Grumpy Trump bigs up Varadkar ahead of St Patrick’s Day
US president praises Taoiseach’s popularity with céad míle fáilte in Oval Office
It’s no secret by now that, as an old Irish expression has it, Donald Trump has a great welcome for himself. But along with extending the céad míle fáilte to Leo Varadkar’s latest visit to the White House on Thursday, the president was unusually self-effacing, and concentrated on bigging his guest up instead.
“He’s a very popular man, doing a wonderful job,” he declared – possibly not having read the most recent opinion polls – as they spoke to the media in the Oval Office after their short meeting. “The people love him, and that’s very important,” he added, with the air of a man so sure of his own public’s affection that he didn’t need to mention it for once.
Even so, despite the generous words, there was a suspicion from his demeanour that Trump was enjoying the St Patrick’s week visit a little less than he was letting on.
Maybe this was us projecting on to him the humiliating news from the Senate, where Republicans were about to join Democrats in rejecting his declaration of a national emergency over the Mexican wall plan, forcing him – as he assured us he would – to use his presidential veto for the first time.
But he somehow seemed a little less bubbly than usual. He also stopped just short of endorsing Brexit (instead congratulating himself again for having foreseen the result of the 2016 referendum, unlike the then president Barack Obama). And his bitter complaint about how unfair the European Union had been to the US in trade negotiations was so good, he thought, he made it twice in a 15-minute briefing. Both rants ended with him predicting that the EU would change its tune soon, by choice or otherwise.
On the other hand, even when he’s being grumpy, Trump still has the ability to dominate a room in a way that highlights the Taoiseach’s relative shortcomings in that regard. No doubt Varadkar’s calm bedside manner has served him well as a doctor, and won over plenty of voters too. And certainly, his charisma deficit is not so severe that, as with some people, when he leaves a room, you’d think somebody has just come in.
But if you knew nothing else about the two men, you would not need to be told which was a TV star before he took up politics. Trump has a mutual love affair with cameras and fills any screenspace available. When Varadkar got a word in edgeways at one point of the briefing, after another presidential soliloquy, it came as a surprise that he was still there.
If the president was already in a bad mood then, it probably wasn’t helped by his having to attend the speaker’s lunch at Capitol Hill later. Not because it was attended by an A-List of Irish-Americans, including the latest rising star of the Kennedy clan, Joseph III, a man who could win pageants for the world’s most Irish-looking person.
Nor was it the presence of so many actual natives of Ireland, including again Arlene Foster.It was more that the event was hosted by his bete noire, Nancy Pelosi, who everybody except the president thinks won their face-off during the government shutdown over the wall in January.
She also had the job of introducing him, and with just the faintest hint of sarcasm, said she’d been advised to keep it short. She duly refrained from saying that he was a very popular man, or that he was doing a wonderful job, or that the people loved him. She just said here’s the president. As for Trump, there was something about the way he called her earlier comments – mostly about Ireland – “lovely” that slightly lowered the temperature in the room.
The other awkward meeting of the day had been over breakfast at vice-president Mike Pence’s home, where Varadkar was accompanied by his partner, Matt Barrett. This had followed on from last year when the evangelical Pence – whose politics have often been at odds with America’s gay community – said he would welcome such a visit.
So everyone involved was trying very hard to make the event look like just another breakfast. But the non-politician in the triangle gave the lie to that. Poor Matt looked mortified as the three men posed for the cameras (alongside Pence’s sister, Annie, who was deputising for his wife). At the very least, he didn’t know what to do with his hands. He put them in his pockets at one point before – perhaps remembering the pictures of Ronan O’Gara at Buckingham Palace – hastily taking them out again.