Donald Trump was keen to mention Kiwi golf legend Sir Bob Charles in his meeting with Ardern. Photo: Supplied

Jacinda Ardern’s first formal meeting with Donald Trump covered Bob Charles, New Zealand’s gun buyback and trade “enthusiasm” – but there are still some unanswered questions about the state of the relationship.

Trump, meet anti-Trump.

Of course, nobody in the room for the first formal meeting between the US President and Jacinda Ardern would have dared express that sentiment.

But Ardern has made little secret of her distaste for Donald Trump’s governance style, offering a dig at the President after her very first international trip and shying away from mentioning his name during her United Nations debut last year.

Nevertheless, the big prize dangling tantalisingly within reach – a bilateral free trade deal with the US, thanks in part to Winston Peters’ efforts – provided all the incentive needed for Ardern to meet Trump on the sidelines of the UN.

Speaking to media after her 25-minute conversation, Ardern described the encounter as “an excellent meeting, and one which clearly displayed that President Trump views New Zealand very warmly”.

Peters has spoken of his positive conversations with US Vice President Mike Pence regarding an FTA, but having Ardern back that up with mention of Trump’s “enthusiasm” provided some assurance it was not simply the Foreign Affairs Minister’s bluster.

“We already have a trade surplus from the United States’ perspective,” the Prime Minister said, clearly aware of Trump’s obsession with his country’s trading deficits with other nations.

“Being in a trade surplus, I think that’s an acknowledgement of the relationship that already exist, and so that idea of continuing a conversation around New Zealand’s trade relationship with the United States was treated warmly and I expect there will be some ongoing conversations.”

Do not expect any swift progress, however – the obstacles to New Zealand signing the TPP before Trump withdrew the US, such as the need to protect Pharmac and resist draconian IP extensions, will of course be at play in any bilateral negotiations.

But that there is a discussion at all seems to represent significant progress, and with New Zealand officials heading Stateside next month for trade scoping talks, having a thumbs up from Trump will not hurt.

Ardern said there were some detailed discussions about New Zealand’s gun buyback regime following the March 15 terror attack, somewhat surprising given Trump’s tendency to align himself with the NRA on gun control issues despite repeated mass shootings in the US.

“The fact that we had political consensus across members of Parliament, everyone but one person voting in favour, I think that sparked interest amongst others,” Ardern said.

“I certainly wouldn’t want to predetermine that that means anything in particular for the United States other than an interest in what we did.”

Keen golfer Trump also mentioned Kiwi golf great Sir Bob Charles as among New Zealand’s larger than life personalities.

There was another oddity: the fact that Trump’s meeting with Ardern was the only one of seven bilateral engagements from the President to be described as a more informal “pull-aside”, rather than a “bilateral” meeting.

Ardern was coy about whether Iran was discussed, saying only that “we discussed a number of national security issues”. Given Trump’s declaration during his bilateral meeting with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison that he could bomb Iran “right here” for the press pack, it is tempting to wonder whether he made similar entreaties to New Zealand to join a new coalition of the willing.

However, the US continues to be unwilling to formally join the coalition behind the Christchurch Call to Action, with the country’s name notably absent from the 31 new nations to sign up to the post-March 15 pledge to tackle violence and extremism online.

Despite that, New Zealand officials say their American counterparts are heavily involved in the work behind the scenes and will play an integral role in a number of new bodies set up to make the Call a reality.

There was another oddity: the fact that Trump’s meeting with Ardern was the only one of seven bilateral engagements from the President on Monday (US time) to be described as a more informal “pull-aside”, rather than a “bilateral” meeting.

The Prime Minister’s team was insistent that the terminology did not indicate any coldness from the American side, with Ardern suggesting that the duration of the meeting may have been a determining factor.

Yet that does not tally with Trump’s schedule for the day: at least two of his five formal “bilaterals” were listed as being the same length or less than his “pull-aside” with Ardern.

Peters also released an oddly defensive press release from New Zealand after the meeting, suggesting it was “an achievement in its own right given the pressure on the President’s schedule”.

“In the world of diplomacy, this level of engagement is gold,” he said, pointing to the attendance of Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alongside Trump.

There is of course a risk in over-exaggerating the import of the wording, but equally it would be foolish to brush off the discrepancy entirely.

That there is a diplomatic message to be gleaned seems relatively clear – exactly what that message is, and which side it is coming from, is more difficult to determine.

Ardern was lukewarm on the idea of Trump coming to New Zealand, citing the scheduling problems caused by both countries’ impending elections.

New Zealand’s hosting of the Apec summit in 2021 could be an opportunity for the US President to visit, she suggested – but that may not be Trump, depending on the country’s 2020 election.

Ardern may not be so lucky, with his polling holding relatively strong, but as she pointed out, personal rapport isn’t everything.

“I do think relationships matter, but actually with relationships like ours with Australia, the United States, the UK, they endure beyond political leaders.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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