When Donald met Scott: a reporter’s view of Trump and his White House wonderland

Australian PM Scott Morrison received a full-blown welcome from the US president. Katharine Murphy was on hand for an inside account Support our independent journalism with a one-off or recurring contribution

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Scott Morrison has made his first visit to the United States as prime minister. It was a trip that included a close encounter with the unpredictability of the Trump White House, a foreign policy pivot, and a backlash about a lack of climate policy action. Guardian Australias political editor, Katharine Murphy, travelled, with the prime minister. Here is what she witnessed:

Washington

Weve been positioned at the White House since 5am, watching the sun creep over the American capital. Security is as laborious as youd expect. Dogs sniff bags, then the secret service guys have a good look, passports are collected, checked and returned, White House passes and pins are distributed, and then at last we clear the metal detectors. Eventually we make it to the press briefing room, the small blue one, famous through several presidential administrations but now abandoned by Donald Trump. The modest proportions dont fit his presidency. Now its just a transit zone.

We are greeted by a blond woman in a broad-brimmed hat. June, a self-described southern belle, is receiving visitors in the briefing room, although its not clear why. She identifies herself as a fellow scribe working for Christian radio and television in Nashville. When shes not reporting on the Trump White House, shes rallying Christians for the president. This seems something of a line cross for a reporter with White House press accreditation but weve been on the premises for about 10 minutes and its clear that were not in Kansas any more.

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Donald and Melania Trump welcome Scott and Jenny Morrison on the south lawn with full military honours. Photograph: MAI/REX/Shutterstock

On the other side of the building, visitors are streaming across the South Lawn to grab prime positions to witness The Donald receiving The Scott at the official welcome. Flags, American and Australian, are held aloft on a glorious summery day. Eventually we are permitted to wander down to the lawn as well.

The Donalds grass is lush and slightly dewy, making me regret my choice of footwear. The daylight is now dazzling but the bucolic scene is disturbed by Austin rebuking Steve in the media pen. The confrontation happens just before the splendidly peppy pipe band strides across the lawn for the ceremonial welcome.

Ive never met Austin before this moment but he looks about 30, buttoned down and watchful as a raptor a White House wrangler who looks as though he hasnt sat down, eaten anything apart from a protein bar, or slept more than four hours straight a night since early infancy. Steve has transgressed and Austin convenes a short, sharp show trial in front of me. Ive nabbed a prime position on the fence in the media pen right in front of the entrance, and I dont intend to move unless the secret service guy standing beside me gets feisty.

You left the media area to make a call, Austin says, voice appropriately low so as not to disdain the Wonderful Occasion swelling around us. Steve is older than his accuser and possesses the rumpled look of a longtime print or news wire reporter. Ive never seen Steve before either, but hes clearly part of the White House press pool and looks like a man disinclined to small talk. My guess, from my quick scan of the body language, the suppressed inner sigh, is that Steve has seen a number of Austins in his reporting lifetime, perhaps a small production line of them, and is not much gripped by this power play.

Steve says nothing. Austin persists. In a minute we are going to go full Veep. The secret service told me you left the media area to make a call is this correct? Steve, at the end of his tolerance for JAccuse now, delivers his mic drop. Yah, he says. One of the secret service guys held back the rope so I could get out to make the call. I needed to take the call. I suspect Austin doesnt really know where to take this from here. The aide returns to the front of the fence, shoulders back, eyes front. Its showtime.

Trump strides out of the White House with Melania. From my vantage point they look like a pair of Easter Island statues. This is my first encounter with the current leader of the free world and my curiosity is intense. How will Trump look uncut?

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Donald and Melania Trump arrive to greet Scott Morrison. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Will he look how he does on television, with that weird affect the pursed lips, narrowed eyes and nose and chin set to an upward inflection, indicative of defiance and displeasure? Or is this a posture he adopts only after he pulls on the presidential onesie every day and heads for Fox News, purring ready for my close-up Mr DeMille?

I discover this is how Trump looks all the time, or at least all the time he is in open space. Hes striding to the podium with exactly that look, with Melania, who is a dignified presence yet strangely devoid of life force. Perhaps she laughs and sings and dances in her track pants like no one is watching in her private domain but, in public, Mrs Trump looks like a perfectly proportioned doll in a dolls house.

Over the next little while, Trump will lavish praise on Melania for her crack presidential spouse skills. The first lady, Trump reports over and over during the course of Friday, worked so hard on the table settings for the state dinner, pondering every detail. The flowers, the centrepieces, so wonderful, so beautiful. The best table decorations anyone has ever seen.

Its hard for me to imagine the reality of the first ladys life, what it must be like to agonise over centrepieces for state dinners amid the sound and fury of her husbands bitterly contested presidency. Given her reserved public presence, it feels like an impertinence to wonder.

