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Up close and very personal with The Donald on Air Force One

July 15, 2018

Piers Morgan finds out what Trump really thinks of Putin, Brexit, Kim Jong-Un and the Queen

* Intel vets challenge ‘Russia Hack’ evidence  

‘I’m sorry Mr Morgan, but you can’t sit in that chair. Only the President of the United States of America ever sits in that chair.’

I was in the Situation Room of Air Force One, the airplane used to fly the most powerful human being on earth around the world.

Hannah, the presidential aide tasked with escorting me around it, was very polite but also VERY firm.

‘You can in one of those,’ she suggested, pointing to one of the chairs around the Situation Room desk. ‘They swivel.’

Piers Morgan meets Donald Trump for his fourth interview with the Republican since he ran for office against Clinton

Piers stands on the tarmac outside Air Force One, the aircraft tasked with jetting Trump acroos the UK on his official visit

They certainly did swivel. I pressed a button on the sumptuous leather chair towards where the President would soon himself be sitting and imagined what it must be like in that room when all hell breaks loose.

It was this room where President George W. Bush held crisis talks on 9/11 when Air Force One was ordered to scramble him to safety after fears it would come under attack like the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

Opposite the President’s chair, at the other end of the room, is a giant TV screen that can beam him live into the White House Situation Room or be used to address the American people.

When the President flies on this plane, it automatically becomes the epicentre of global power.

President Trump has his very own M&Ms aboard Air Force One – and Piers bagged himself his very own

I walked slowly around the room looking out for little details that would either impress, fascinate or simply amuse.

Under the TV are three digital clocks. They permanently display the same three times – Washington DC, local time and time in the next destination. To the right of the TV was a brown leather sofa. Two hi-tech phones were behind it.

‘Can I pick one up and call someone?’ I asked, reaching down to phone Lord Sugar and boast about where I was.

‘NO!!!!!’ exclaimed another aide. ‘Do NOT touch those phones… please. Thank you, sir.’

The President’s staff all exude an air of delightfully polite menace. Next to the phones was a black leather bound menu containing that night’s culinary fare.

An onboard kitchen and chef ensure the President can eat whatever he wants, at any time of day or night, all delivered perfectly cooked and piping hot.

Try as he might, Piers was prohibited from calling Lord Sugar using President Trump’s phone while aboard Air Force One for his interview

No Big Mac or fries, but personalised M&M chocolates

I was surprised to discover that the menu didn’t include a KFC bucket or Big Mac and large fries, two of Donald Trump’s favourite treats.

But then he told when we last met in Davos earlier this year that’s he been trying to eat more healthily since winning the White House 20 months ago.

So tonight’s dinner was:

Cucumber Thai salad, a medley of cucumbers, radishes, spicy red chillis, chopped peanuts, basil, cilantro and mint, tossed in a homemade vinaigrette.

Thai baked salmon fillet, baked in sweet chilli sauce over a bed of jasmine rice.

Tarte lemon bar, topped with crunchy shortbread crumbles.

The Situation Room – where President Trump makes critical decisions aboard the jet when required to do so

There was also ‘a choice of beverage’. The President doesn’t drink alcohol so that probably means his preferred diet coke.

It wasn’t all healthy though.

Further down the room lay a basket of sweets including Hershey’s Kisses chocolates (they are famously shaped like flat-bottomed teardrops – do your own jokes) and specially designed boxes of presidential M&Ms complete with Donald Trump’s signature on the back.

‘Can I take some?’ I asked an aide.

‘We’re already ahead of you, Mr Morgan,’ smiled Hannah, handing me a large bag of the M&Ms and a dozen boxes of Air Force One matchboxes. They will solve the perennial ‘what do you get someone who’s got everything?’ birthday present dilemma. Money can’t buy this stuff.

I’d arrived at Stansted Airport in Essex an hour earlier.

