‘Hold on to your seats’ – the man Trump wants to be Irish envoy
Brian Burns says people in Ireland are going to be delighted by the new US president
Brian Burns, the business executive and commercial lawyer who president Donald Trump wants to be his ambassador to Ireland, in his office in Palm Beach, Florida. Photograph: Simon Carswell
Brian Burns and his wife Eileen with Donald Trump at a ball in Florida. Photograph: Capehart
There is a streetscape of Sneem, Co Kerry, the village his grandfather left in 1892 as an economic refugee for a better life in the United States. Next to it is a 1866 painting showing the laying of a transatlantic cable from Ireland to America, symbolising the link between the two countries.
Then there’s A Business Dispute showing a group of Irish men about 150 years ago deep in discussion.
Burns points to the distinguished-looking man at the centre of the painting, listening to an angry interlocutor who is making a forceful point as he presses a finger into his other hand.
Several bottles are at their feet, hinting at the long and difficult negotiation that is taking place. The well-dressed man looks unflappable, listening intently with a hand on his chin and papers in front of him.
“This would be me,” Burns says of the calm negotiator, as he shows off the Irish art, mementos and photographs surrounding him in his modest Florida office.
It was in his capacity as negotiator that Burns first met Trump about “eight or 10 years ago”.
He does not want to divulge details of a dispute involving the Manhattan billionaire. He would only say Trump had a legal problem in Florida where he owned his luxury Mar-A-Lago Club not far from Burns’s office in Palm Beach, and that he was asked to play peacemaker.
“He knows me very well – he is a great flatterer,” he said. “He always introduces me to people and says, ‘this is my friend Brian Burns – he is the smartest man in Palm Beach.’ I blush when he says that.”
A resident of this Florida haven for rich retirees, Burns (80), a commercial lawyer, has spent his 67-year career [he says he started working at 13] brokering business deals and negotiating mergers and takeovers. As a lawyer in San Francisco, he represented bluechip US companies [Kellogg’s and Coca Cola], been a trustee at prominent universities [Boston College and Trinity College Foundation] and served on the Irish-American economic advisory board to taoisigh Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen.
Burns boasts of having “the largest collection of Irish art in America”, owning about 150 paintings including works by Jack B Yeats, Sir John Lavery, Paul Henry and George Russell. He knows Irish art well, mentioning the names of prominent dealers and collectors throughout his conversation.
He led fundraising efforts to restore Marsh’s Library in Dublin, founded an American law library at University College Cork and has been an active benefactor in the American Ireland Fund and the philanthropic group it took over, the American Irish Foundation.
Trump is spending this weekend at Mar-A-Lago, described by the president’s press secretary Sean Spicer as the “Winter White House”.
Burns received the nod from Trump while he and his wife were attending a function there over the Christmas period. They had been guests of the then president-elect’s there at Thanksgiving.
“Are you ready to go to Ireland?” Trump asked Burns at a function in late December. “Yes sir,” Burns replied.
He and his wife Eileen, whose family hails from Mullingar, Co Westmeath, met Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon that night, and Trump later confirmed to New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who made it public via Twitter, that Trump wanted Burns as his man in Dublin. (Belfast-born Wall Street businessman and Cambridge graduate Michael George, who also knows the Trump family, has also been publicly linked to the job and is said to be keen to be on it.)
“This is like a dream that had no chance of coming true but it is,” said Burns, one of seven children raised in an Irish Catholic family.
“To think of it: my grandfather was a very poor immigrant in Co Kerry in 1892 and a little over 120 years later I am being selected as a representative of 35 million or 40 million Americans of Irish heritage and this president to go to Ireland. It is astonishing; I have to pinch myself.”
Burns stresses that he is not the ambassador to Ireland yet – he is awaiting his official nomination, a document from the secretary of state and a confirmation hearing before the Senate foreign relations committee, for which he is preparing hard and taking advice from friends.
Despite this, he is already a forceful defender of Trump and the contentious actions he has taken in the first 12 days of his presidency. He praised the rationale behind Trump’s immigration actions: his plan to deport illegal immigrants, his ban on nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries and suspending the refugee programme that caused chaos at major US airports at the weekend.
“If he were anti-Irish, he wouldn’t touch me with a 10ft pole,” he said.
Burns believes the Trump administration should be “sympathetic” to undocumented Irish immigrants who have lived for years in the US, paid taxes and contributed to their communities.
“The present rules against allowing people in from Ireland are grossly unfair and that’s got to be remedied and completely adjusted,” he said. “I am very much in favour of any Irish immigrant.”
Burns says he is “chary” to comment on last Friday’s travel ban so soon after it was introduced, saying it would be “utterly rash” to try to interpret what was done.
“I would say with his motive you can’t argue with the fact that he wants to protect the American people. That is his first duty under the constitution,” he said, but believes it is “too soon” to comment.
Referring to Trump’s shift to economic nationalism, Burns sought to reassure the Irish. Trump is “America First”, he said, citing Trump’s doctrine, “but with a deep love of Ireland”.
He added: “The people of Ireland are going to be pleasantly astonished at what a friend of Ireland President Trump will be.” He intends to invite Trump to Ireland and is “very optimistic” that it will take place.
Burns sees great opportunities ahead for Ireland economically, even if the Trump administration reduces the corporate tax rate from 35 per cent closer to the Irish rate of 12.5 per cent.
“Ireland’s economic future is pretty good,” he declared.
Burns may seem an odd choice for Trump. He was born a Democrat into a Massachusetts family that is close to the Kennedys. His father, a Harvard law professor, judge and legal counsel, was an adviser and friend to Joe Kennedy, JFK’s father, whom he helped set up the Securities and Exchange Commission after the Great Depression. Burns was a trustee to the Kennedys until 2011.
“I’m an Independent right now, although a very intense supporter of the president,” he said.
Burns describes Trump as “very engaging and warm” and says that he was “a very intense supporter” from the start of his presidential campaign.
He believes that Trump is “stealing the heart of the Democratic Party” by winning over blue-collar voters and up-ended the Republican Party that still has “traces of elitism and snobbism”.
“He is a very determined fellow. I have found in my life that determination wins the ball game,” he said of the anti-establishment campaign he ran and his stunning election victory. “He is very dynamic and extremely personable with one of the great senses of public opinion. He is very acute on that . . . He has got a personality that I would describe as electric.”
Burns admits that Trump’s past remarks about women and immigrants were “rash and bold” but he points to the president’s “wonderful” immigrant wife and his daughters and granddaughters
“Mr Trump should be judged on his record and performance in office. A lot of people say things in the heat and fervour of the campaign that they wish they hadn’t said,” Burns remarked.
“I think my watchword for you and for the people of Ireland would be: please give him pause and then judge him on what his actual performance is as president of the United States.”
Despite his 80 years, Burns who has four children, four stepchildren and 15 grandchildren, exudes an energy that belies his age, particularly when he talks about Ireland and his Irish interests.
“If people think I act 80 years, they will be surprised,” he said.
He believes the Irish will, in time, be equally impressed with Trump’s performance as president.
“Hold on to your seats and give him a little time,” he said. “Ireland is going to be delighted.”