What a banner month for President Trump and his friends. Police arrested two of Rudy Giuliani’s close associates over alleged campaign-finance violations. The House subpoenaed Energy Secretary Rick Perry in connection with its impeachment inquiry. The administration’s ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, announced on Friday that he’ll testify before the House despite White House orders not to appear. As is customary, Trump has instigated such a chaotic news cycle that some newsworthy moments get lost in the churn. But one such incident is worth closer scrutiny.
In August, the wife of an American diplomat struck and killed a British teenager with her car. As the Daily Beast reported earlier this week, the woman, Anne Sacoolas, hit Harry Dunn with her luxury Volvo not far from a Royal Air Force base in Croughton, England. Sacoolas had pulled out of the base on the wrong side of the road; the impact sent Dunn flying from the seat of his motorbike, and he died later the same day. Though Sacoolas initially assured local police that she would not leave the country, she and her family did just that, claiming diplomatic immunity. They’re now back in the U.S., and the British aren’t too pleased.
Though it’s not clear if Sacoolas really has full immunity — the Daily Beast says that her husband isn’t a registered diplomat — British authorities have asked the U.S. to formally waive it anyway. Trump, however, seems unlikely to agree. On October 9, the president accidentally revealed private briefing notes ahead of a meeting with British prime minister Boris Johnson. Visible from a distance, the notes make it clear that the U.S. would refuse to return Sacoolas to the U.K.:
“I hate the case,” Trump told reporters later, adding, “The woman was driving on the wrong side of the road, and that can happen. You know, those are opposite roads.” Asked directly if he would agree to send Sacoolas back to the U.K., Trump said, “We’re going to speak to her and see what we can come up with so that there can be some healing.” That’s going to be difficult, since Dunn’s parents are fairly unequivocal about what they want from the U.S. and their own government. “Our position is that she doesn’t have immunity and that waivers are always granted in these circumstances,” Radd Seiger, an attorney for the family, told The Independent. Seiger said the family may also file a civil case against Sacoolas in the U.S.
It’s not difficult to understand why Sacoolas would flee the U.K.; presumably, she was trying to save her own skin, ethics and legal responsibilities be damned. But Trump’s position is a bit more confusing. The president has no obvious reason to protect an American driver who killed a teenager because she forgot she was in a different country. Johnson and Trump have a number of similarities and shared interests, but it seems their newfound friendship has its limits.
As is his wont, Trump continues to make things weird and upsetting for everyone. On Wednesday, Dunn’s parents told CBS This Morning that Trump had surprised them with a meeting at the White House; they’d been told previously that they were there to meet a “senior official.” Trump had one more surprise in store for the grieving parents. Sacoolas, he told them, was also in the White House and was ready to meet them. “There was a bit of pressure, but we stuck to our guns,” Dunn’s father told the Post, adding that Trump had asked them both “two or three times” to meet the woman who’d killed their son. Trump’s cruelty isn’t news, but there’s something uniquely shameful about his treatment of Dunn’s parents — as if the death of their son is merely the setup for a gag, a chance for Trump to play at being a benevolent TV host. Look under your seats, everyone; you get one free catharsis today.
But there’s something else at work too. Perhaps Trump’s motivations have nothing to do with Sacoolas, or Johnson, and more to do with his perception of the U.S. and its role in the world. Trump revels in his power, considers himself unaccountable to anyone, and perceives the U.S. as an extension of himself, entitled to the same privileges. It doesn’t matter who Sacoolas is or whom she killed or where she killed him. She’s an American, and to Trump, maybe that’s all that matters.
This post has been updated throughout.