For the former prime minister Theresa May, one of the most pressing matters she confronted during her encounter with Donald Trump a few days after his inauguration went beyond mere diplomacy.
May had travelled to Washington in 2017 with the intention of persuading the new US president to make a supportive statement about Nato. Little did she expect that she would be calling her husband, Philip, to warn him that images of the US president of holding her hand as they walked through the White House would soon be flashing around the world.
With Trump out of power, those who had ringside seats during four years of dangerous and often chaotic foreign policy are now describing their – often bruising – encounters in a major new documentary series.
The three-part BBC series, Trump Takes on the World, by the award-winning documentary maker Norma Percy, reveals extraordinary access to key observers of the president.
With testimony from a who’s who of world leaders and senior US officials, it offers an unmediated reflection of Trump shorn of political hypocrisies.
It was not just May who found Trump unsettling: to European diplomatic observers, he seemed a “strange creature”. And he also triggered alarm among some American officials in the room with him, with one defence official noting that the president’s notoriously short attention span suggested a “squirrel careening through the traffic”.
May’s encounter with Trump, which is described to Percy by British aides as well as Trump insiders, was a taste of what was to come. May was seen as “not strong” by Trump, according to KT McFarland, the former US deputy national security adviser. But the prime minister had gone into the meeting determined to persuade the president to make a statement backing Nato and warn him over his closeness to Vladimir Putin.
The meeting took a bizarre twist as they walked through the White House.
“He held her hand going through the colonnades, which took us all by surprise, and as it turns out, took Theresa by surprise,” Fiona McLeod Hill, the former joint chief of staff at No 10, told Percy.
“She couldn’t really take her hand back, so she was stuck … And the first thing she said [afterwards] was ‘I need to call Philip just to let him know that I’ve been holding hands with another man before it hits the media’.”
Before May had the opportunity to call her husband, Trump hosted her for lunch, where another boundary-shattering episode was waiting. First May was treated to the “full bloom” – one of Trump’s stream-of-consciousness rants, described by Thomas Shannon, then US undersecretary for political affairs, as running “the gamut from his own inauguration to his disdain for the press”.
Then, keen to raise the issue of Putin, May asked Trump if he had spoken to the Russian leader, which Trump denied. At that point, however, Trump’s chief of staff intervened to tell the president that Putin had actually called, but not been put through.
Hill takes up the story of the “toe-curling” outburst. “Trump at this point looks not orange but red. He flipped. Furious.” In front of May, he scolded his advisers in what Shannon recalled as “an unseemly moment”. “He said: ‘You’re telling me that Vladimir Putin called the White House and you’re only telling me now during this lunch?… Vladimir Putin is the only man in the world who can destroy the United States and I didn’t take his call’.”
May was far from alone in being exposed to Trump’s flagrant disregard for boundaries.
From his unilateral withdrawals from the Iranian nuclear treaty and the Paris climate accord to his dealings with the Palestinians, Russia and China, few – even those close to him – could ever fully grasp the extent of his unpredictability or his disdain for detail.
The former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was thrown off balance by Trump’s behaviour during an encounter at a G20 meeting in Hamburg also in 2017.
Like May, Turnbull had important issues on his mind, in this case steel tariffs. Taking his chance, Turnbull collared Trump, who was obsessing about something else. “Donald said: ‘Malcolm, do you want to see my SCIF? It is so cool.’ I had no idea what he was talking about. I thought he was talking about a boat [a skiff]. We turned around a corner and there was this big steel box about the size of a shipping container.”
Trump pulled Turnbull into what turned out to be a “sensitive compartmented information facility”, an ultra-secure communications hub, with the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, also in tow.
“He said: ‘This is so cool – when you’re in there, nobody can hear you, not even the Chinese. It’s so secret.”
Expectations of Trump from European leaders were not so much low as non-existent. For the former French president François Hollande, who dealt with Trump only briefly, an early red flag was raised when the US leader asked him in all earnestness who he should appoint to his team in the White House. “I thought he was just being courteous; it was pretty outrageous. Imagine I phoned Obama and said: ‘You know France well, who should I appoint as an adviser?’” Later, briefing his successor Macro during the transition, Hollande was clear how he regarded the US leader – sentiments Percy herself regards as a summing up how many foreign leaders viewed the Trump era.
“I said to [Macron],” Hollande recalls, “don’t expect anything from Donald Trump. Do not think you’ll be able to change his mind. Don’t think that it’s possible to turn him or seduce him. Don’t imagine that he won’t follow through with his own agenda.”
“Some friends asked me why I was doing it,” said Percy, who has made the documentaries The Death of Yugoslavia, End of Empire and Watergate, and who filmed the new series under lockdown. “The view was that we knew what Trump was like. He was on the news every night. But this is the inside story of those who had to deal with him.”
Trump Takes on the World begins on Wednesday at 9pm on BBC Two