The Times encounter revealed the US president-elect's alarming views, but also showed how he expects the media to treat him – with obsequity
Perhaps the most embarrassing aspect of the so-called “special relationship” between Britain and the US – besides the fact that it’s so clearly unrequited, with Britain using the term while the US doesn’t – is the neediness.
Time and again, London abases itself in its desperation to be noticed by Washington, and especially by the White House – no matter how appalling the incumbent of that office.
The arrival of Donald Trump has triggered yet another demonstration of this least appealing British habit, with a humiliating scramble among Britain’s politicians to be the first to shake the reportedly short-fingered hand of the next president. Nigel Farage won that competition, bagging that famously anti-elitist snap of the two men in the billionaire’s gold elevator. That set off a furious effort by Theresa May to get in there quick, despatching her two most senior aides to Trump Tower to arrange a meeting. We now know that she followed that up with a personal letter to Trump, invoking Winston Churchill, as all British pleas for the special relationship must.
We know of that thanks to Michael Gove, who has landed the coveted spot of runner-up to Farage, doubtless much to Downing Street's irritation, with his Times interview with the president-elect. It's not clear whether the encounter between the two was a journalistic exercise – in which case it represents an admirable scoop for Gove and the paper – or a political one, with Gove receiving an audience in recognition of his service as a prime Brexiteer. Indeed, the interview sits in the no man's land between politics and journalism.
Whichever hat he was wearing, reporter or MP, Gove honours the tradition of British neediness. A video clip of the encounter captures Trump condemning Barack Obama’s declaration during the EU referendum campaign that Britain would be, as Trump puts it, “at the back of the line” for a post-Brexit trade deal. Eagerly, Gove jumps in: “And now we’re at the front of the queue?” But Trump brushes him off with a non-answer: “I think you’re doing great!”
Later he gives the Brexiteers just off enough to keep them happy, promising that “we’re gonna get something done very quickly.” He also pats Britain on the head several times, saying how much his mother loved the Queen and how proud he is of his Scottish roots which, he notes, have led him to “watch my pennies” – an observation bound to go down well in Dundee and Arbroath.
The greater significance of the interview comes in its less parochial passages. It’s alarming, for example, that Trump voices more condemnation of Angela Merkel than he can muster for Vladimir Putin. He describes the German chancellor’s decision to admit one million refugees as a “very catastrophic mistake” – though, tellingly, he does not call them refugees but “illegals”. The notion that people might be fleeing slaughter rather than migrating in order to rip off a rich, western country seems beyond his grasp.
The incoming president also hints at lifting sanctions imposed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea, without any requirement that Russia shift policy in that area. (A mutual reduction in the US-Russian nuclear arsenals will be enough.) He describes Nato, viewed by most of America’s allies as the bedrock of the western alliance, as “obsolete”. And he implies that the European Union, regarded for 60 years as a strategic partner of the US, has had its day and that other EU members will, and should, be following Britain out of the exit.
In other words, this was an interview to bring a delighted smile to the face of Putin, who naturally sees both the Nato and EU as encroaching threats to Russian power. Of course we must accept Trump’s word that he is not a compromised asset of the Kremlin. But it’s striking how much he talks like one.
Above all, the Gove/Trump encounter provides a useful glimpse into what the future of direct media accountability of the US president will look like. You can see why Trump Tower granted the former minister his hour. It’s the same reason Trump gives regular access to Sean Hannity of Fox News . He would prefer to be questioned only by those who are ideological sympathisers.
Gove provided regular reassurance of that, seeing no reason to challenge Trump on anything. So when the new president slammed the invasion of Iraq, Gove was too polite to note that Trump is on tape supporting that decision . (“Are you for invading Iraq?” Trump was asked on 11 September 2002. His reply: “Yeah, I guess so”.) The MP was similarly happy to let the billionaire assert that the EU’s uselessness was proved by the fact that he was blocked from building a sea wall to protect a Trump golf course on the Irish coast from the effects of the same climate change Trump calls a “hoax” .
Instead, Gove was in New York to serve as a cheerleader, to gloss over Trump’s inconsistencies and outright ignorance on assorted topics – “intelligence takes many forms”, Gove writes kindly – and to pose for a souvenir photograph in which both men give a thumbs up, a framed cover of Playboy just over Gove’s shoulder.
(Note the contrast with Bild's Kai Diekmann, with whom Gove shared the interview: in his photo with the president elect, Diekmann's hands remain safely in neutral.) In Trump's world, this is how the press should always behave – and the ever-courteous Gove was only too happy to oblige.