The whole airfield was in a massive security lockdown. It’s impossible to truly comprehend the magnitude of the machinery that surrounds the US President when he travels until you’re in the middle of it.

I went through four different security checks before reaching the tarmac.

300 Secret Service agents and a hand-polished Air Force One

There were Secret Service agents and armed British police officers everywhere; all stern-faced, and twitching. You don’t want to be the person who loses a President on your watch, even one as divisive as Donald Trump.

I once interviewed Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent who climbed on the back of JFK’s car after the President was assassinated in Dallas and he still wept 50 years later at the guilt he felt about not getting to him a second earlier to take the bullet.

That day, the Secret Service detail was just eight agents. Today, President Trump has over 300. I walked onto the tarmac and got my first glimpse of Air Force One glinting magnificently in the sunlight.

It looked perfect, which is no surprise as it is HAND-polished before every flight.

Hannah repeatedly cautioned: ‘Get what you need as fast as possible because once Marine One takes off from Windsor Castle, things will suddenly move very fast.’

We took some photos (I sent one of me standing outside AF1 to my three sons, blowing their selfie-obsessed minds. ‘OK Dad,’ said the eldest Spencer, ‘you just won Instagram.’ There can be no finer praise for a middle-aged man.)

Then I was filmed walking up the famous steps. Two Secret Service agents in dark glasses stood at the bottom, unsmiling and very serious. ‘Nice day for it,’ I observed. ‘Yes, sir,’ came the terse reply. I don’t think these guys do much small talk.

I couldn’t resist stopping at the top, turning and waving. I was later told this is technically a breach of protocol – only the President is supposed to ever do it.

But hey, Donald Trump constantly bends the rules so why can’t I? I walked inside and found a small army of uniformed personnel bustling around.

Everything looked and smelled ultra clean, which must delight a germaphobe like Trump.

‘The President will be here in 25 minutes,’ said Hannah, escorting me to the Situation Room. ‘Please tell your crew to hurry.’

There was now a controlled, super-efficient frenzy to her behavioural pattern. The ITV crew, who’d all been extensively security screened by the Secret Service, hurried.

No other plane was being allowed to take off or land from Stansted until Air Force One departed. So every second I delayed things meant thousands of members of the public being delayed. That’s an unusual burden for an interviewer who wants to get as much time as he can possibly get from the President when he arrives.

Piers holds the presidential M&Ms that travel with Donald Trump while he is aboard Air Force One

Several senior Air Force One staff came to introduce themselves. They were all chisel-jawed but extremely courteous. The kind of people who would kill you with their bare hands, but then apologise.

We shot some behind-the-scenes footage, then Hannah rushed back in.

‘OK, we need to de-clutter this room asap.’

We de-cluttered.

Outside, I noticed a long cavalcade of cars sweeping towards the plane. It carried numerous presidential staff and the White House press corps.

Woody Johnson, the new US Ambassador to Britain, came on board with his wife Suzanne. They had hosted the Trumps at their London residence and were now flying to Scotland with the President to spend the weekend at his Turnberry golf resort.

‘Relieved it’s all over?’ I laughed.

‘I’m pleased it’s been a very successful trip, Piers – yes!’ he replied, showing off his excellent new diplomatic skills. .

Suddenly, the plane’s intercom system announced it would be five minutes until the President arrived and energy levels on the plane instantly rocketed. People were streaming all over the place, making sure everything was perfectly prepared.

I looked again out of the window and saw a fleet of helicopters including Marine One sweeping down to land next to Air Force One.

Piers prepares to descend the steps of Air Force One following his interview with Donald Trump

A minute later, Trump’s chief of staff General John Kelly appeared in the Situation Room to say hello. My brother, a British Army colonel, speaks very highly of him as a military leader, and he certainly exudes an impressive air of calm authority.

‘How long do you need with the President?’ he asked.

‘As long as I can squeeze the lemon,’ I replied.

We both laughed, knowing it would be entirely at the whim of President Trump how long the lemon would allow itself to be squeezed.

