A considered and important account of a lengthy dinner meeting between Prime Minister Morrison, President Trump and some of their most senior people.
Great insight and writing from Simon Benson.
One of Donald Trump’s first comments to Scott Morrison at dinner in Osaka on Thursday night was: “What a great win.”
The US President was intrigued by the Prime Minister’s surprise election victory. According to an insider, Trump quizzed Morrison about the campaign and what the issues were that got him over the line.
Morrison told him it was about the “quiet Australians”, a group of people, he told Trump, that wanted to get on with their lives and not be lectured to.
A kinship was forming.
As one insider remarked: “Trump likes winners.”
Sitting opposite each other at a long white-clothed table, both leaders were flanked by their most senior people. It was as high-powered a meeting as you get.
Despite landing with only 20 minutes to spare, Trump’s team arrived on time at the Imperial Hotel at 8pm.
Jetting in on a commercial flight from Washington DC through San Francisco to Tokyo — followed by a fast train to Osaka — was Joe Hockey. Australia’s ambassador to the US miraculously managed to get there on time as well. Hockey had been packing his bags to travel to Miami for a Democrat convention when he got the call to reschedule and fly to Osaka.
It was a long way to go for a meal, but Morrison wanted him there.
Hockey has been instrumental in forging the relationship between Australia and Trump.
And a good relationship with Trump can be worth several hundred million dollars in avoided trade tariffs, as Australia has demonstrated.
Trump isn’t interested in nostalgic partnerships. He prefers transactional relationships.
In Australia’s case he has made an exception and has embraced both.
Trump had pulled out the big guns. It was an impressive line-up: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and national security adviser John Bolton.
Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner were also at the table with Dan Scavino, Trump’s social media director.
The director of his budget office, Mick Mulvaney, who Vanity Fair says Trump has “fallen out of love with”, was further down the table with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, his trade representative Robert Lighthizer and trade adviser Peter Navarro.
Travelling with Morrison were Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson, G20 sherpa David Gruen, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade deputy secretary Richard Maude, Morrison’s media director Andrew Carswell, national security and international adviser Michelle Chan, trade adviser Brendan Pearson and economic adviser Craig Evans.
An insider said Trump barely touched his meal: prawns for entree, meat for mains. There was a selection of red and white wines.
But Trump was there to talk. Contrary to what critics say about him, he is deeply inquisitive.
Drinking only Diet Coke, he spent much of the 75-minute meeting asking questions of Morrison. He wanted to know his thoughts on China. He continued his obsession with Australia’s border protection policies. They even spoke of aviation and what’s happening at Boeing.
Another observer remarked that at a time when every other country is in Trump’s firing line, in one way or another, this was an extraordinary meeting.
Of the 19 other world leaders Trump could have had dinner with on the eve of the G20 summit, the US President had chosen to have it with Morrison. Why?
Eight months ago in Buenos Aires, at their first brief encounter, Trump joked with Morrison by asking him where Malcolm was.
As a senior government source pointed out, even in the US, they hadn’t expected Morrison to be around very long. The fact he won the election meant he had to be taken seriously. Morrison will be a dominant political fixture in the Indo-Pacific region for the next three years and possibly more, during which time a number of other leaders will be replaced.
Morrison was said to be relaxed and confident and to have spoken with authority. The discussion was broad, according to US sources. And the message out of the White House was that the meeting went extremely well.
Word is that the two have struck up a genuine rapport.
Morrison’s stewardship of Operation Sovereign Borders was a source of fascination for Trump at the dinner.
When it came to the US-China trade deadlock Trump had a sympathetic ear but made it clear that the US was not for turning.
Morrison was forceful in his appraisal of the trade dispute and its impact on other economies, such as Australia’s. But for Trump it is about the simple mathematics. The trade imbalance simply doesn’t add up for America’s interests.
The dinner went 15 minutes over time. At one level it demonstrated how highly Trump values personal relationships. The value of “face time” can’t be underestimated.
The broader optics presented a powerful image. In geopolitical language it said quite bluntly that the US-Australia alliance remains one of the world’s enduring strategic partnerships and was becoming ever more critical in a region that shares half the world’s population and where the potential for conflict is palpable.