It has become something of a tradition over the past quarter-century for U.S. presidents to bring the Dalai Lama to the White House, and the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader doesn’t appear to see that changing with the incoming administration.
Long reticent about Donald Trump, the Dalai Lama on Wednesday made his most revealing remarks yet about the president-elect, saying he has “no worries” about Trump occupying the Oval Office. During a four-day visit to Mongolia, he told reporters he was not concerned about statements Trump made on the campaign trail and expected him to be more restrained in office, the Associated Press reported.
“I feel during the election, the candidate has more freedom to express. Now once they are elected, having the responsibility, then they have to carry their cooperation, their work, according to reality,” the Dalai Lama said. “So I have no worries.”
Every president since George H.W. Bush has met with the Dalai Lama on several occasions during their time in the White House. The encounters tend to be warm, friendly and laden with praise for the Dalai Lama’s attempts at dialogue with the Chinese government, which has long accused the holy man of seeking to sever Tibet from China.
Whether Trump will carry on that tradition remains to be seen. But the Dalai Lama said he plans on visiting Trump some time after his Jan. 20 inauguration.
“I think there are some problems to go to United States, so I will go to see the new president,” he said, speaking in English to reporters in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital.
The Dalai Lama’s trips to the United States always draw intense, often hyperbolic criticism from Chinese officials, who have called the religious leader a “devil” and at various points have threatened that his visits would “seriously damage” U.S.-China relations. The Chinese government made similar statements about his trip to Mongolia last week, demanding that its northern neighbor bar him from entering over his “splitting China activities.” The Dalai Lama has said he has not publicly advocated for Tibetan independence since the mid-1970s, arguing instead that the Chinese government should grant the predominantly Buddhist region greater autonomy, cultural protections and religious freedom.
The White House, never failing to call China’s bluff, has long welcomed the Dalai Lama with open arms.
The 81-year-old monk has lived in exile in India since fleeing Tibet during a failed uprising against the Chinese government in 1959. More than four decades later, George H.W. Bush became the first U.S. president to meet the Dalai Lama, speaking with him privately for about an hour in 1991, according to the International Campaign for Tibet, which tracks his visits with heads of state. The visit came two years after the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to liberate Tibet.
President Bill Clinton met with the Dalai Lama on four occasions between 1993 and 2000, discussing U.S.-China relations and allegations of human rights abuses in Tibet. “The president welcomed the Dalai Lama’s commitment to nonviolence and his efforts to initiate a dialogue with the Chinese government,” the White House said after a 1998 visit. The language became the boilerplate response for descriptions of later meetings with multiple presidents.
The Dalai Lama made four trips to President George W. Bush’s White House, talking with the president in the residential wing — a move meant to suggest he was there as a spiritual leader, rather than a political figure. In their final official meeting in 2007, Bush awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’s highest civilian honor.
“Americans cannot look to the plight of the religiously oppressed and close our eyes or turn away,” Bush said at the time. “And that is why I will continue to urge the leaders of China to welcome the Dalai Lama to China. They will find this good man to be a man of peace and reconciliation.”
President Obama has also met with the Dalai Lama on four occasions, most recently in June, when they reportedly discussed “Tibet’s unique religious, cultural, and linguistic traditions and the equal protection of human rights of Tibetans in China.” Like others, the meeting drew a strong rebuke from Chinese officials, who said the Dalai Lama was “not a pure religious figure” and was engaged in “anti-China separatist plots under the cloak of religion.”
The Dalai Lama has carried on a chummy relationship with George W. Bush since he left office. In 2012, he told Piers Morgan, then of CNN, that he admired the 43rd president.
“I love President Bush,” he said in the interview.
“Really?” Morgan asked.
“Yes, really,” he replied. “As a human being. Not as a president of America. Sometimes his policy may not be very, very successful. But as a person, as a human being, very nice person. I love him.”
Last year, when the Dalai Lama visited the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, the former president gave him a portrait he had painted of him.
“Right eye could use a little work,” he reportedly joked.
He has also expressed admiration for Obama, telling Larry King in an interview last year he thought the 44th president looked like a “dignified monk” and saying “I love him.”
On Trump, the Dalai Lama has been more measured. When Trump was surging in the spring during the Republican primaries, he demurred when asked about him.
“I do not know the whole background on these things,” he told ABC News. “Serious discussion about policy matter, that’s useful. But sometimes a little bit of personal criticism … that looks a little bit cheap.”
In September, Piers Morgan asked his opinion again.
“I don’t know,” the Dalai Lama said, and proceeded to mock Trump’s hair and mouth. The response went viral.
“That’s my impression,” he said, laughing. “But I don’t know.”
— Good Morning Britain (@GMB) September 22, 2016
More from Morning Mix