Awkward moment: Trump and Irish PM skip the handshake

Politics
Donald Trump, Leo Varadkar

President Donald Trump and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar joke about not shaking hands during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump and Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar found themselves in an awkward moment: How do you a greet a fellow world leader in the midst of a global viral pandemic?

The two made the mutual decision upon Varadkar’s arrival Thursday for the Irish leader’s annual visit to the White House not to shake hands.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘What are we going to do?’” said Trump, acknowledging to reporters that he felt a bit odd welcoming the Irish leader without a handshake. “You know, it’s sort of a weird feeling.”

Trump, a self-described germaphobe, acknowledges that he came to accept handshakes as part of the territory that comes with being the world’s most powerful leader.

He joked during Thursday’s Oval Office meeting that India and Japan — both nations he has visited as president — are “ahead of the curve” because their cultures generally don’t involve handshakes. Trump even did a quick demonstration from his seat of the Japanese ojigi and the Indian namaste, both of which involve slight bows.

Varadkar, whose father was born in India, demonstrated that he and the president opted for something similar to the Indian greeting, putting their hands together in prayer and slightly bowing.

“It almost feels impersonal. It feels like you’re being rude,” Varadkar said of forgoing the handshake. “But we just can’t afford to think like that for the next few weeks.”

Even as he avoided shaking hands with Varadkar, the president continued to play down concerns that he may have already been exposed to individuals infected by the coronavirus.

The Brazilian government confirmed that President Jair Bolsonaro’s communications director tested positive for coronavirus, just days after traveling with Bolsonaro to a meeting with Trump in Florida.

“Let’s put it this way,” Trump said. “I am not concerned.”

Varadkar was later the guest of honor at the annual Friends of Ireland lunch at the Capitol. Trump did not attend the lunch. It’s a Capitol Hill event that the sitting president typically attends each year to honor the United States’ special relationship with Ireland.

The president didn’t skip the lunch out of abundance of caution, although public health officials are recommending that older Americans try to avoid large gatherings to limit exposure to the virus.

The president just didn’t want to be in the same room as his political enemy and lunch host, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The White House over the weekend said Trump chose not to participate in events where Pelosi “so often chooses to drive discord and disunity.”

Pelosi, meanwhile, welcomed Varadkar for an elegant meal of apple and watercress salad, beef short ribs and chocolate mousse.

The speaker and the prime minister shared an elbow bump.

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Associated Press writer Laurie Kellman contributed reporting.

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