Wednesday 17 July 2019

'Boris is unconventional. Donald gravitates to people that are unconventional' - Johnson wins over Trump

Charisma, flattery and Brexit all played a part

Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Photo: AP
Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Photo: AP

Ben Riley Smith

The call was from Donald Trump. It came just hours after the US president met Boris Johnson at UN headquarters in September 2017.

Footage of the New York brush-by gave little insight into their chat, though the signals were positive - a warm shake of hands and a pat on the back for the British Brexiteer. But speaking to his friend Chris Ruddy on the phone later, Trump was glowing. "I really like him," he said of Johnson, according to Ruddy. "I've heard good things about him."

The conversation had only been brief, not even a formal sit down. But for a president who has boasted of being able to judge character in an instant, it had resulted in a tick.

"Boris is unconventional. Donald gravitates to people that are unconventional," said Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media who has known the president some 20 years. "Donald's taken a liking to him".

Tomorrow, nearing two years on from that meeting, the Trump-Boris relationship will be back in the spotlight as the president begins his visit to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy.

Trump has not held back his warm words for Johnson despite the Tory leadership battle raging, praising his "friend" on the eve of the trip and pointedly not ruling out a meeting.

Should the bookies be proved right and Boris Johnson become the next British PM, by the end of the summer the two men will be the linchpin of a very special relationship indeed.

How has Johnson won over Trump? Why has he connected in a way Theresa May failed to? And would the bond actually help if he gets the top job?

The story that emerges of their relationship is one of Johnson's political charisma, a savvy strategy of befriending the president's inner circle and a hard Brexit vision that has created common ground.

Trump and Johnson do not know each other well. They have spent little time together and come from starkly different backgrounds - one Eton and Oxford University, the other Manhattan and reality TV. Beyond the UN chat, they did have a brief discussion at a Nato gathering in Brussels in May 2017, but that is pretty much it. Theresa May, not Boris Johnson, handled the US relationship in office.

Yet as foreign secretary Johnson made a deliberate and sustained effort to ingratiate himself with Trump's most influential allies, according to well-placed sources.

He started from a disadvantage. In late 2015, Johnson had called then-candidate Trump unfit for office after he said London had no-go areas, joking: "The only reason I wouldn't go to some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump."

But after Trump's unexpected 2016 election victory, Boris saw how the wind was blowing. Within days he had criticised the "whinge-o-rama" emanating from Europe over the result and praised the president-elect's "deal-maker" reputation.

A speedy visit to New York followed. Before Trump was even sworn into office Johnson was meeting chief strategist Steve Bannon and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, followed by senior Washington Republicans.

Johnson's political celebrity undoubtedly helped him develop friendly relations, as one UK source who saw his free-wheeling visit to the White House's west wing in May 2018 attests.

"Boris basically was just roaming the White House. He was opening doors and saying hello to people. They would say 'oh my God it's Boris, it's Boris'," said the source who saw the scenes.

"He met Trump's daughter Ivanka. He met Jared. Someone would grab him. They would say 'come in to a meeting'. A White House staffer told us that no one else could do this."

British officials tried to capitalise on Johnson's US fame. During visits he would be put on Fox News in the hope that UK policy messages - such as keeping the Iran nuclear deal intact - would be spotted by the mercurial US president and his team.

There was discussion of getting Boris to give Donald a tour of the Churchill War Rooms in London during his first UK visit. It never happened, but he has shown other leading Republicans around.

Johnson's allies say he used the influence to secure policy wins. He played a key role in getting the US to expel 60 Russian diplomats after the Salisbury poisoning and ensuring UK citizens were not hit by Trump's border-tightening policies which focused on Muslims.

Those who saw Johnson buttering up US counterparts say he largely dismissed the personal conversation topics which the UK embassy briefed as ice-breakers, instead adopting his own unconventional approach.

When he first met Paul Ryan, then the most senior Republican in the House of Representatives, Johnson's opening words according to one UK official were: "Paul, I hear you're great, why aren't you running for the presidency?"

The campaign worked. A strong relationship was struck with Rex Tillerson, his counterpart as US secretary of state. The pair talked on a secure line every month - Tillerson preferred that to text messages. One former Tillerson adviser said they "got along well".

Others in the Trump camp are fans. Larry Kudlow, Trump's top economic adviser, is understood to have read Johnson's book on Churchill and to be an admirer. So too is John Bolton, the hawkish White House national security adviser. Jared Kushner also used to talk semi-regularly to Johnson about his Middle East plan.

Trump, critically, also picked up on Johnson's warm words. He made no secret of the fact, last year saying: "I have a lot of respect for Boris. He obviously likes me and says very good things about me."

Aides noticed Trump's positivity, too. Sebastian Gorka, a former deputy assistant in Trump's White House, recalled: "Boris's name came up more than once in passing with the president. It was clear that his style and outspoken nature is sympathetic to the president."

Boris Epshteyn, a former special assistant to Trump, said: "Johnson is someone who is strong, he's not afraid to speak his mind, and he's pro-Brexit. Those traits combine to make him popular with those who believe in the 'Make America Great Again' agenda."

Their similar positions on Brexit helped. Both men led successful outsider movements in 2016 - Johnson fronting the Leave campaign (and making claims which see him now summonsed to face criminal charges arising out of his referendum claims); Trump running for the White House (and not facing criminal charges after US special investigator Robert Mueller said charges were "not an option") - and both ended up disdainful of Theresa May's Brexit deal.

But does it all matter? Do good personal relations with Trump bring policy wins? French President Emmanuel Macron had a budding bromance with Donald but failed to convince him on the Iran nuclear deal, Paris climate change accord or staying in Syria.

Ruddy accepts the men have clear policy differences. "They don't agree on everything," he said, but added: "This is one of the key things for Trump - he picks up on very quickly if people like him or not."

Boris Johnson, Donald Trump appears to have concluded, likes him. Until that perception changes, expect the compliments to keep coming.

© Telegraph

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