WASHINGTON (AP) — The grieving parents of a British teenager who was killed in a car crash involving an American diplomat’s wife felt ambushed when President Donald Trump tried to get them to meet with the woman in front of the press, attorneys for the couple said Wednesday.
Charlotte Charles and Tim Dunn traveled to Washington on Tuesday seeking to have the woman’s diplomatic immunity lifted. Instead, Trump and national security adviser Robert O’Brien surprised the family by inviting Anne Sacoolas to the White House and suggesting Dunn’s parents meet with her in front of the White House press corps.
Attorney Mark Stephens told The Associated Press the couple had no idea Sacoolas would be in the building when they were there Tuesday and were stunned by the proposition. He said the couple wants to meet with Sacoolas at some point, but not in a surprise meeting staged for reporters.
“If there’s going to be a meeting like that, it should not involve a surprise, a jack-in-the-box, pop-out-of-a-circus-tent meeting seven weeks after the loss,” said Radd Seiger, a retired lawyer who is a neighbor of the family and accompanied them to the White House. “For this to happen, you would want some heavy-duty therapy and you want to meet in a neutral environment.”
Trump told reporters Wednesday that he thought the family had wanted to meet with Sacoolas, but that “they weren’t ready for it” Tuesday.
“It was very sad, to be honest,” he said of their conversation. “They lost their son.”
Trump said he had spoken with Sacoolas and that she had been waiting in a room just off the Oval Office when he made the offer to Dunn’s family.
“They weren’t ready for it,” Trump said. “But I did offer. I spoke with Boris. He asked me if I’d do that. And I did it,” Trump said, referring to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “Unfortunately, when we had everybody together, they decided not to meet. Perhaps they had lawyers involved by that time. I don’t know exactly.”
Pressed on why he thought that was something they would welcome, Trump said that, “based on what I saw they wanted to meet. But now they say they only want to meet if they’re in the U.K. And that’ll be up to them. But I did meet the family, and I expressed condolences on behalf of our country.”
Trump also said Sacoolas told him that she had been driving on the wrong side of the road accidentally — something Trump said “happens in Europe” because drivers in England drive on the left side of the road instead of the right. Trump told reporters last week that he had once done so himself.
Harry Dunn, 19, was killed in August when his motorcycle collided with a car allegedly driven by Sacoolas outside a British air force base in southern England used by the U.S. military.
Seiger said the family received a call from the White House on Tuesday inviting them to meet with a “very senior government official” whose identity was not revealed.
They immediately got on a train to Washington. “The mood was quite buoyant. We were looking forward to it,” he told the Associated Press in a telephone interview from Manhattan where the family returned after the Oval Office meeting.
Instead, the family was subjected to what Seiger described as a high-pressure effort to convince them to meet with Sacoolas against their will — a characterization the White House rejected.
“We were ambushed,” he said of the situation, putting most of the blame on O’Brien, who replaced former national security adviser John Bolton last month after serving as the president’s chief hostage negotiator. “When we said, ‘No,’ he erupted in fury in front of my poor people. This guy was a thug, and he was intimidating,” Seiger said.
On the other hand, Seiger gave Trump credit for demonstrating what he believed was genuine sympathy for the family’s circumstances. He held Charles’ hand at one point and agreed to try to find a way to help her.
“He was absolutely charming,” Seiger said of Trump. “He was very warm and offered a strong handshake and embrace. He made them feel comfortable, and I was very impressed with his personal touch.”
But as soon as Trump expressed his condolences, Seiger said the president immediately suggested a meeting with Sacoolas, something the family was unprepared for.
“Very quickly there was a change,” Seiger recounted. “We’re all here together, I’ve got Mrs. Sacoolas here in the building, and you guys are the building. Let’s all meet,” he quoted Trump as saying.
Seiger said the family is still emotionally vulnerable and that they were taken aback. While Trump appeared to understand their reluctance, he said O’Brien continued to insist, even after they made clear that any meeting would have to happen back in Britain.
“Finally, I said ‘Mr. President, this meeting is not happening today. If it happens, it will be back in the U.K.’ That’s when O’Brien erupted, his face went all red, and I thought he was going to lunge at me,” Seiger recounted. “He was sitting about three feet away from Charlotte and said angrily, ‘She is never going back. Never.'”
White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham rejected that characterization and said that after the family declined the meeting “no one asked again.”
Trump’s “intent was to do all he could to comfort the victims of a tragic accident,” she said, adding that, “No one in that room was angry. It was a quiet and respectful meeting.”
Sacoolas left Britain shortly after the crash, though police released a statement saying she had previously told them she had no plans to depart.
Dunn’s parents have been pressing for Sacoolas to return to Britain.
“She needs to come back and face the justice system. She needs to do this for herself, for us, she needs do this for her children, set a good example to her children… stand up to your mistakes,'” Charles said in an interview with CBS.
A statement previously released on Sacoolas’ behalf said she intended to continue cooperating with authorities.
“Anne is devastated by this tragic accident. No loss compares to the death of a child, and Anne extends her deepest sympathy to Harry Dunn’s family,” it read.
Katz reported from London.