Friday 18 October 2019

Trump unprepared for Irish questions - but keen to turn on charm

Pen pals: US President Donald Trump signs the visitors’ book in Shannon yesterday as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and First Lady Melania Trump watch on. Photo: Getty
Pen pals: US President Donald Trump signs the visitors’ book in Shannon yesterday as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and First Lady Melania Trump watch on. Photo: Getty
Arrival: US President Donald Trump exits Air Force One alongside First Lady Melania at Shannon Airport. Photo: Pool/Getty Images

Kevin Doyle in Shannon

Donald Trump has a very limited knowledge of Ireland - but there is one thing that fascinates him.

He wanted to understand how such a small country can have such a big influence on the world.

We're used to Americans coming here and flattering us with their faux praise for how our ancestors built their country. Trump is somewhat different though.

Sources say the president told Taoiseach Leo Varadkar he always thinks of Ireland as "a huge country" because of the impact its people have had.

Varadkar happily told him there are just five million of us.

It was one of the lighter moments in a meeting that briskly moved from serious topics to sport. Brexit, immigration and all featured before conversation swayed to the British Open.

At one point the Irish side found itself explaining how for some sport the whole island plays as one team, and in others we have a Republic and a Northern Ireland team. The president was fascinated.

Insiders say the atmosphere was "warm" which probably matched the temperature in the makeshift meeting room that was dressed up with a few net curtains and colourful flowers.

On the American side, Trump had some big hitters but they didn't throw any punches.

There was his Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin.

Varadkar's back-up team included his Chief of Staff Brian Murphy, main Brexit brain John Callinan, US envoy John Deasy and Ambassador Dan Mulhall.

Even before the meeting began, it was obvious Trump was in a good mood. He allowed journalists to fire questions at him for eight minutes without trading any insults. The president denied being here to play golf and promote his hotel - but struggled to show that he had done any actual preparation for the bilateral.

Thankfully the Taoiseach was brave enough to publicly correct him when he tried to compare the Irish Border situation with his plans to build a wall between the US and Mexico.

"His basic knowledge isn't great," a source admitted to the Irish Independent.

However, Mr Varadkar insisted afterwards that the purpose of these meetings is so that he can inform and educate. Some progress was made on the proposal that Irish citizens should be allowed to take up E3 working visas. Mulvaney was well briefed on this.

Mnuchin noted that the US recently put Ireland on an economic watchlist because of our trade surplus.

"That didn't really go anywhere," a source said, adding that both sides agreed to continue working within international tax rules.

And with that, Trump and his wife Melania were on board a chopper to Doonbeg.

Irish officials were more than a little relieved. Varadkar went on to defend the cost of providing 1,500 uniformed and 500 specialist gardaí for the trip. "The good bilateral relationship between Ireland and America is worth a lot more than €10m," he said.

Trump is unlikely to have taken in much of what was said - but he didn't call anybody, including Michael D Higgins, a stone cold loser.

No real damage done then, which is the best they could have hoped for. There was no mention of wind turbines or fake news.

"I learn from my mistakes," the Taoiseach laughed as he left the post-match analysis session.

Irish Independent

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