Joe Hockey served as Australia’s ambassador to the United States in the last year of President Barack Obama’s term and throughout Donald Trump’s presidency. Diplomatic is his memoir of those tumultuous, extraordinary times.
Joe Hockey did a great job in the capital of the free world. Very few people emerged unscathed from their encounters with Trump. Hockey proved to be a notable exception, and successfully defended, and projected, Australia’s interests within the alliance with America.
Of all the countries doing business with Donald Trump, the relationship with Australia was better than with any other, including Israel. Trump had bitter engagements with his immediate neighbours to the north and south, and across Europe, most famously with Germany’s Angela Merkel. Trump was inclined to get closer to the authoritarians in this world: Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, and of course his unrequited love affair with Kim Jong Un of North Korea.
Life takes unexpected turns, and this son of an immigrant father, who entered politics and came just short of becoming leader of his party and likely prime minister, serving as treasurer under Tony Abbott, accepted Malcolm Turnbull’s offer take the Washington post in 2016. Barack Obama was president, and Hillary Clinton was of course all-but-certain to prevail in the November election. But Hockey – who has great instincts for reading a political landscape – picked up what virtually everyone else (including this reviewer) was missing, that there was strong sentiment for Trump across the country outside the big cities.
“Everyone I spoke to in Washington was utterly dismissive of the notion that Donald Trump would become the president of the United States.” Hockey directed the embassy staff to go wider and deeper, and they “returned shellshocked. Every little town they went to had Trump signs everywhere … There was massive enthusiasm for this guy who supposedly has ‘no ground game.’”
Hockey concluded that a lot of the country hated the Washington establishment, especially as embodied by Hillary. “I formed the view that Donald Trump really could win the presidency.”
When Hockey had the temerity to reach out and make contact with the Trump campaign, “Canberra went nuts.” DFAT officials dissed his efforts. Turnbull and Julie Bishop, then foreign minister, were “anxious” about it. Hockey was undeterred. “I saw it created a duty for me, as the senior representative of Australia in the United States, to pursue contact with his campaign.”
There were immense payoffs from Hockey’s foresight and his skills as a networker. Hockey secured a congratulatory call from Turnbull to Trump a few days after the election. He got Trump’s cell number from golfer Greg Norman. Turnbull got through, the first foreign leader to talk to the president-elect, trumping the UK and its vaunted “special relationship” with the US.
The circuits Hockey wired proved invaluable. Days after Trump’s inauguration there was the infamous call between Trump and Turnbull on the immigration deal under which the US would accept 1200 refugees under Australian control in Nauru. Trump excoriated Turnbull, in the most raw and brutal terms, over the deal. Trump was trapped by an official agreement made before he took office. The call was ugly. But the shocker was that someone in the White House leaked a transcript of that call, as well as one with the president of Mexico, to the Washington Post.
Hockey found out that night that “it was my job to fix things.” And he went into overdrive. First, the reaction from everyone reading about the call was that it was outrageous for Trump to rubbish the leader of the country that is America’s strongest ally. Members of Congress, led by Senator John McCain, fell over themselves to stand with Australia. The media could not get enough of the atrocity Trump had committed against is strongest mate. The bipartisan, bicameral Friends of Australia Caucus in Congress was rejuvenated. Hockey initiated a campaign in Washington to celebrate “100 Years of Mateship.”
It all worked. The refugees deal stuck, and Hockey was able, 15 months later, to bring the two leaders together at a gala event in New York, under the penumbra of Rupert Murdoch and all major Australian luminaries in the US, from Greg Norman to Anthony Pratt. Hockey also got Australia exempted from Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs that hit virtually every other major US trading partner. Peace in our time.
Hockey also helped orchestrate the state dinner provided by Trump for Scott Morrison in September 2019. There was only one other during Trump’s residency, for France’s Emmanuel Macron. That evening cemented Australia’s prime position in the Trump firmament. Trump loves winners and hates losers, and when Morrison won the 2019 election, he earned Trump’s respect.
Each of us who are taken with American politics have our own lenses through which we view events and leaders there. But Hockey has an astigmatism on Trump as president. While working diligently to blunt Trump’s policy excesses, Hockey never comes close to saying that Trump was unfit to be president – even with the benefit of understanding the mortal threat to America’s democracy of the insurrection of 6 January 2021. Hockey dismisses the first impeachment of Trump, in which the president used his office to withhold American foreign aid from Ukraine because President Volodymyr Zelensky would not give him dirt on Joe Biden’s son, which Trump wanted to take Biden down in the 2020 election. Trump’s abuse of power was enormous.
Hockey does not mention the second Trump impeachment over the insurrection itself but does criticise Trump’s “disregard for both the history of the republic” and its institutions. Hockey has a soft spot for Steve Bannon, chief strategist for Trump’s army of zealots. “I found him charming and engaging …The best term I can think of to describe him is ‘rascal.’” Bannon was pardoned by Trump after being indicted for setting up a charity to raise money to build the wall with Mexico, but millions of dollars went to Bannon and his “co-charity” conspirators for their personal use. Two of those men who were not pardoned by Trump pled guilty in April and will go to jail. Bannon is engaged to this day in efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Hockey does come strongly to the defence of Alexander Downer, then Australian high commissioner in London, who let the Americans know in 2016 that the Trump campaign was getting dirt from the Russians on Hillary Clinton. Downer was a patriot. What would you expect the US ambassador in Canberra to do if she learned that the Chinese were giving the Labor party political dirt on Scott Morrison? Shut up – or tell ASIO what the hell is going on? Trump came to believe that Downer, and therefore Australia, really messed with him, and he was ballistic about it.
Hockey has some bold predictions for the future. “I feel it is beyond doubt that if Trump runs in 2024, he will win the Republican nomination. On balance I think it’s increasingly unlikely that he will run again. Aside from his age … I don’t think he could bear the prospect of losing again.” For the Democrats: “I think there is a growing realization among both parties that Joe Biden won’t run for a second term.”
Diplomatic is hugely entertaining, never more so than when Hockey’s golf games with Trump are relived, and when Trump shows Hockey, Morrison, and their wives, on the night of the glittering state dinner, the new gold bathroom fittings off the Queen Elizabeth bedroom on the second floor of the White House. Trump brings Trump Tower to the White House and shows it off to the Aussies.
Diplomatic, A Washington Memoir
by Joe Hockey and Leo Shanahan
Harper Collins, 2022