When the grieving parents of British teenager Harry Dunn arrived in New York earlier this week, their fight for justice for their dead son quickly became a whirlwind of interviews. Their press tour took a strange turn on Tuesday, however, when family adviser Radd Seiger received an unexpected invitation to Washington DC.
“Radd, who’s been looking after us, has a phone call from the White House saying: ‘Could you please come to the White House as soon as possible?’” Tim Dunn, Harry’s father, said.
“We got on a train, and away we went.”
It was the start of a bizarre trip to visit Donald Trump that plunged the grieving Dunns briefly into the weird world of White House politics, as the US president and his team appeared keen on pulling a reality TV-style stunt on them – by brokering a meeting with the woman who killed their child.
Dunn, 19, was killed this August in a head-on collision between his motorcycle and a car traveling on the wrong side of the road. The alleged driver of that car, Anne Sacoolas, is the wife of a US intelligence officer; she claimed diplomatic immunity and subsequently fled back to the US.
Dunn’s parents want Sacoolas to return to the UK and cooperate with investigators. They hoped their trip to the US would bring attention to his tragic death, as media coverage in the US has been overshadowed by the impeachment inquiry.
“He was very, very special, big-hearted boy,” said his mother, Charlotte Charles, saying he had many friends and a keen “instinct to know when you needed an extra hug”.
“It was very hard to get mad with him,” she said, even when “you felt like you needed to sometimes – especially when he left his room in such a mess”.
Tim Dunn described him as an “accomplished” motorbike rider who would chat with his parents after a long workday, before going out for a ride.
When Dunn’s family accepted the White House invitation, they were neither informed it was a meeting with Trump nor that Sacoolas would be there in the next room – let alone that Trump would thrice urge them to meet with her, they said.
“It wasn’t actually until we were halfway there, I think, that we realized it was a senior official,” Charles recalled. “We just went with it. We didn’t really have any time to think about it.”
On the train, they talked about what might be in store for them at the White House.
“We took it to the most bizarre situation that could have happened – which actually ended up playing out,” Charles said. “We were very glad that we had discussed that it would be a possibility, although we actually didn’t think for one second that we would be placed in that position.”
When Dunn’s parents and Seiger arrived at the White House that evening, they spent 40 minutes going through security checks and waiting around.
“It seemed, looking back now, that they were trying to stop Radd from getting in. Even when we got into the White House, they were trying little tricks to separate us,” Tim Dunn said.
Charles said Seiger ’s identification was extensively scrutinized and, at one point, he was taken to a separate room.
“Probably, they thought they could soften us up to actually go through with the plan they had put together,” Charles said of the seeming attempts at separating them from Seiger.
When they were ultimately brought into the Oval Office, Trump was standing there to greet them.
He “was welcoming”, inviting them to sit on the sofas.
“He shook our hands and they were firm handshakes – not some limp ones that you do get sometimes,” Charles said.
“He said: ‘I recognize you off the TV,’ he shook my hand,” Tim Dunn said.
There was a photographer with two cameras and about eight other people in the room. One of those people was Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, Dunn’s parents said.
A few minutes into the meeting, Trump said: “We have her here in the White House” – referring to Sacoolas.
They refused to meet her, holding to their position that they would sit down with Sacoolas, but not on US soil and only with lawyers and other mediators present.
“Radd said to the president: ‘No, Mr President, our terms are we meet in the UK,’” Tim Dunn said. “And that’s when Mr O’Brien said: ‘She is never going back to the UK.’
“He was quite abrupt and sharp with his tone.”
Trump put his hand up “to make [O’Brien] calm down”, Tim Dunn said.
“He was just very aggressive with his nature of speak[ing], made himself look as big and tall as he possibly could, sat straight bolt upright and forward,” Charles said of O’Brien.
Charles said she then spoke to Trump for about five minutes.
“He didn’t attempt to interrupt me, he held my eye contact … kept very calm,” she said.
Trump unsuccessfully tried two more times to get Dunn’s family to meet with Sacoolas, they claimed.
“It was quite obvious we were going around in circles,” Charles said.
The White House said in an email when the family declined to meet with Sacoolas, “no one asked again” and that “no one in that room was aggressive. It was a quiet and respectful meeting.”
As they were leaving, Trump extended his hand to her.
“I took it very tightly and just said to him: ‘Please, please try to understand … I’m sure if it was your son you’d be doing the same,’” Charles recalled. “And he agreed with me and said ‘absolutely, I would be’, and he said that ‘maybe I’ll now try and push to have this looked at from a different angle’.
“We don’t know what to think about that,” she reflected. “We came out feeling that we’d gotten our story through and to have him say that meant something at the time, but unless he carries it through and sticks to his word, then we’re going to gain nothing from that, are we?”
And while Trump is a former reality television host, Charles said his suggestion that they meet with Sacoolas didn’t come across as him attempting a made-for-TV moment.
For all we know, she might have been watching us on a TV camera in the other room. We have absolutely no idea
“It felt genuine at the time, although we were not impressed with the fact that obviously, we had it sprung on us that she was there,” she said. “For all we know, she might have been watching us on a TV camera in the other room. We have absolutely no idea.”
“The president met with members of the Dunn family to personally offer his condolences for the loss of their son,” the White House said in a statement about the controversial meeting. “His intent was to do all he could to comfort the victims of a tragic accident. This was at the request of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.”
Sacoolas’ lawyer, Amy Jeffress, said in a statement: “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.”
But after the whirlwind week the Dunns themselves are simply stunned.
“We are bemused by all of it,” Tim Dunn said of their time in the US. “We still can’t believe how the story is moving on. We come to the USA just to try and get our story across and then within two days, we’re in the White House.
“For us,” he continued, “from the UK, from a small town, it’s just hard for us to really comprehend and get an angle on it.”
They nonetheless comprehend the impact he had on their family and community during his too-short life and tell stories of their son’s generosity of spirit.
One recent Remembrance Day, Dunn had arrived home only to find out that those selling poppies had already been to their home.
“He actually got back on his motorbike and went and found the people who were selling these poppies and put money in the box as a donation,” Charles said. “He didn’t have to do that.”
The children in their town, who grew accustomed to seeing Dunn wave at them from his motorbike without fail, have also felt his loss.
“Those children, we’ve had messages from their parents saying that they’re even missing Harry,” she said. “They’d wait for his motorbike to come up the road, and it doesn’t come.”