Up close and personal with 'The Donald' in Washington, D.C.

John Lee
John Lee is the political editor and columnist at the Mail on Sunday (Ireland edition). He has covered Irish, British, US, European and Australian politics for over 20 years for a number of titles, including the Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph (Australia). He lives in Dublin, Ireland with his wife Lorraine, who is a politician, and his daughter Kitty.
Up close and personal with 'The Donald' in Washington, D.C.
Donald Trump showed his softer side to a group given unique access to him at the White House and Capitol Hill. After all, the Irish-American vote is crucial to the success of the Republican Party. Trump showed he’s a tough politician in the Irish sense.

President Donald Trump can be courteous, engaging, friendly and even vulnerable. I know because I spent a day in his company as part of the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny press entourage last Thursday.

The Irish Prime Minister ('Taoiseach' in Gaelic) is afforded unique access to the President, the White House and Capitol Hill power-brokers during the week before St Patrick’s Day. The Irish press corps gets up close too. In fact, the Shamrock presentation ceremony dates back to 1952 and Harry Truman’s presidency.

There are a series of high-level meetings culminating in a private one-on-one between the President and the Taoiseach.

The Irish-American jamboree provides exceptional access to the most powerful politician on the globe for the leader of a country of four million people. This year it was the most envied ticket in Irish political and journalistic circles, for we’d enter the hidden, gilded world of Donald John Trump.

Mr. Kenny’s day began with a breakfast at the residence of Vice President Mike Pence, who derives from strong Irish-American stock. The role of the descendants of Irish immigrants in this unique event is key.

But what is 'The Donald' like? It is important to remember that my impressions of him were formed at the ‘Irish Day’ in Washington DC, an occasion that is full of misty-eyed, sentimental schmaltz. Donald got caught up in it all, and he seemed likable and vulnerable. Perhaps the crucial point is Ireland is no threat to Trump; the Irish government has not criticized him in any way. In fact, the Irish are subservient when they deal with the US – this is a lop-sided relationship.

The difference could not have been more obvious when German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived at the White House one day later. Trump treated her awfully, refusing to shake her hand at a photo call. He made jokes at her expense and publicly disagreed with her on most issues. Clearly, Merkel is a threat.

Meanwhile, Trump wants to court the Irish vote. He has increased the trappings and razzmatazz of the White House St Patrick’ Day. It was held on Thursday, 16 March, the day before St Patrick’s Day (this is not unusual).

Mr. Kenny and his officials were carried in an armor-plated Cadillac along the South Lawn Drive of the White House at about 10:00 am. President Trump stood, flanked by his armed US Marine guard, awaiting his arrival. The US President smiled widely and shook Mr. Kenny’s hand warmly. They began a bilateral meeting at 10:30, which lasted for almost an hour. Then the eager press corps were summoned into the famed Oval Office for an audience with the two leaders.

I’d been there before, during the administrations of Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama, so I knew if I veered to the right as we came through the doors of the Rose Garden I’d get a place close to Donald. I wound up about two feet away from him. I can say for a fact he isn’t orange. He does wear makeup, but then again so did Enda Kenny. The hairdo doesn’t look too outrageous up close.

Trump sat in a yellow armchair alongside Mr. Kenny. We’d been advised "no questions," but Mr. Trump was all smiles. He told us "I love Ireland." Indeed, he owns a famous golf resort in the west of Ireland and spends time there.

Emboldened, I asked our Prime Minister whether he had officially invited Trump to Ireland. He said he had and with a broad smile Trump turned to me and said "I will be [visiting Ireland as President]."

The Irish press corps were cheeky, but Trump seemed unperturbed, all smiles and bonhomie. Even when a colleague asked him what he thought of Kenny’s previous (mild) criticisms of his "racist" policies he ignored him.

Then we moved on to Capitol Hill for what is known as the Speaker’s Lunch. It was established in the 1980s by the Boston-based Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill. There, hosted by the Speaker, all the top Irish-American politicians on Capitol Hill sit down for lunch with the President and the Taoiseach.

Trump has hardly been near Capitol Hill since he became President. Here, again, he was relaxed and friendly.

Speaker Paul Ryan spoke emotionally about his relatives in Kilkenny, pretended to drink Guinness and tried a horrible Irish accent.

Trump followed Ryan. He talked about his "new friend" the "Taoiseach." As he spoke the renowned germophobe, the man who refused to shake Angela Merkel’s hand the following day, stopped his speech. In a spontaneous gesture, he reached across the table and shook Kenny’s hand again. He said to the Taoiseach’s wife Fionnuala Kenny, "We’re friends too, right?”

Melania Trump, who will not attend many of Trump's official events, made no exception for the Irish.

Standing yards away from Trump for the hours of the lunch, I could see all the bombast was gone. As Trump explained the first-ever St Patrick’s Day parade was held in his hometown of New York he went off script and said, "I spent a lot of time in St Patrick’s Day Parades over the years, I can tell you that."

We were all transported back down to the White House for a 5.00pm presentation of a bowl of Shamrock. There were more speeches about the misty little island of Ireland, more hand clasping. Trump spoke warmly of his ‘new Irish friends.’

There are 140,000 people in high-end jobs with US multinationals based in Ireland. Trump’s administration is concerned about the favorable tax arrangements that allow them to locate there. 50,000 illegal Irish immigrants are living in the US, and Mr. Trump’s tougher policies have left them fearful. We were briefed by both sides afterward that Mr. Kenny’s firm points on these issues were graciously received by President Trump.

Angela Merkel has criticized Trump, she and Germany are a threat. This is the great difference that explains the huge swing in Trump’s mood between Thursday and Friday.

Trump was making it clear: If, like Ireland, you are compliant and respectful to the United States you will be treated with respect, even warm friendliness. Kenny made a stirring speech at the evening Shamrock Ceremony talking about Irish immigrants in the United States, but there was no criticism of Trump.

But beware, if, like Merkel, you criticize Trump and the United States be prepared for the treatment she received at the White House. She was snubbed and criticized. And Trump twisted the knife with a tweet the next day.

About the Irish visit? He tweeted a collage of his favorite moments.

His actions are not those of an unthinking, crazed child. They are the deliberate actions of a wily, successful businessman. He is also a former reality TV star, so he understands crassness will play well with his supporters. Kicking Germany will go alright in the United States. 

Ironically, almost 50 million Americans claim (including the Trump family) Germany ancestry. But they are a culturally and religiously varied group. There is no German day at the White House. After Afro-Americans (41 million) the third largest group are the Irish.

When the Irish escaped British persecution and starvation, they did bring something good the British gave them. Politics.

Poor, Irish Catholics arriving in New York, Boston and Chicago in the 19th Century invented politics as we understand it now in the United States. They ran the Democratic machine in New York and other cities for decades.

And of course, the Irish-American Kennedys were political royalty.

The Irish voter was and is proportionally huge.

If you want to do well in US politics, you have to please the Irish.

The influential power brokers on Capitol Hill; Ryan, Pence, Congressman Peter King, adviser Steve Bannon, press director Sean Spicer, chief of staff Kellyanne Conway and Homeland Security chief John Kelly are all of Irish descent.

Irish-American voters have become prosperous since their starving ancestors arrived on the quaysides in rags. Many vote Republican, and they have moved away from the Democratic Party.

Trump's successfully landed large swathes of the Irish vote in the rust belt States of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia. It was the rust belt that won it for Trump.

If he wants to be re-elected, he has to keep the Irish happy. In the midterm elections of 2018, the Irish vote will as always be vital in Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts. He has to keep the Irish happy to elect his Republican supporters.

The Donald is learning politics, the Irish way.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.