Theres no time for whimsy in any case, because the Morrisons are now on the premises, ready for their induction into the Trumpiverse. In comparison with the Trumps, Scott and Jenny Morrison, from the Sutherland shire, Australia more latterly of Kirribilli House look like a well-to-do couple from the suburbs. They are earthed in this big moment, respectful of the tradition they are now associated with, the tradition of Washingtons special friends being drawn to the nations bosom.

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Scott Morrisons arrival in Washington marks the second state visit of Donald Trumps presidency. Photograph: Tasos Katopodis/ABACA POOL/EPA

Presumably they are buzzing with anticipation and anxiety, given that the unofficial White House weather forecast for Friday is clear skies, a light breeze and a high probability of catastrophic cyclone once their delegation reaches the Oval Office. Looking normal in this environment takes some doing, but the Morrisons manage.

The troops march, and are duly inspected; the visitors clutch their flags, which flutter gaily in the breeze. The anthems are played. The two couples appear content with each other and the scripted remarks they share with each other and the crowd. Just before the conclusion of the formalities, Austin is back working the fence line to move us, lickety split, to the holding pen outside the Oval Office. Fortunately, the war with Steve seems to have subsided.

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Trump and Morrison review the troops during an official arrival ceremony. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

I wash up near Steve and the other White House wire reporters. One of the group explains to me that Steve is the man if they want to get a question to the president. Trump will answer Steve. Its unclear why thats the case, and I dont ask.

She also gives us tremendously helpful advice: Trump will be on for a rave when we get in there. We are surprised by this. Our assumption was wed be in and out in a matter of minutes. Our river guide shakes her head. Trump, she says, is in an expansive frame of mind. Best we prepare some questions. She also predicts that Trump will struggle to understand our accents. If he doesnt understand, the president will say: Say it. This means ask the question again, she says.

I assume this is some sort of weird in-joke until I hear Trump do just that. Say it, Trump says, narrowing his eyes and curling his lip. Its utterly peculiar, but its an earworm. Once you hear it, its hard to get the locution out of your brain. Say it.

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Trump reacts to questions during a joint press conference with Morrison. Photograph: Sipa USA/SIPA USA/PA Images

The door of the Oval Office swings open and we are thrust into pure madness. The media scrum feeds off the static electricity in the room. It heaves like a wave. Our questions crash on the shore. Thud, thud, thud. Mr President. The Americans in the pool want to know about Joe Biden and the Ukraine controversy a story that will spiral towards impeachment during the week of our visit.

No American journalist gives a crap about Australia, and Morrison, and the second state visit to Washington of this febrile presidency. Fun fact: Emmanuel Macron, back when he imagined he had a talent for Trump whispering, was the first to be afforded the honour. But who cares? Conventions are devalued in the coarseness of politics in 2019. No one pretends to care. Everyone just has to emerge with what they need.

Journalists
Journalists crowd around Morrison and Trump during their press conference. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

Once we realise this is going to be nuts a small blazing blitzkrieg at the seat of American power with no rules of engagement Australian reporters also start hurling questions across a range of topics. Trump looks delighted by the disorder. Its where he thrives. Morrison shifts in his seat.

The president lays into the media. We are hopeless, finished, friendless. But Mr President, what about the call? Did you speak to Ukraines new president? It was a beautiful call. Next question. Say it.

The Morrisons sit tight as the stiff westerly blows. The prime minister isnt visibly alarmed but hes hyper alert. Jenny Morrison composes her face into a placid mask until Trump suddenly raises the spectre of nuclear weapons and Iran. I catch her eye at that moment and she startles, ever so slightly. Her eyes, to me, say help me. I catch Morrisons eye a couple of times and the corners of his mouth crinkle.

I am a spectator at this circus but the prime minister isnt permitted the luxury of distancing. Morrison is a peer of the president, a leader of a respectable middle power who has chosen, as the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd puts it with just the right squeeze of lemon during our visit, to play ball with the Mad King to give friendless Donald a friend.

'It
It was a beautiful call. Trump responds to journalists asking about his call with the president of Ukraine. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

The prime minister, unlike us, enjoys the benefit of knowing what Trump really thinks on a range of fronts; he has that baseline to keep him tethered through the rhetorical turbulence. But back in the nosebleed seats we lack those insights. During our 33 minutes in the Oval Office, Australian journalists are on a rollercoaster, hanging upside down, while the president indulges a dialogue with himself about whether to launch a military strike against Iran, or whether restraint is the better course. He lands eventually at restraint but the disorientation is so profound it takes me a while to process thats where weve landed.

