Trump’s diplomatic chaos: Visiting Ireland? A new ambassador?

The unprecedented to-ing and fro-ing reflects the chaos of the US president’s administration

Even by the standards of the Trump presidency, this week's developments regarding the US president's visit to Ireland were bewildering. Less than two weeks after the White House abruptly announced that Donald Trump would be visiting Ireland in November, news emerged that the visit was cancelled – or maybe not.

The extraordinary sequence of events began on Tuesday. By late afternoon, news was emerging in Dublin that the visit was off. A few hours later the Government press secretary confirmed that the trip had been “postponed” for “scheduling reasons”.

More than 5,000km west across the Atlantic, America was marking the 17th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. President Trump and his wife Melania had travelled to Pennsylvania to unveil a memorial to United Flight 93, one of the four planes that were hijacked on that fateful day.

With Reuters and other news organisations now reporting that the Irish Government had announced that the president's trip to Ireland was off, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked by the press pool travelling with the President about the status of the trip. She said that while the president would still travel to Paris in November as previously announced, the White House was "still finalising" whether Ireland would be a stop on that trip. "As details are confirmed we will let you know," she said.


As Donald Trump arrived back to Washington, the White House confirmed that this was the administration's official response to the visit. This prompted the Irish Government to issue another statement stating that it "noted" the statement from Sarah Sanders but that its own statement "reflects what the Irish ambassador to the US was informed by the US authorities".

Unusual situation

The result was a highly unusual situation, in which the Irish government press secretary had confirmed that a visit by a US president was postponed while the White House officially said it was still in play.

"Will Trump Visit Ireland? White House Isn't Saying," wrote the New York Times of Tuesday's events: "By the end of the day, no one seemed quite certain whether they should be readying for a presidential visit or carrying on with their normal course of business."

The Guardian wrote in its headline: "Ireland says Trump visit cancelled but White House claims no decision made."

Further confusion emerged the following morning when Kevin Hassett, a senior figure in the Trump administration who visited Dublin this week, told RTÉ's Morning Ireland that he was "not convinced it absolutely won't happen yet," adding "I checked into it last night".

More controversy was to come with news on Wednesday that Ohio businessman Ed Crawford was to be confirmed by the Cabinet in Dublin as the new ambassador to Ireland.

The businessman has been the front-runner to become the next ambassador after President Trump's original choice Brian Burns pulled out of the process due to health reasons.

With ambassadorial nominees subject to strict financial and conflict-of-interest rules, Crawford has been re-organising his business involvement in preparation for his nomination. In May he stepped down as chief executive of the Nasdaq-listed company he founded, Park Ohio Holdings, though he retains his involvement with the company as chairman and member of the board.

Again, in a breach of diplomatic protocol, the news emerged from government circles in Dublin before it was announced by the White House.

While officials in Dublin expected the nomination to be announced in Washington later in the day, no word was forthcoming, even though the White House unveiled three other ambassadorial nominees on Wednesday evening – the ambassadors to Azerbaijan, Benin, Tajikistan.

The will-he won’t-he narrative of this week is unprecedented in Irish-US relations.

Diplomatic protocol

That two high-profile announcements relating to the United States first emerged in Dublin – the cancellation of Trump's visit, and the appointment of a US ambassador – rather than from the White House, is undoubtedly a breach of diplomatic protocol. But while the leaking of the stories in Dublin will undoubtedly raise eyebrows in Washington, many believe that the diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing is a reflection of the chaos of the Trump administration.

The Taoiseach himself said news of Trump’s proposed visit came “out of the blue”.

What happens next is anyone's guess. The Irish Embassy in Washington, which has skilfully maintained an excellent working relationship with both the White House and State Department through the tumult of the Trump administration, has said that it fully expects a visit by President Trump to take place during his presidency.

In particular, sources note that the President had been due to visit London to attend the opening of the new US embassy in January, but instead visited Britain a few months later.

There are indications that the peculiar decision by the White House not to confirm that the visit was postponed – even as Irish officials were told through official channels at the White House and State Department that the trip was off –  was down to Mr Trump himself.

It is understood that the President, who along with his chief of staff John Kelly, still favours visiting Ireland, but had come under pressure from Republican aides to consider the optics of a president playing golf in his private golf course after the mid-term elections.

`Democratic wave’

The latest indications from Washington had been that the president would fly to Doonbeg on his way to the Armistice celebrations on Sunday November 11th, just days after the mid-term elections. With polls this week showing a dip in Trump’s popularity, there are now serious concerns among Republicans on Capitol Hill about a “democratic wave” in November.

Given this mercurial president, sources have not ruled out another last-minute change of heart. The Armistice trip is still two months away, and a decision to visit Ireland – or indeed pull out of the Paris visit – could still be made.

The Taoiseach will have the opportunity to meet President Trump at the United Nations general assembly in New York in just over a week's time, when both will attend an event to mark the centenary of the birth of Nelson Mandela. Further details about the president's thinking may emerge then.

In the meantime, the process to finalise Ed Crawford's nomination as ambassador is likely to proceed relatively quickly, once he is officially nominated by the White House. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said this week he intends to keep the senate in session right up to the mid-term elections on November 6th, in part to push through executive nominations – which includes ambassadorial nominations by the president.

While the postponement of the Trump visit may be quietly welcomed by the Government, given the scale of protests that had been planned, the way in which the visit’s announcement and subsequent postponement gives pause for thought.

But as one diplomat put it: “In the world of Donald Trump, this is the new reality.”