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What It Was Like For One Former Correspondent To Report On Trump For Irish Readers

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Suzanne Lynch arrived in the United States just 10 days after the inauguration of Donald Trump. What brought her was a new job - Washington correspondent for The Irish Times. She spent the next four and a half years here covering the Trump administration, of course, also everything from the Parkland school shooting to the protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

Well, Lynch has just said her farewells to Washington. She is back in Ireland, and we have called her to do a sort of exit interview about covering the U.S. as a foreign correspondent and reflecting on, to use her words, a country that has its share of problems and divisions, but one that is so much more than any political moment.

Suzanne Lynch, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SUZANNE LYNCH: Great to speak to you.

KELLY: So you arrived 10 days after Trump's inauguration. You certainly picked a dull moment to cover Washington. What were your expectations when you accepted the job and landed?

LYNCH: Well, I was based in Brussels at the time. And I suppose, like everyone else, I didn't expect Donald Trump to win the election. So I did the interview with The Irish Times to get this job in Washington. And then I watched the inauguration speech from Brussels, Trump's inauguration speech. And I said to myself, oh, God, I'm going to a very different America than the one I was expecting when I took up this job. So I arrived around the 1 of February. And as soon as I arrived in America, it was just this relentless journalistic challenge. Day after day, like every other journalist, we just went from one bombshell story to another.

KELLY: I was going to say, this sounds very familiar to an American journalist who was here in those years, just trying to keep up with the fire hose that was the news cycle.

LYNCH: It is. And, I mean, in one sense, readers all over the world, my own readers in Ireland, were just fascinated. I mean, they've always been fascinated by America, but they were enthralled about how Donald Trump had got elected, you know, what this said about America and why people had voted for him. But I suppose I felt as a foreign correspondent, in some way, the daily narrative of Trump land was dominating the news cycle. And, you know, we were trying to also get time to go out around the country and find out what was really happening out there. And, you know, more cultural issues, more societal issues - I think they very much went on the back burner for four and a half years.

KELLY: I'm curious what kind of access you had as a foreign correspondent. And I ask in part because I have read you said you were taken aback by how open the government is here, you know, being in the chamber for the House impeachment vote or wandering around the White House. That's different from other countries you've covered?

LYNCH: Yeah. I have to say, I was very pleasantly surprised. Obviously, I suppose it's the principle of America, the principle of free speech. I mean, it really is held in high regard. I come from Brussels. There was a lot more - there's a lot of security there. It was actually more - I found it more difficult, in a sense, to get access sometimes to the big European Commission headquarters in Brussels or the parliament in Strasbourg. And I felt it was good that I was able to go to the White House press briefings when they did happen. And Capitol Hill remained a very open building. Of course, as we know what happened on January the 6, some people might say too open. But I did - I was very, very pleasantly surprised at how open, I suppose, the U.S. media landscape and U.S. democracy still is, even under Trump.

KELLY: Was there ever a story where you found the way you were reporting it was very different from the kind of pack Washington press corps, where you thought, God, I don't know why they're missing the bigger point, or they're missing the forest for the trees?

LYNCH: Yeah. I mean, sometimes on foreign policy, I felt that it was different. I remember being in the White House when Trump announced he was moving the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. And this was a huge, huge international story. And America's role in the Middle East is so, so important. And I remember being at the press briefing that day, and I couldn't understand why more of the questions weren't about that.

KELLY: What was the hardest story you covered?

LYNCH: I think the hardest - I had this moment - a couple of weeks after the Parkland shooting, I went to Florida where I went to a gun show. And, you know, I've covered lots of stories over my career as a journalist. I've done kind of refugee stories on the border between Turkey and Syria. And I've been to different challenging stories in my life. But that was definitely the most challenging because I was just completely shocked. I was in kind of a local hall. And when I walked in, there were all these little girls in tutus. There was a dance competition happening in the next door room to the gun show.

KELLY: Wow.

LYNCH: And I remember being struck by this dreadfully incongruous scene. And I said, oh, excuse me, somebody, do you know where the gun show is? They're like, yeah, it's just around the corner. And when I went in and I saw the array of weaponry and the knives and the ammunition and - I came out, and I was utterly shocked at what I was seeing. I was saying, this is different. You know, this doesn't happen in most countries.

KELLY: And what do you hear back from readers in Ireland to a story like that?

LYNCH: Yeah. I mean, in some ways, America feels so familiar to a European, and particularly to an Irish person. We've got the shared language. We've got shared history. We've got so much immigration into America from Europe. And yet there are sometimes things about America that feel so, so different. I suppose one of the things I felt is, you know, the primacy of the Constitution in America. In my country, Ireland, we have a written constitution, and we respect our constitution. But we also have referendums, and we have amendments to our Constitution a lot more often, whereas I find sometimes the sanctity of the Constitution in America is - well, this is just my opinion, but it's a barrier to change sometimes.

KELLY: Yeah. What was the most joyful story you covered?

LYNCH: Oh, there was a lot. I mean, I think, you know, one of the best things about America are the people. And I remember going to Birmingham, Ala., and I didn't know nothing much about Alabama. And a friend of mine in Washington, her mother - she was a Republican, and she said, oh, my mom will show you around. And then that evening, the girl, who I didn't even know that well, her friends brought me out for dinner in Birmingham. One was an African American girl. Another woman was a white woman. And they sat and talked all night to me about their country and about the history of Alabama and the difficulties and challenges. And here they were, all sitting together sharing a meal and how much it had modernized.

And I remember coming back from that going, wow, that was such an insight into America and the positives. That showed me that, you know, America isn't one thing. America's always in flux, and it's always renewing itself. And maybe that's why it is such a fascinating country to live in and to cover.

KELLY: I wonder, as you were nearing the end of your tour here, what these last few months have felt like. Did it feel like it took a turn? You mentioned January 6. And I've talked to a lot of Americans who've said, I don't recognize my country. I don't recognize what's happening here. What was that like to cover that as an outsider?

LYNCH: Yeah. I was shocked, obviously, like everybody else at what happened on January 6. I was down covering Trump speech. And I suppose I felt that, you know, that this was the awful culmination in so many ways of the Trump years. You know, the damage that was done to America's reputation - and particularly, again, with a foreign policy hat, you know, you can hear it all the time, that other countries like Russia and China - you see this at the U.N., that they would - Putin would say, you know, America, don't lecture us about democracy. Don't lecture us about human rights when, effectively, a peaceful transfer of power did not happen in your country. Or don't talk to me about human rights, a Chinese person might say when we see what happened with George Floyd, who was murdered by a policeman in uniform.

KELLY: Yeah.

LYNCH: So, you know, you can look back at Trump and say it was an aberration. It was only four years, but I think the damage Trump did to America is quite profound in terms of its reputation across the world.

KELLY: Suzanne Lynch - as of this week, she is former Washington correspondent for The Irish Times. Thank you so much, and we wish you well.

LYNCH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.