President Trump, perhaps not wanting to spoil the chummy mood of the annual St. Patrick’s Day-themed visit, announced at the start of his meetings with the Irish prime minister Thursday that he was not going to comment on Brexit, on which he and his guest vigorously disagree.
And then, of course, he commented at length.
“I can tell you it’s a very complex thing that’s going on right now,” Trump said of Britain’s drawn-out and drama-filled divorce from the European Union. “It’s tearing a country apart,” said Trump, who has cheered from the sidelines for Brexit and the populist and nationalist British politicians who have championed it.
“We have a different opinion, president,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said mildly. “I regret that Brexit’s happening.”
The annual ritual of the American president hosting the leader of Ireland in celebration of the intertwined history of the two countries dates to 1959, and evokes a political era of patronage and old-school Irish American pols, such as former House speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill (D-Mass.).
For Irish leaders — even a modern figure such as the young, gay, mixed-race Varadkar — the event reinforces historical bonds that translate to tourism, business partnerships and other boons of shared history and language. More than 30 million Americans, or about 1 in 10, have Irish ancestry.
“It’s an enormous pleasure for Ireland, a small country, to have this annual meeting on account of St. Patrick’s Day, and to have a chance to make even closer and tighter the bonds between the United States and Ireland,” Varadkar told Trump.
But the tensions over Brexit served this year to highlight a divide between the two countries, with Ireland embracing the European Union as Trump questions why European nations continue to marry their economies together instead of going it alone on issues such as trade.
For most U.S. presidents, the kitschy tribute to Ireland is good politics. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wore a green jacket to greet Varadkar for lunch at the Capitol, and a green-tie-wearing Vice President Pence hosted Varadkar and his partner for breakfast.
Trump was game to keep the ritual going despite his outsider status and disdain for stuffy political convention. He saw Varadkar for three events and told him he plans to soon visit Ireland — a country where he owns a golf course.
“Many of the traditions this president violates pertain to political etiquette and expectations,” said Kathleen Costello-Sullivan, a historian at Le Moyne College. “In contrast, he seems to enjoy the kinds of cultural trappings and traditions that come with the office.”
Thursday’s events carried on despite awkward timing. As the meetings in Washington began, British lawmakers were debating whether to delay Brexit. Parliament voted later in the day to request a delay of the planned March 29 exit.
While Varadkar prepared to have breakfast with Pence and a who’s who of Irish Americans, including the president of Notre Dame, Trump tweeted an open invitation to Britain to free itself of the European Union and its trade rules.
“My Administration looks forward to negotiating a large scale Trade Deal with the United Kingdom. The potential is unlimited!” Trump wrote.
Ireland is at the center of the practical discussion of how Britain would separate itself from the European Union and its open movement of goods and people because the only affected land border runs between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Irish leaders say a new formal border would put profitable commerce at risk and invoke the ghosts of the bloody conflicts in Northern Ireland known as the Irish Troubles.
“I look forward to talking to you later about Brexit, giving you our perspective on it and the real importance of protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the really hard-won peace in Northern Ireland,” Varadkar told Trump, referring to the 1998 British-Irish peace accord.
During that Oval Office meeting and later at a Capitol Hill lunch, Varadkar smiled politely as Trump talked about the “sad” saga of Britain’s exit and criticized both the European Union and British Prime Minister Theresa May, who he said could have gotten better terms by following his advice.
“I will tell you, I’m surprised at how badly it’s all gone from the standpoint of a negotiation,” Trump said, sounding like he wasn’t that surprised at all.
Trump also got in a plug for his Irish golf course and repeated an embroidered story about having predicted the surprise outcome of the 2016 British Brexit referendum.
“I predicted it was going to happen, and I was right. And people laughed when I predicted it, and they won by about two points,” Trump said. “And I was standing out on Turnberry, and we had a press conference, and people were screaming. That was the day before, if you remember,” Trump said describing his visit during the presidential campaign to his golf resort in Scotland.
The visit and the news conference were the day after the June 23 Brexit vote, not the day before.
“I think it could’ve been negotiated in a different manner, frankly. I hate to see it being — everything being ripped apart right now,” Trump said, adding that holding a second referendum “would be very unfair to the people that won.”
British lawmakers voted Thursday not to seek a do-over vote, at least for now.
Nile Gardiner, a former aide to British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation, said Trump “has been very clear in his view that Brexit is great for America and for Britain.”
Gardiner rejects Irish concerns about the border and said the issue has been used as a “battering ram” by E.U. leadership keen to make Britain a cautionary example to other member states flirting with an exit.
“The Irish government has played a very adversarial role,” Gardiner said. “There is very deep-seated animosity within the Irish government to Brexit.”
Pence glossed over the Brexit disagreement as he welcomed Varadkar for the breakfast, and grew nostalgic as he recounted his grandfather’s emigration from Ireland and his own affection for the country. Pence attempted the Irish leader’s formal title, calling him “Taoiseach Varadkar.” Pence got the pronunciation right — “TEE-shuck” — and said he, too, plans a trip to Ireland shortly. Trump gave it a try, too, and got pretty close, during the final theatrical rite of the Irish visit — the presentation of a crystal bowl of shamrocks.
Brexit won’t spoil the relationship, even given Trump’s history of turning on leaders who cross him, said Marquette University historian Timothy G. McMahon, president of the American Conference for Irish Studies.
“The United States and the Republic of Ireland have such close ties that it’s unlikely that anything permanently damaging would happen,” McMahon said. “Friendly disagreements happen in diplomacy all the time.”
Trump may agree. At the luncheon, he sounded cheerful as he described his discussion with Varadkar.
“We talked about Brexit, something that is turning out to be a little more complex than they thought it would be. But it will all work out. Everything does,” he said. “One way or the other, it’s going to work out.”