Eventually Trump stops feeling all the feelings and we are herded out. I ask one of my fellow travelling reporters whether the president just raised the prospect of nuclear attack, because I fear the sleep deprivation might be messing with my cognition. Hes as knocked around as I am. Yes, he thinks so, but he needs to listen to the recording. TV reporters are wondering out loud how on earth they are going to distil what just happened into a package. How do you do this in a minute and a half?

At the height of my disorientation, I spot Paul Murray from Skys Fox News lite after-dark crew at the back of the room. As we are guided out, Morrison beckons Murray forward and introduces him to the president. This introduction yields an exclusive interview with Trump which includes the simpering question: What do you want to say to your many Australian supporters who wish you nothing but the best in November 2020? I suppose it could have been what was his favourite colour.

Globalisation Stephen Mayne (@MayneReport)

Paul Murray gets his exclusive with @realDonaldTrump but talk about not asking the hard questions. pic.twitter.com/5QnxMW5cHh

September 20, 2019

The madness persists. The day ends with wranglers trying to facilitate some access to the state dinner, which is al fresco, in the Rose Garden. As we are herded through the South Lawn accompanied by the lilt of violins serenading guests and the murmur of clinking glassware and small talk, a secret service guy in night goggles, with foliage in his helmet, suddenly materialises from the bushes and sprints across in front of us.

Mr.
Mr. and Mrs. Trump meet with Mr. and Mrs. Morrison as they attend a state dinner. Photograph: Pool/ABACA/PA Images

Shortly after this our White House wrangler declares this walk off the record, which generates considerable confusion among the scribes. How can a walk to a pool position be off the record? Which bit is off the record? This walk never happened? How do we explain our capacity to bear witness to events at the state dinner? Did we parachute in?

We resolve not to overthink this and press on, and eventually get close enough to see the guests drifting around the Rose Garden: the Australian billionaire box maker Anthony Pratt is hard to miss with his shock of orange hair; the younger Murdochs are there, Lachlan and Sarah, I reckon Ive spotted the mining magnates Twiggy Forrest and the generally reclusive Gina Rinehart, who appears to be floating. I rub my eyes, fearing a fancy. Perhaps Rinehart is not floating, more likely Im swaying, peering through a large shrub, sleep deprived and smacking the mosquitos that threaten my ankles, questioning my life choices.

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Fox CEO and co-chairman of News Corp Lachlan Murdoch (L) and Sarah Murdoch arrive for the state dinner. Photograph: Ron Sachs/POOL/EPA

Hancock
Hancock Prospecting chairwoman Georgina Rinehart arrives for the state dinner. Photograph: Ron Sachs/POOL/EPA

I see Rinehart again the next day, floating (she is definitely wafting like a cloud, because I know Im no longer swaying) into a soiree at the Australian ambassador Joe Hockeys residence, in a white dress with sequins and what appear to be pom poms trailing at the back. Morrisons old chief of staff and new department head, Phil Gaetjens, by contrast, is wandering around in a Wallabies rugby jersey with cut-off sleeves.

While the grandees mingle, Rinehart sets up court with her entourage in a shaded corner of the garden on what looks like a sedan chair, but is actually just a garden settee. The visual cue is Ms Rinehart is receiving guests, as long as they are not journalists. The media mogul Kerry Stokes is also said to be mingling but I dont clap eyes on him.

In Hockeys garden I strike up a conversation with an expatriate pub owner who is now the mayor of Annapolis and is campaigning to tighten gun control. Gavin Buckley, formerly from Western Australia, is an avuncular Democrat at a Republican knees-up, a fish out of water who cant quite believe his luck. Buckley tells me he hugged Hockey for the great honour bestowed upon him.

The whole scene is F Scott Fitzgerald meets the pre-woke capitalism of the 1980s, and the humidity is sending us all bonkers. Servers hand out party pies and sausages with disturbing names like cheese and Vegemite, and bald men in linen sports jackets compete for shade. One of our travelling media pack then proceeds to conduct a mock interview of a new magnolia tree which has just been planted to celebrate the Morrison state visit. With the Magnolia, this is Brett Mason, SBS News. Its a joke, hijinks to help us stay alert when we are hitting that hour of the day when jetlag threatens to take your legs out. But weve crossed the sense barrier and we havent even hit the Trump rally. What could possibly go wrong?

Ohio

Its a voyage with billionaires, this American excursion with Morrison. I confess that this is new territory for me. The cashed-up and politically connected drifted past us during the pomp and circumstance in Washington, and now we are closing in on Anthony Pratt as we speed to Wapakoneta, first airborne and then jammed in Morrisons motorcade with police cars racing past, sirens blaring, to stop traffic on the freeway.

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