Leo goes to Washington

The Taoiseach. Leo Varadkar, and his ministerial colleagues landed into the United States this week as the Trump White House is embroiled in turmoil. This St. Patrick’s week isn’t at all that strange, however, in the new, unprecedented political reality ushered in when the American people chose the bombastic billionaire over Hillary Clinton nearly a year and a half ago now.

The dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, though it seemed to happen suddenly, has been in the works for some time. It was implausible that Donald Trump would allow someone who infamously called him a “moron” and holds divergent foreign policy views to stay on as the nation’s top diplomat much longer. What is clear from Tillerson’s firing and other rumoured personnel changes to come is that only men and women who sing from the same hymn sheet as the president will be welcome in his inner circle.

Deep within Trump country, meanwhile, an extraordinary political upset took place on Tuesday. Irish American Democrat Conor Lamb prevailed in a special congressional election in a district the president won by 20 percentage points in 2016.

There are certainly local factors that contributed to the result, but it has to be viewed to some extent as a referendum on Trump. In light of Lamb’s razor thin margin of victory, one wonders what impact the wall to wall media coverage on polling day of the rather dramatic departure of Tillerson and two other administration officials – and the instability it again suggests – might have had on undecided voters processing the latest revelations as they headed out to cast ballots.

And so, into this complex milieu that is Donald Trump’s America arrived Leo & Co., charged with the vitally important task of advocating for Ireland in what is still the most powerful country in the world. Notwithstanding the foolhardy claims of those on the far left who say that President Trump isn’t worth their time, it is arguably more important than ever that this Government avail of the unparalleled opportunities engendered by the global celebration of 17 March and the close Irish-American relationship.

The first few days of the trip unfolded on territory that the Taoiseach probably felt very comfortable on. The South by Southwest conference and festival in Austin, Texas, where he had his first public engagement, is a “bucket list” item for music fans like him everywhere.

His visit to Choctaw Nation and announcement of a scholarship for young people in that community to study in Ireland was powerful, given both historical ties and the fact that Leo Varadkar is of a different ethnic background than what most Native Americans would expect of an Irish prime minister.

And he performed well at the Brookings Institution, The Ireland Funds Gala, and elsewhere in Washington, DC in articulating Ireland’s strategic interests and furthering economic, cultural and other transatlantic links.

The key question was how he would acquit himself with Irish American politicians on Capitol Hill and, above all, in the White House with President Trump. Enda Kenny was undeniably superb when some similar concerns were raised last year, but that was down in large part to his own well-known and well-honed persona as a personable, outgoing, glad-handing politician. Leo Varadkar is an undeniably different leader.

And it was all going so well. Despite the doubts of some commentators, President Trump and Taoiseach Varadkar got along just fine in front of the cameras. The former, in his rambling, off the cuff style, paid homage to the relationship between Ireland and the US, warmly greeted his “very popular” 39 year old counterpart warmly, pledged to visit Ireland in the not too distant future and even invited the non-golfing Taoiseach to play a round at Doonbeg with him.

And the latter raised substantive policy issues. He spoke about the importance of global trade and the tremendous amount of dollars and euro flowing in both directions across the ocean.

Varadkar also proposed a tit for tat in order to ameliorate the plight of the thousands of Irish people living in the shadows of America: provide them with a path to regularise their status and we will make it easier for many more Americans – retirees, business people, young graduates, men and women with distant familial ties to Ireland – to live and work on this island. This is precisely the type of creative, outside the box thinking necessary to solve the conundrum of men, women and children trapped in a desperate situation. And Trump seemed interested.

Then, however, the Taoiseach went off script. In reference to a comment made by the president that the two men had a previous encounter, he retold a story when his aide received a phone call (which he suspected was a “pisstake”) from the businessman about his new golf course in Doonbeg and a proposed wind farm that would detract from this investment.

Speaking to a jovial crowd of Irish American politicians and luminaries yesterday, Varadkar said that he endeavoured to do what he could and contacted Clare County Council, which ultimately rejected the application for the wind farm. To much laughter, he recalled that he had nothing to do with it, but that President Trump was giving him credit.

The Irish media immediately reported the Taoiseach’s remarks and opposition politicians swiftly condemned his past actions and sought answers. A couple of unplanned lines in a speech have overwhelmed what was an objectively very good week in the US.

Questions are being asked now about the Taoiseach. Was this another “Love Actually” moment where he was overwhelmed by his surroundings? In the presence of some of the world’s most powerful men – and they were almost all men – did he lose the run of himself? Is this indicative of poor judgment that could have detrimental consequences for his party or for the country?

While the questioners have a point, in truth, this was an unfortunate moment in an atmosphere conducive to letting one’s guard down. We, as human beings, all have them.

The bigger question is whether the Irish people will make much of it? In the past, when the Taoiseach has erred, apparent firestorms have been rapidly extinguished by subsequent opinion polls showing that his approval rating had actually gone up. While my guess is that this will prove another storm in a teacup, the wildcard is the reality that Donald Trump is widely detested here. Any perception that his bidding was done can’t be a good thing.

Today, Leo Varadkar meets with Mike Pence. The vice president is very conservative and his views on homosexuality are shaped by his evangelical Christian faith. The Taoiseach pledged to raise LGBT issues in the US and indicated yesterday that the media ban imposed by the White House may allow for frank discussions. Because these matters are so near to his heart, he likely will raise them, albeit in diplomatic fashion.

However robust the Taoiseach may be with Vice President Pence won’t alter the reality that Doonbeg now dominates the headlines about what was an otherwise solid week. That’s a pity.