It was early March this year. The inauguration of Joe Biden had taken place a few weeks previously and on the streets of Georgetown, one of the power-hubs of Washington, I ran into a senior European diplomat I knew well.
Very quickly I steered the conversation to the new administration. ‘What’s it like dealing with them?’ I ventured.
‘It’s fantastic,’ he told me. ‘There is order, discipline, process and a chain of command again.’
‘And what’s the downside compared to the Trump administration?’ I asked.
‘There is order, discipline, process and a chain of command…’
The Trump years really were the Wild West. And as I step down, after seven years as the BBC’s North America correspondent, I can’t help but reflect on quite how drama-packed every day of his four years in office was. It was unlike anything I could have imagined.
When Trump held his first presidential news conference, he famously called me ‘another beauty’ because I had had the temerity to ask about the mayhem that ensued when he had tried to introduce his travel ban from mainly Muslim countries
In the early days I would find myself typing, almost hyperventilating, that today, this Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday… history was made when Donald Trump said/did/tweeted this or that. But by Friday I would have all but forgotten what those epoch-making moments were because we had been through so many others in the interim.
It was 1930s Berlin rolled up with the decadent end of the Roman Empire. Every day was a Bacchanalian orgy of stories, backbiting, sackings, leaks, fury and indignation. And chaos.
You could wander (literally) into the West Wing of the White House with the security pass I had been issued, run into various officials and before you knew it you had some juicy story to report. For journalists, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.
When Trump held his first presidential news conference, he famously called me ‘another beauty’ because I had had the temerity to ask about the mayhem that ensued when he had tried to introduce his travel ban from mainly Muslim countries.
For diplomats who were reporting back to their nation’s capitals, it was the best of times, too – churning out endless exciting telegrams.
For the diplomats and journalists, policy wonks and think-tankers who inhabit Washington DC’s beau monde, life changed under Biden overnight from a daily fix of crack cocaine to a half of lemonade shandy once a week (if you’re lucky)
OK, maybe not the best for our former ambassador, poor old Lord (Kim) Darroch, whose candid and supposedly confidential assessments of the Trump presidency were leaked to The Mail on Sunday, and The Donald bit back in inimitable style, leading to Kim being declared – in effect – persona non grata.
Had anything like that ever happened before? No. But even that episode – colossal at the time – was, again, very quickly yesterday’s fish-and-chips paper.
And so I found myself repeatedly looking at the thesaurus for words other than ‘unique’, ‘extraordinary’ and ‘unprecedented’.
But now Biden has arrived. And along with him process, discipline and a chain of command came roaring back into fashion. And by that I mean, total dullsville.
It’s a reality I was reminded of last week with Trump back on our screens in his punchy interview with Nigel Farage for GB News.
For the diplomats and journalists, policy wonks and think-tankers who inhabit Washington DC’s beau monde, life changed under Biden overnight from a daily fix of crack cocaine to a half of lemonade shandy once a week (if you’re lucky).
Biden as a communicator has always seemed to follow the maxim of that great American writer Mark Twain: ‘I’d have written you a short letter, but I didn’t have time.’ In other words, why use one word when a hundred will do.
He is slow and long-winded and while he always was to some extent, it seems even more exaggerated today.
To put it at its kindest, he is every bit of his 79 years. I was told the story of when he came over to London as Vice President to Barack Obama.
Nick Clegg – then deputy PM – was to take him to meet our National Security Council. Biden’s people say he’s able to stay 15 minutes. Over an hour later, Biden is still telling stories, and no one else has managed to get a word in edgeways – his staff are acting out eye-roll emojis.
Indeed, to sit through a Biden speech is a test of your powers of concentration, as he fumbles his way through the text; with Trump you just knew he wasn’t going to stick to the words on the printed page (if there were any).
I often look back on my time in the US and wonder what would have happened back in the spring of 2014, when I went for the job, if I had said to the chin-strokers sitting across the table from me at New Broadcasting House: ‘I think Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States.’
I am sure there would have been muttered conversations about what to do with Sopel: the man has clearly lost it.
But there were three lightbulb moments for me as I travelled the length and breadth of this great country that convinced me Trump was an unbelievable force.
The first was at the beginning of August in 2015, and I was in Dallas, Texas. Trump – and remember we were still 15 months ahead of the presidential election – was speaking at a rally in the city.
He had rented the American Airlines arena, capacity 20,000. It is more usually associated with the biggest basketball and ice-hockey games.
There were three lightbulb moments for me as I travelled the length and breadth of this great country that convinced me Trump was an unbelievable force
People queued for hours, in all manner of home-made costumes – it was stars and stripes galore.
Inside it was packed. Try to name any other politician who could get such a crowd well over a year out from an election. They loved him. They took him seriously but not literally. They knew he exaggerated, and told the odd fib. But they would laugh at him – and with him.
I then saw this play out across the US at any number of his rallies, people queuing in sub-zero temperatures or driving through snow from early in the morning in Manchester, New Hampshire, to the long lines in the baking sun of California, to listen to their future president.