Bill Shine, Trump’s new communications chief, appeared. The last man to hold his job, Anthony Scaramucci, lasted just 11 days.

‘I’ve done seven,’ Shine chuckled. ‘I need to get to at least 12 so I can beat The Mooch.’

I wished him good luck. Five days is a long time working for Donald Trump…

The ‘beautiful’ Queen and the ‘fantastic’ First Lady

Then the man himself swept in.

‘Mr President, great to see you.’

‘It’s good to see you, Piers.’

‘How are you? How was the Queen?’

‘Good, I’m very good. The Queen is FANTASTIC! She’s a fantastic woman; so much energy and smart and sharp. She was AMAZING! Such a wonderful lady and so beautiful! It was such an honour to finally meet her. To have a Queen like that is great. Come on, let’s sit down.’

I’ve known Trump for 12 years now and genuinely like him whilst disagreeing with many of the things he says and does.

He’s a uniquely impulsive and charismatic man, which as we have seen can manifest itself in both a very good and very bad way. Trump’s wife, Melania, came in too.

I saw a lot of her over the years but this was the first time since her husband became President.

She was wearing the same sleek cream Christian Dior suit she’d worn to meet the Queen.

‘First Lady! How lovely to see you again,’ I said.

‘Nice to see you too,’ she replied. ‘It’s been a long time.’

I’ve always really liked Melania. She’s not just a strikingly beautiful woman; she’s also genuinely nice and warm, but a tough cookie too.

Life must have been so hard at times for her in the past three years since Donald declared he was running for President – what with THAT tape, the Stormy Daniels saga and endless lurid headlines.

But she and Donald still seem as relaxed and happy in each other’s company as they always seemed before he went into politics.

‘I hope this doesn’t sound too patronising,’ I told her, ‘but I have great admiration for the way you have conducted yourself as First Lady. A friend of mine (Sarah Brown) did this kind of job when her husband became British Prime Minister so I know how tough it can be.’

‘I just feel it’s important to be true to yourself,’ she smiled.

Her performance under fire has resonated well with the American public who have given her very good and improving approval ratings which currently stand a lot higher than her husband’s.

I think they admire her grace and resilience under constant, and often very humiliating fire.

‘The Queen Mother always said the secret to public life was to never explain, complain or speak too often in public,’ I said.

‘That’s right,’ Melania laughed. ‘I agree with that completely. I know that quote.’

‘Hey Piers, she’s fantastic!’ said the President.

Then, after Melania left, he got into game mode.

‘OK, let’s go,’ he barked, ‘the plane’s waiting to take off!’

I’d been told we had a maximum of 15 minutes for the interview, due to the flight schedule.

That can get eaten up very quickly with Trump given his tendency to answer every question with lengthy hyperbolic boasts about how great he is and how well he’s doing.

As I’ve previously found to my cost, if you engage him too aggressively in one exchange over one issue, the plug can get pulled very swiftly.

So my Trump interview strategy, honed over at least 35 interviews with him over the years, has been to ask as many questions about as many issues as possible to get a wide range of responses.

I think that’s particularly important now he’s President, where his opinions are obviously so important.

Trump-haters will always scream blue murder that an interviewer doesn’t spend every second of his allotted time clubbing him over the head with a large hammer.

But I prefer to engage with Trump and listen to him in our interviews rather than berate and abuse him.

Our long time friendship is why I am the only British TV journalist he speaks to (this was my fourth interview with him since he ran for President, two as a candidate, two as POTUS.)

He also has a wonderful habit of speaking about me that I know drives my rivals and critics absolutely insane with rage.

‘My Piers,’ he began today, ‘How are you man? My champion!’

I laughed. ‘If you had any idea how much you saying that irritates so many people, then you’d say it more often…’

Meeting the Queen and memories of his mother

‘I tell it like it is,’ he replied, ‘You and I both. That’s our problem!’

