The Donald and me
In July 2005 Donald Trump became my best, new friend
As the Donald leaves the stage, who knows for how long, maybe it’s time to let go of a chapter in life that it might be better to bury. But heck, the Trump man-child sits at the centre of this narrative. And none of us know if he’ll ever return to lay waste to our world. Waste not, want not, so said my Irish grandmother. Don’t waste a good story, I hear myself saying.
You see, Donald was once my best, new friend.
Secretary-General Annan saw me as a voice that could explain the UN’s work across our world
July 2005, inside the hallowed halls of the United States Capitol. Yes, so recently the target of President Trump’s cohorts of people mad, angry, riotous about him losing the Presidency. And now the epicentre of the political battle about his legacy, impeachment or not. But not back then, in a period of relative pre-Trump tranquillity – in the age of Trump as celeb, making his way on the global stage.
One Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, aka Dr Coburn, a medical practitioner and proudly so, had summoned Donald J. Trump, NYC real estate mogul, to testify how naïve, inept, even corrupt the United Nations was, seeking a billion-dollar loan from the United States Government to renovate UN headquarters. “I love the UN,” said the Donald a few days before. “Love the work they do for all.”
That iconic UN building on the East river in New York, home to the UN Security Council, the world’s General Assembly et al, represented 39 floors of offices riddled with asbestos. Not to mention, 1950s architecture totally unprepared for the security nightmares of a world living in fear post 9/11.
And I, lucky fellow, had been called to listen on behalf of then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Back then I headed Mr Annan’s small diplomatic office in Washington DC, working with the Congress and the White House, the Secretary-General having invited me to work for him as he faced the open hostility of the George W. Bush administration in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq.
As a veteran foreign correspondent for Britain’s ITN and C4News, based in Washington DC, Secretary-General Annan saw me as a voice in the infamous Washington Beltway that could explain the UN’s work across our world, and help die-hard Republicans like the late Senator Coburn understand how the UN was there to bring the best of humanity to confront the worst. Not sure I met expectations – certainly nothing prepared me for an afternoon with the man himself.
Trump was a beast when it came to a simple hello
But I sure met the Donald as he entered the Senate with his new wife Melania in tow, they had recently married, TV cameras following his every move and her every fashion statement, making me realize I had to turn on the TV face. The handshake lasted forever, I remember, and was, how shall we say, gripping. Years later I sympathized with France’s President Macron as he wrestled to take his hand back from a Trump welcome. The man was a beast when it came to a simple hello.
Trump’s argument, delivered in those rich, syrupy overtones of high, high promise, spoke to the politics of the moment, and the outrage of the day. “I don’t know who these people at the United Nations talk to,” he said, leaning forward into the microphone to deliver rat-tat-tat gunfire on my bosses. “They don’t know what they want, they don’t know what they have, and they don’t know what they’re doing.” The use of the words “beautiful… great… remarkable” rang in my ear, all of them Trump adjectives for the work he would do on that UN building. On reflection, a primer for the Trump Presidency.
Senator Coburn purred in anticipation, noting that Trump had told New York tabloids he could do the job at the UN for a third of the price, 300 million, and a “small plus,” instead of a billion dollars, a number the Senator termed outrageous, although he smiled as he used that word, giving Trump a knowing look as if they shared a joke.
“I’m a patriot,” Trump said, waving a picture of the UN building as he sat to my right, the snapper’s picture for The Associated Press showing yours truly a tad sceptical about the claim that followed. “You know what, Senator, I’m a patriot. I’ll do it for less.” By then Senator Coburn, and the Republicans on the bench, sat in rapt attention.
And then came the kicker, from where I sat, now feeling a little like a condemned man in the dock. “But I’ve given my new UN friend my card, with my exclusive number,” the Donald insisted. “He can call me any time, so too the Secretary-General.” He looked at me as if we played 18 holes every Sunday, the oldest of buddies. I feared an invite to the Trump resort in Florida, or Atlantic City, or the Bahamas, wherever.
The fellow had such an eye for the theatre of politics, and how best to exploit it
Yes, I was Donald’s new friend. I had his personal card. I had his phone number. He held my hand, another muscle fight, as he left. I wanted an electric drill to prise us apart. The bevvy of TV cameras persuaded him to make a theatrical exit, thank goodness, with Melania the new wife, almost Amazonian to my eye, their slot on the national news guaranteed, so too the morning newspaper headlines. Senator Coburn told me to stay, while he read what amounted to my Miranda rights. “I expect you, as the Secretary-General’s representative in this room, to report the serious concerns we have about the way this matter is being handled.” He paused. “At the US taxpayer’s expense!” The gavel came down.
That night I called Kofi Annan, something you did only when a matter of importance and urgency. “Sir, given the politics of this, it makes sense to reach out to Mr Trump,” that was the message.
Secretary-General Annan sounded wary. “I know Trump socially,” he said. “I doubt anything will come of this.”
Indeed it did not. They talked. The Donald persisted in lambasting the UN team charged with making the renovation happen. But no concrete plan from his side ever materialized. In time, the UN Headquarters was renovated, over a number of years while staff were relocated to other properties in Manhattan, and it did cost a billion, repaid by the world and its 193 member states.
And then I noticed, as President Trump headed to that building in New York to deliver his first speech as leader of the free world, well someone planted headlines, favourable to him, what a surprise, reminding us all that he once wanted to renovate the UN – “the deal that got away,” so they said.
I just remember thinking: the fellow had such an eye for the theatre of politics, and how best to exploit it, a kind of mad genius to go with the mad personality. But, equally, no shame whatsoever.
David Smith was an award-winning correspondent for 30 years for ITN/C4News, then worked as an adviser to Kofi Annan at the UN. Now based in Latin America, he writes for The Economist.
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