Trump’s man in Wellington, American envoy Scott Brown, says the straight-talking between the NZ and US leaders has been healthy, but he hopes his successor will complete his unfinished business: a free trade deal.

It’s over. Next month, Donald Trump’s nominee will pack up his suitcases; staff will throw white sheets over the furniture in the US residence in Lower Hutt. He and his wife will return to Boston, Massachusetts.

His boss is still clinging on by his fingertips, but Ambassador Scott Brown is going home to America.

Against expectations, it’s been a mostly smooth four years. It’s fair to say expectations were low when Trump nominated the former Cosmopolitan nude centre-fold and short-lived Massachusetts Senator as his representative.

“I didn’t raise the President any money, I’m not a rich guy … You know, I had my parties and we had fun, but we worked our asses off.”

I was editing the Sunday Star-Times and published a robust report foreshadowing his nomination, and noting some of the more controversial entries on his record. A little later I received a handwritten note from his younger daughter Arianna, then 26, asking us to “get to know him before you judge him” – and enclosing a well-thumbed copy of his autobiography Against All Odds.

Now, late on election night, the 61-year-old reminds me of her intervention and the subsequent exchanges. “I remember everything,” he says, “but it’s okay, I have a very thick skin.”

Early on, the State Department investigated and reprimanded him over his comments and behaviour around young women at a Peace volunteers function in Samoa. But the all-singing, all -dancing envoy soon charmed many New Zealand politicians and business leaders (as a diplomat should).

“I didn’t raise the President any money, I’m not a rich guy, I came here because I wanted to come here,” he says. “It wasn’t a prize, it wasn’t that I raised the President millions and millions of dollars like previous Ambassadors. You know, I had my parties and we had fun, but we worked our asses off.

“We’ve laid the groundwork for a Free Trade Agreement, and if not for Covid I believe we’d have a portion of it done already.”

Regardless of the election outcome, Brown is bidding farewell to New Zealand. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

He’s loved New Zealand, he says, but it’s over. In March, Arianna will be having a baby, his older daughter Ayla is getting married, and he plans to be back in Boston. He will take up a position as dean of private law school New England Law Boston.

This morning, Brown is in Auckland after an election function last night. And like his boss, he’s talking up Trump’s chances of a second term to build a legacy on the world stage.

“I don’t feel comfortable saying much until we actually have a winner,” he says. “But I know he is going to focus on holding China’s feet to the fire, and he’s going to continue reaching out to people like North Korea, and deal more effectively with the threats of terrorism around the world.”

Filling in the red on the electoral map of the USA, as a US Embassy election party in Wellington. Photo: Lynn Grieveson
Filling in the red on the electoral map of the USA, at a US Embassy election party in Wellington. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Brown says highlights of his tenure include getting the KIWI Act (Knowledgeable Innovators and Worthy Investors) through Congress, providing a non-immigrant trade and investment visa for New Zealanders.

And he was pleased to start up Nasa internships for New Zealanders. “My dream is to have a Kiwi in space, and what’s happened between Rocketlab and the cooperation between Nasa and the New Zealand space agency.”

He also notes the Five Eyes intelligence partnership, and the support the USA provided after the Whakaari / White Island eruption and the Christchurch terror attack. “The President unleashed and gave me authority to do anything and everything to make sure there were no other attacks coming – our FBI and Special Services worked with your guys.”

“Remember, the President closed our border before New Zealand did, and he was called a racist and a xenophobe. And Prime Minister Ardern did it, and she was praised and got amazing accolades.”

Donald Trump and Jacinda Ardern have sometimes fired potshots at each other through the media, most recently over each others’ handling of Covid-19. And there was criticism of Brown bypassing managed isolation when he returned from Washington in August.

But Brown says he and his team of 182 Embassy and Consulate staff are “part of the Team of 5 Million” and play by New Zealand’s rules for managing Covid.

“Remember, the President closed our border before New Zealand did, and he was called a racist and a xenophobe. And Prime Minister Ardern did it, and she was praised and got amazing accolades.”

He initially equivocates over whether the exchanges between Trump and Jacinda Ardern have been terse, before conceding the point. “New Zealand’s got a very independent, young, hard-charging leader, and we’ve got a hard-charging leader as well, and the beauty of our relationship is that we can speak very frankly with each other,” he says.

“Quite frankly, I’m encouraged that we speak tersely to each other, because we don’t mince words and at the end of the day we’re still going to go watch an All Blacks game and have fun together.”

Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown was an early Trump supporter. He was rewarded for his loyalty with a posting to Wellington, New Zealand. Photo: Boston Globe

Brown says the role of New Zealander Chris Liddell as White House Deputy Chief of Staff (“just 20 feet from the Oval Office”) ensured that New Zealanders were well looked after.

Brown says he and former Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters worked very hard to get a free trade deal over the line, after President Trump pulled the pin on the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

Biden has signalled he would re-enliven some form of multilateral Pacific Rim trade deal, but Brown says he wants to continue helping with a bilateral deal after returning to America.

“I would be excited about a free trade deal. I preach it every time I’m back home,” he says. “Eighty percent of the stuff, we have resolved. So my suggestion is, why don’t we just take that as a starting point and we sign that? It shows good faith.

He says dairy is the biggest hurdle to a deal, followed by forestry and pharmaceuticals – but he doesn’t think the two countries are that far apart. Fonterra has just cut a deal with US dairy cooperative Land O’Lakes, he points out, so both countries are at the table and ready to talk.

“We’re your No 1 importer of beef, we’re devouring your wines, we’re exchanging science and space issues all day long, we share Five Eyes intelligence, you know, illegal fishing, human and drug trafficking … so where’s the breakdown?

“Well, the biggest breakdown is dealing with dairy, and quite frankly I have always said – and I’ve said this back home – that New Zealand is not a threat to us. And I think it’s short-sighted because you get into markets that we have no interest in and could never get into, and vice versa.”

Getting ready to party at the United States Embassy election day festivities in Wellington. Photo: Lynn Grieveson
Getting ready to party at the United States Embassy election day festivities in Wellington. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

As a result of Ardern’s “bold” Pacific Reset foreign policy, he says the US renewed its focus on the region, and ensuring Western values weren’t displaced by Chinese ambitions.

“It really challenged the rest of us to say, you know what, she’s right. And we woke up just in time, thanks to her. And I’ll be forever grateful for that. I’ve really been able to do more in Samoa and Cook Islands and Niue as a result of that.

“We have always been here, we’ve been here since the Treaty of Waitangi, so we do things that you never hear about  – but I think it spurred everybody to say hmm, jeez, you know what, she’s right. You gotta get involved in the Pacific.”

Brown says China has become a bigger competitor in the Pacific region – and they need to play by the rules. “They’ve been dumping low quality steel on the world market, as evidenced by what’s happened in Auckland and Hamilton with the highways and bridges that had to be ripped up, or stealing our intellectual property, spying on New Zealand citizens …

“They’ve got to start playing by the rules if they want to be a world leader. I didn’t say that – it was President Obama and Hillary Clinton who said that.”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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