Opinion & Features

Washington Diary: Something strange is happening to Donald Trump

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After President George HW Bush's death, Donald Trump surprised people by doing a convincing impression of a sombre statesman

Washington, DC

Something very strange is happening to President Donald Trump: he’s becoming normal. Take away the Twitter effusions, the odd barmy press conference, and he’s pretty much a conventional Republican leader these days. He cuts taxes. He slashes regulation. He’s loathed by enemies; adored by fans.

After President George HW Bush died on November 30, Trump surprised lots of people by doing a convincing impression of a sombre statesman. It’s no secret that the Bush family and the Trumps are at loggerheads. But Trump praised GHW Bush: he called for a day of mourning and tweeted kind words. He even tried to look mournful as he and Melania paid respects to the 41st president lying in state.

The Bush family played nice, too. They invited the Trumps to the funeral. They did not want a repeat of Senator John McCain’s funeral in August, which turned into a week-long carnival of Trump-hate. Yes, a few notables made the point that Bush had manners and Donald Trump does not. But generally the old establishment gave Trump a measure of respect, and vice-versa. This has led some optimists to think that, even in the age of Trump, Americans might be learning to get along again. Fat chance, but it’s a pleasant thought.

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On the day of Bush’s funeral, I saw his coffin driven by on 22nd Street, near Georgetown. It was cold. A Secret Service agent with a wire in his ear told me that the cortège must be approaching because the security helicopter was clattering around above our heads. He was wrong; I stood freezing for another 40 minutes before the ridiculously long line of flashing vehicles and the presidential hearse sped by. The police closed the street and did not let pedestrians cross.

A bearded man in spectacles, khaki jacket and beanie hat became agitated and started arguing with an officer. “When did the American people become the enemy, man?” he asked. I saw what he meant, but he probably wouldn’t have been so angry if a Democratic president were being laid to rest. Anyway, RIP Bush 41.

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On Saturday, I went to the right-wing American Priority Conference. It was held in one of those enormous, omni-hotels in north-west Washington, with strange carpets and huge chandeliers. I felt bad for the organisers, who had spent enormous sums of money recruiting speakers but failed to drum up a crowd. There was lots of liberal sneering on Twitter about what a failure the event was: journalists attended just to take pictures of the empty seats, because you’re allowed to be horrid on social media if your target is Trump fans.

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People did show up at one o’clock for a speech by George Papadopoulos, the Trump campaign official who has just done 12 days in prison for having lied to the FBI about his communications with individuals tied to Russia. Papadopoulos allegedly made the mistake of bragging to an Australian diplomat about Russian kompromat emails on Hillary Clinton.

His story seems to have kickstarted the whole Trump-Russia collusion drama. Papadopoulos now claims he is the victim of a deep-state conspiracy to smear Trump. He spoke on stage alongside his wife, Simona, who some people claim is Russian agent. She has denied this, saying “I’m an Italian national 100 per cent”, but I must say her accent was a bit confusing. Indeed, the whole Papadopoulos story is odd. It’s clear, though, that he was not orchestrating a sophisticated conspiracy to assist the Kremlin in the 2016 US presidential election. He seems to have been rather an over-ambitious boy caught up in a world he didn’t understand.

Unless he is a masterful liar, I suspect his story about being wooed by Western intelligence officials is true. “They wined and dined me as if I were Marilyn Monroe,” he says. Maybe I’m a conspiracy theorist, too, but I bet he’s at least half right.

Freddy Gray is deputy editor of The Spectator