The second lightbulb moment came when I was in a place called Spartanburg, South Carolina. I spoke to this woman, a fine Southern belle, with the most delicious voice – the vowel sounds all really drawn out.
She tells me she lurrrrves my accent. I say I love hers. And then she explains why she adores Trump: ‘He says what I’m thinking, but not allowed to say.’ It was a phrase that stuck with me. I’d hear it again and again across America.
Trump was speaking up for a big segment of the population who felt they were overlooked; people whose views were not ‘PC’ and that they felt they couldn’t give vent to. In Hillary Clinton’s perhaps most ill-chosen words they were ‘the deplorables’.
These voters, who could not be heard – would not be heard – by the liberal elite in Washington DC, now had Donald Trump as their mouthpiece and champion.
And even if his speeches were chaotic – and can you imagine a more difficult job than being Donald Trump’s autocue operator – he stuck to key messages: building the wall, keeping Muslims out, renegotiating trade deals, treating military veterans better.
A lot of people found much of it appallingly offensive; but for many it resonated. He redefined polling. Millions of Americans who had slipped off the grid were now registering to vote – and they were going to tick his name.
The third thing I noticed was the stark difference of being at a Hillary Clinton rally. Sure, people turned out, but there was no enthusiasm. From a mile away at a Trump rally you would find stalls doing a roaring trade selling Trump merch – hats, badges, flags all with Make America Great Again emblazoned on them. MAGA was doing mega business. It was nothing like that with Hillary.
But let’s spin forward to January 6, 2021, and the Trump rally that would be the catalyst for the attempted insurrection at the Capitol, when a mob supporting the 45th president tried to halt the peaceful transfer of power to the 46th. A dark day for democracy. And particularly dark because the votes had been counted and recounted. The legal challenges had been made.
But not a single court case brought by the Trump campaign upheld the allegations of voting irregularities. The Trump-appointed Attorney General had declared the result fair; the Trump-appointed head of election security had said it was the safest election in US history.
In all the 50 states that make up the USA, the results had been certified as true and correct. Vice President Mike Pence, until then slavishly loyal to Trump, went to the Capitol to fulfil his constitutional duty.
Nearly all senior staff in the White House knew and accepted that Trump had lost. But one man couldn’t – wouldn’t – accept that.
I’ve described the fun of Trump rallies. The colour, the costumes the sense of it being a fiesta. But on that frigid and grey January morning on the Ellipse – a patch of ground that runs to the south of the White House down to the Washington Monument – the mood was sulphurous. His supporters now took every word that fell from the President’s lips as literal.
The election had been stolen, he told them. They believed him.
I met two men that morning who had driven down from Boise, Idaho, to be in Washington – a round trip of 4,800 miles.
They were dressed for trouble. Robocop-style uniforms, backpacks with goodness knows what in them. And they made clear to me that if there was violence, they were ready. Later that evening I would see a photo of one of them dangling from the Senate gallery, then jumping down to the well of the chamber and sitting in the seat reserved for the Vice President.
He has since pleaded guilty for his part in what he called the ‘boogaloo’ – a slang term used to describe America’s second civil war, something these zealots wanted to bring about.
Civil war hasn’t arrived, but it would be a mistake to think that the months since that attempted insurrection have calmed tensions.
America is still bitterly divided on anything and everything.
Biden has made strenuous efforts to lower the political temperature, and in his view, at least, is far less polarising than Trump.
But America’s chaotic departure from Afghanistan, the perception that the far Left of the Democratic Party holds too much sway, and dissatisfaction over people being told they have to be vaccinated have all contributed to a slump in his approval ratings.
Which brings us to 2024.
Despite what he says, I find it hard to believe that Biden will run again. The weight and responsibility of the office already seem to be taking their toll on a man who was hardly in his prime at the outset.
His Veep, Kamala Harris? Naah. Find that hard to see either.
I can’t tell you how much backbiting there is about her in Washington DC; I suspect there is no one the Republicans would rather face than her at the next presidential election. After all, her approval ratings are catastrophic.
So what about the Republicans?
Well, if Trump decides to run again for the nomination, I cannot see anyone who has the remotest chance of stopping him.
He still commands a huge amount of support. But after January 6, after two impeachments, after the chaos and dysfunction of those four years, can he build out from that loyal base to win back the suburbs, the moderates, the college-educated women, the independents who abandoned him in 2020?
It’s certainly a big ask.
But now that I am leaving this divided country, it will be for others to mull these fascinating questions.
One final thought. When I arrived in 2014, the thing that blew me away was the politeness and courtesy. People say ‘good morning’ to you on the streets. They ask how you are. I would get into a taxi and exchange pleasantries before saying I wanted to go to the White House – or more accurately, the corner of 17th and Penn.
The young, hard-working interns in our office would call me ‘sir’. Now I’ve been called a lot of things in my BBC career, but until I arrived in the US, ‘sir’ wasn’t one of them. And I can report, as I leave America in 2021, that civility is still there.
Perhaps that’s what will save this fantastic country from the boogaloo.