“He said, ‘Oh that’s terrible! Is there anything else we can do to help?’
“That is the level of detail we’re getting down to,” Hockey says, laughing in disbelief at one of the many surreal moments he has experienced during his time as Australia’s representative in Washington.
The encounter, Hockey says, illustrates something he believes many Australians don’t appreciate about Trump: his inquisitiveness.
“Donald Trump has a very curious mind, he likes to understand things,” Hockey tells The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in an extended interview at White Oaks, the US ambassador’s official residence.
“He will ask you a lot of questions and store the information away. That would surprise people because that’s not always how he comes across.”
The fact Trump met Hockey privately to bid him farewell reflects the unusually high level of access the ambassador has enjoyed during his tenure.
Many foreign leaders struggle to obtain one-on-one meetings with the US President, let alone ambassadors from mid-sized countries.
“It is a privilege that is only reserved for the folks that we hold in the highest regard,” Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, tells The Herald and The Age.
“Only a handful of diplomats get an Oval Office meeting on their way out the door.”
It is clear during our interview that White Oaks, a stately mansion built in 1923, has very much been the Hockey family home.
The family cat, a ginger named Bluey, joins the discussion as do dogs Teiki and Prince. In another room one of Hockey’s three children is banging out a tune on the piano.
The walls of the residence are covered in artworks by famous Australian painters such as Arthur Boyd and Tjumpo Tjapanangka. Hockey convinced some of Australia’s biggest companies to loan him the works to promote Australian culture to visiting US politicians and public servants.
In the garden is a natural grass tennis court, installed in 2018 thanks to a donation from businessman Peter Lowy. Senior members of Congress, military leaders and foreign diplomats have all played on the court – the only one of its kind in the capital.
As he departs the ambassadorship, Hockey looks relaxed and at peace – an emotional universe away from when he decided to take on the role. Four years ago he was at the low point of his political career, exhausted and emotionally bruised.
When the Coalition swept to power in 2013, Hockey expected to enjoy a long stint as treasurer before succeeding Tony Abbott as the nation’s leader. Instead his time as treasurer lasted just two years and is best remembered for the politically-toxic 2014 budget and several embarrassing gaffes.
When Malcolm Turnbull rolled Abbott as Liberal leader, Hockey’s 20-year career in federal politics was suddenly over.
“It felt like my Apollo 13,” Hockey says, drawing an analogy to the 1970 lunar launch aborted in mid-mission. “I had missed my shot at the moon, my chance of becoming prime minister.
“It takes years to get over, but if you find solace in your new job it helps to heal the wounds.”
When Hockey and his family landed in Washington in January 2016, presidential campaigning was already in full swing.
It was at a Republican primary debate in March that Hockey first met Trump, who was then a renegade political novice blasting his way to the Republican nomination.
Hockey made his way into the post-debate spin posing as a journalist. “That’s how I got in,” Hockey recalls. “No-one knew I was the Australian ambassador.”
Watching Trump up close convinced Hockey that he had a strong chance of winning the presidency.
“Donald Trump defines and destroys his opponents better than almost anyone else I’ve ever seen.
“He was communicating with a part of America that everyone else in the country was either laughing at or ignoring.”
Yet when Trump won the election it triggered “root and branch shock in Canberra”.
“I had suggested to Malcolm Turnbull during a visit to Australia that Donald Trump could win and he was almost disbelieving,” Hockey says.
“As the result was coming in on election night he was speaking to me and was aghast like the rest of the world.”
In the scramble to obtain Trump’s phone number in the days following the election, Hockey famously asked a favour of Trump’s friend Greg Norman. The golf legend promptly passed it along, allowing Turnbull and Trump to make an early connection.
“The diplomatic rule book was thrown on the funeral pyre the day of the 2016 election,” Hockey says. “We were in a whole new world.”
Together Hockey and Turnbull decided to approach Trump as they would a famous late Australian media mogul.
“Donald Trump reminds me a lot of Kerry Packer and it was the same for Malcolm Turnbull [who served as a Packer’s longtime lawyer and confidante at Channel Nine].
“We talked a lot about that and it helped us work out our strategy for interacting with the President.
“He is verbal, visual, he’s not a technocrat, there is a lot of gut instinct there. And Kerry Packer respected you more if you were honest and frank without being sycophantic. It’s the same with Trump.”
Hockey says one of the mistakes other countries have made is to believe you have to suck up to Trump to get results. It’s better to state your disagreements strongly but to make sure you keep them private.
Indeed, in a famous call with Trump, Turnbull was anything but sycophantic.
He forcefully requested that Trump honour an Obama-era deal to resettle refugees from Manus Island and Nauru in the US – even though the President had won office on a tough-on-borders platform. Trump, after much complaining, eventually agreed.
A few months later Hockey found himself, at short notice, playing golf with Trump at the President’s course in Virginia.
Mulvaney had met Hockey through his work spruiking an Australia-style asset recycling scheme. The pair hit it off.
He invited Hockey to play a round of golf with himself, Fox News host Bret Baier and a fourth player.
“It was miserable weather and one of the guys dropped out. When we got there the President was there and looking for a game so we all played nine holes: me and Joe against Bret and the President.”
Hockey recalls: “I rang Malcolm Turnbull and said, ‘I’m probably playing golf with the President’.
“He said, ‘Do you really think that’s a good idea?’
“I said, ‘Why? Because of my golf game or what I might say?’
“‘Both I imagine,’ Turnbull replied.”
Mulvaney remembers Hockey making a “very dramatic” 40-foot (12-metre) putt on the last hole to tie the game. “If you know Joe, the fact he could make any putt was a miracle,” he says.
“I guess we’re screwed on tariffs now,” Hockey recalls telling Trump after denying him victory.
But Mulvaney says Trump “begrudgingly respected” Hockey’s putting achievement. “The President does not hold people in high regard who let others win.”
Mulvaney says Hockey’s gregarious manner has helped him form relationships with senior figures in Washington that are not available to most ambassadors.
“Other diplomats can be very formal, a bit distant. Joe is not a professional diplomat. He interacts with politicians as one of them and they respond to that.”
Mulvaney says Hockey’s lobbying was critical to the decision to grant Australia a rare exemption from US tariffs on steel and aluminium imports announced in 2018.
“When we were going through the analysis here on the tariffs Joe had the ability to pick up the phone, call people at every level of government and have a direct conversation with them. If, say, the Malaysian ambassador had called me and said ‘xyz’ I wouldn’t know who that was. It would be a different type of conversation. The flow of information is what good diplomacy is about. It was a highlight of his service here.”
Hockey also successfully fought to ensure that Ireland did not gain access to a special US visa scheme, known as the E3, that is only available to Australians.
“It has been the most amazing job and a wild ride,” Hockey says. “I feel as though there’s nothing I haven’t seen or been given access to. And there’s nothing we really set our minds to that we didn’t achieve.”
Indeed, Hockey has become so entranced by Washington that he plans to stay on in the city for several years. He will work in a private sector role that combines his passion for infrastructure and public policy.
“This is the greatest show on earth. I want to be around and watch how the next curtain call goes.”
Matthew Knott is North America correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.