall. But the lavish reception was everything you'd expect from the ceremonial side of the presidency.

The St Patrick's festivities were a brief reprieve from the endlessly rolling controversy that has been Mr Trump's time in office. When the time came, the president invited the "TEE-Shuck" - as it was spelled on his teleprompter - to hand over the usual crystal bowl of shamrock, saying: "It's an honour to be with you, enjoy your evening and let's present the trophy to President Trump."

In remarks that will raise an eyebrow back home, Mr Varadkar praised Mr Trump for the apparent economic results of his efforts to 'Make America Great Again' while saying the values that "makes it great already" shouldn't be forgotten.

Tom Wright, a senior fellow with Washington's Brookings Institution think-tank, said there's "all sorts of craziness" going on in the US capital but that "St Patrick's Day was able to continue without being overly impacted by the political chaos".

He said the trip saw support from Republicans and Democrats and Mr Varadkar's speeches were well received.

"It was a reminder, particularly at a time of Brexit, that Ireland has turned into a bipartisan issue in the US," he added.

He said that Mr Trump "definitely likes pageantry" and meeting other leaders but said the Oval Office encounter between the president and Mr Varadkar showed how it's a "risky environment" for foreign dignitaries. He said that while on the whole the trip went well for Mr Varadkar, it was a "calm amidst the storm" of US politics.

Mr Trump clearly enjoyed the shamrock ceremony, sharing a video of it on Twitter.

But a small sample of Mr Trump's non-St Patrick's Day Twitter activity from the 48 hours that Mr Varadkar was in town provides some insight into the embattled administration.

Mr Trump criticised the governor of California for halting executions of prisoners he termed "stone cold killers" and he attacked late night TV talk-shows - for whom he's frequently the butt of jokes - saying they're "unwatchable".

He hit out at "deranged" media outlets who he blamed for spreading conspiracy theories that a body double of first lady Melania Trump had accompanied him to a disaster site in Alabama, saying they were "Fake News photo-shopped pictures".

He tweeted "VETO!" after the Senate passed a resolution to overturn his declaration of a national emergency at the US-Mexico border as part of his bid to build his infamous wall.

And he ranted at length about the issue when he fielded questions from reporters at his joint Oval Office appearance with Mr Varadkar.

During the same meeting, Mr Varadkar expressed his support for free trade and a possible deal between the EU and US. This prompted the president to launch into a tirade against how his country had been treated by Europe in trade talks. Mr Wright said the Taoiseach was trying to offer Mr Trump an "olive branch" on economic co-operation with the US but "you never know what will set Mr Trump off".

He argued that Mr Trump is the first US president to see the EU as a rival and it's a reminder that "things aren't normal" in American politics.

Mr Trump also announced his intention to visit Ireland this year. There is no "firm date" agreed, the Taoiseach said, but Mr Trump is due to travel to Europe in both June and December and it's understood an Irish visit will be added to one of those trips. His presidency is unlikely to become any less controversial in the coming months and there will be protests.

Ireland literally rolled out the red carpet when he visited before becoming president and there will surely be pageantry at Áras an Uachtaráin and Government Buildings.

It may provide Mr Trump with another break from the turmoil. But watch his Twitter page while he's here.

Irish Independent

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