In the end, I got 30 minutes and covered a wide range of issues and people from Theresa May, The Queen, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un to abortion and immigration.

Trump was as he always is – punchy, provocative, revealing and uncompromising.

I started by asking him more about his historic meeting with The Queen at Windsor Castle.

‘That moment when you walked towards The Queen, what was going through your mind?’

‘Well first of all I was thinking about my mother. My mother passed away a while ago and she was a tremendous fan of the Queen. She thought she was a woman of elegance, and my mother felt she was a great woman. I remember even as a little guy, if there was any kind of a ceremony to do with the Queen, my mother would be watching the television – she wanted to see it.’

Trump sighed. ‘I was walking up and I was saying (to Melania) “Can you imagine my mother seeing this scene? Windsor. Windsor Castle.” And it was beautiful, it was really beautiful but the Queen is terrific. She is so sharp, so wise, so beautiful. Up close, you see she’s so beautiful. She’s a very special person. And the way she’s conducted herself for so many years. And she’s got a lotta years left.’

The Trumps spent nearly twice as long (45 minutes) with Her Majesty as they’d expected and said they got on famously.

‘It was a very easy talk,’ he said. ‘You know, it’s hard to talk to somebody if you’re, sort of, if there’s not that something special. You know that better than anybody. Sometimes you’ll have a guest on where no matter what you do it’s not working, right? And then sometimes it’s magic. We had a great, a great feeling.’

‘Did you get the feeling she liked you?”

‘Well I don’t want to speak for her, but I can tell you I liked her. So usually that helps. But I liked her a lot.’

‘What were her opening words?’

‘Um, “Welcome”. Just “Welcome”. Just very elegant. And very beautiful. It was really something special.’

‘Did you mention your mother?’

‘I did, I said: “You know, my mother was your big fan. She was born in Stornaway in The Hebrides. And that’s very serious Scotland as you know, there’s no doubt about that.’”

Trump revealed the Queen told him the names of all the presidents she had met. ‘Harry Truman was the first president that she got to meet and know, and she went through a whole list. It was a very nice moment, Piers, very nice.’

I asked if they’d discussed Brexit.

‘I did. She said it’s a very – and she’s right – it’s a very complex problem, I think nobody had any idea how complex that was going to be…Everyone thought it was going to be ‘Oh it’s simple, we join or don’t join, or let’s see what happens..’

‘Did she give you any clue as to which way she thinks about it?’

Trump suddenly clammed up.

‘Well, I can’t talk, you know I’ve heard very strongly from a lot of people, you just don’t talk about that conversation with the Queen, right? You don’t wanna do that…Let me tell you what I can talk about… she is an incredible woman, she is so sharp, she is so beautiful, when I say beautiful – inside and out. That is a beautiful woman.’

‘Your mother would have been looking down …

‘She’d be very proud.’

‘When you got in Marine One afterwards with Melania and you talked about what you just experienced with the Queen, it must have been, even for a tough guy like you, quite an emotional thing?

‘It is. To have that meeting I think was really great. We met, but also watching the guard, hearing the sounds, being in that place, that very special place. it was very special there’s no question about that.’

It was clear just how much meeting the Queen meant to Trump.

He sounded about as humble as I’ve ever heard him before as he spoke about her (admittedly, his humility bar is quite low…)

We turned to the rather more controversial matter of Brexit.

Trump spectacularly blew up his trip this week with an incendiary interview in The Sun that attacked Theresa May for watering down her Brexit plan to such an extent that it might kill off hopes of a trade deal with America.

It was the political equivalent of going to someone’s house for dinner and telling them their food is inedible.

He tried to rein back on his criticism when they appeared for a joint press conference on Friday, but a lot of the damage was already done with May’s critics leaping on the belief that her new Chequers plan which caused David Davis and Boris Johnson to resign, doesn’t allow Britain to do a bi-lateral deal with America.


From → World Watch

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