It was a case of so near and yet so far. Donald Trump returned to New York on Thursday night for the first time since his inauguration, yet the closest he could get to his home in Trump Tower was 10 blocks away as the city that made his fortune greeted him with noisy protest..
The president bypassed his Fifth Avenue penthouse, where First Lady Melania and youngest son Barron still live, bound for the USS Intrepid, a decommissioned aircraft carrier on the Hudson river, where he attended a gala to mark the 75th anniversary of a major second world war naval battle.
To heighten the bitter-sweetness of his homecoming, hundreds of protesters gathered blocks away from the vessel clattering pots and pans, chanting “Shame, shame, shame” and bearing posters proclaiming: “Impeach the Freak.”
Trump returned to New York buoyed by what he called the “unbelievable victory” earlier in the day in the House of Representatives of the bill to dismantle Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. In spite of the Republican majority in the House, the struggle to get the measure through was so immense that it delayed the president’s arrival, with unfortunate consequences for his guest of honour, the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull.
On Thursday afternoon Trump made a phone call to Turnbull, who had flown with his wife Lucy 10,000 miles for the privilege, to say that he would be three hours late and would not be able to keep their 4pm midtown one-to-one appointment.
The awkwardness of the call was surpassed only by the previous time the two national leaders spoke by phone a week after Trump entered the White House, when the fledgling president terminated the call 25 minutes into the planned one-hour conversation telling Turnbull that their dialogue, which had grown cantankerous over the question of immigration, had been “the worst call by far”.
At Thursday night’s black-tie dinner for 700 guests convened by the American Australian Association, Trump denied that the earlier call had gone sour. “It got a little bit testy, a little bit testy,” he conceded, before denouncing press reports about the call as “fake news”.
“They said we had a rough call. We really didn’t, did we?” he asked Turnbull. “We actually had a very nice call, right? Now the record is straight.”
He went on to laud the bonds between the two countries, which he said shared a common origin, “born as the rebellious children of the same parent. For nearly a century Americans and Australians have fought together, bled together and died together as brothers and sisters”.
The event on board the Intrepid was to commemorate the Battle of the Coral Sea, the engagement in May 1942 in which the US and Australian navies worked together to turn back a Japanese advance, a recognized turning point in the war. The dinner was attended by seven veterans of the battle, three Americans and four Australians all in their 90s.
The Intrepid, now run as a maritime museum, is a familiar spot for Trump. In 2009 he made a characteristically swashbuckling arrival there, his private helicopter landing on deck at the start of season two of Celebrity Apprentice.
Last September the Intrepid was the location of a presidential election argument in which Trump and his Democratic rival for the White House Hillary Clinton took the stage one after the other to address military issues. The then Republican nominee memorably said that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was a much better leader than Obama.
Though Trump has made his business and celebrity career in New York, he has a complicated relationship with the city. Last November fewer than one in five New Yorkers voted for him, with 79% backing former New York senator Hillary Clinton. In Manhattan, where a number of buildings still bear Trump’s name, the president won just one electoral district out of 1,210.
Since entering the White House the relationship has only grown more strained, as Trump threatened to pull federal funding from New York as one of the so-called “sanctuary cities” that have declined to collude in his sharpened policy of immigrant deportations.
That tension between Trump and the city was on full display on Thursday. Protesters gathered a few blocks from the USS Intrepid to give the returning president a fiery welcome. Many banged pots and pans as they marched towards the Intrepid, in a nod to the cacerolazo protests of Spanish-speaking countries, and the rally had a strong immigrant theme.
“Say it loud, say it clear, immigrants are welcome here,” was a recurring chant, as people waved signs and cheered as cars and trucks sporadically honked their horns in support.
As night fell, activists from Greenpeace USA buzzed up and down the Hudson beside the Intrepid in inflatable boats carrying banners saying “Resist”. The previous night a neon slogan was projected against the dock at which the Intrepid is moored saying: “The resistance will not stop.”
Steven McCasland, from Queens, New York, was in the crowd a few blocks from the carrier holding a sign that said: “This village doesn’t want its idiot back.”
“He is an embarrassment to this city,” McCasland said of Trump. “We’re a city of compassionate people and he’s certainly not one of them.”
Around 1,000 people marched towards the Intrepid, eventually being stopped one block north of the ship. They had met at DeWitt park in midtown Manhattan, and the proximity of the protest to a number of Trump’s landmark achievements will not have been lost on the president.
DeWitt park is one mile west of Trump Tower and just a few blocks from the Trump International Hotel and Tower. It is less than a mile south of the erstwhile Trump Place – a group of apartment buildings where residents successfully petitioned to have Trump’s name removed in November.
After Trump and Turnbull had delivered their Coral Sea speeches, the US president made a speedy getaway. It was in keeping with the edginess of his first homecoming since he took office that he did not head for Trump Tower, but turned the other direction, eastward, to New Jersey and his country home in Bedminster.
He plans to spend the weekend playing golf at the Trump National Golf Course. New York City will have to wait a while for another sighting of its most famous, lately powerful, but not all that beloved son.