Want to win over Trump? Flattery will get you somewhere
For Ireland, a country the US president says he ‘loves’, it pays to exploit the relationship
Fáilte! Tommy Tubridy and Brendan Walsh fly the flag for Donald Trump near the president’s golf course in Doonbeg, Co Clare. Photograph: Eamon Ward
Irish Government officials wondering how to engage Donald Trump at the start of the president’s close-the-borders, “America first” era would do no better than to look to the sycophantic approach taken by Theresa May on the first visit by a foreign leader to Trump’s White House.
As the UK prime minister struggles to line up friends in Europe post-Brexit, she spotted an opportunity to curry favour with Trump: remind him of the golden periods in Anglo-American relations and flatter by showing them as kindred spirits leading populist movements that they believe will restore the fortunes of their counties.
The billionaire New Yorker is prone to having his ego stroked. He likes to divide the world into “great guys” and “bad guys”, and one way of getting into the former category is to say something nice about him – to him.
I did a phone interview with Trump in 2014, after he bought Doonbeg golf resort in Co Clare. He was happy to answer tough questions, such as about his dogged pursuit of Barack Obama in his “birther” conspiracy. After the formal interview, I idly remarked that the investment by someone so well known and the possibility of new jobs would, I was sure, be welcomed locally. Trump was unusually grateful for the comment.
On the morning the article appeared, I awoke to my phone buzzing with retweets of a tweet from Trump thanking The Irish Times and “the wonderful Simon Carswell” for the article on Doonbeg. “It will be great,” he signed off.
“You’re hired!” replied one friend.
I cringed then and cringe more now, given the bile that has filled Trump’s Twitter timeline since then. But the exchange taught me that if you say something nice to Trump that he likes, he tends to respond in kind.
A new dawn
On Thursday, Theresa May said plenty of nice things during her speech at a congressional Republican retreat, which will flatter Trump and warm the hearts of his party. She called Trump’s election victory “a new era of American renewal” and hailed a “new dawn” for relations between the two countries.
Trump was said to be effusive in his admiration for Ireland when Anderson met him at the Chairman’s Global Dinner, a pre-inauguration event that drew some 150 ambassadors and diplomats.
Word has it that Trump told Anderson during their encounter: “I love Ireland! I love Ireland! I love Ireland!” Vice-president Mike Pence, who was introduced on the stage as the grandson of an Irish immigrant, reminisced about cutting turf when he visited relatives in Doonbeg, not far from the golf course Trump would later own. There was also time with White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and top aide Kellyanne Conway (née Fitzpatrick).
The Irish embassy should be pleased with the enthusiastic response of press secretary Sean Spicer to a question this week about the Taoiseach’s traditional St Patrick’s Day visit to the White House. Spicer once told me that he is the great-grandson of an immigrant from Kinsale who swept mines for the US Navy in Guantánamo Bay during the Spanish-American War. They are now in a similar line of business.
So far there seems to be plenty of goodwill within the administration towards Ireland, which will help as Trump pulls up his economic drawbridges.
While some at home would shudder at the thought of wooing the Trump White House, especially in light of his stomach-turning campaign rhetoric, this informal interaction is critical for Irish interests. Officials will have their work cut out for them in making Ireland’s case to the new administration.
Doubts linger about the effect of Trump’s staunch economic nationalism on US multinational investment into Ireland and his plans to reduce the US corporate tax rate to within a few points of the Irish rate.
Irish officials will be keen to stress, in this nascent era of American protectionism, that US firms are not just in Ireland for the lower tax rate with some brass-plate operation. Rather, they have established large Irish workforces for tangible operational purposes: to serve customers in Europe and beyond.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, will be the first government representative to land in Trump’s Washington when he visits next week for meetings with, among others, Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House and a key figure in pushing Trump’s legislative agenda.
Flanagan will also help lay the groundwork for the Taoiseach’s Shamrock Summit with the president in March. Government officials would be well advised to scour the fields of Doonbeg for an extra-special Irish shamrock to fill Enda’s gift bowl.
That would be nice; the new US president would like that.