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Trump’s Reunion With May Caps Allies’ Deteriorating Relationship

| June 01, 2019

By Robert Hutton , Margaret Talev , and Alex Morales

President Donald Trump’s meetings in the U.K. with Prime Minister Theresa May next week likely will end the leaders’ relationship the same way it began: with awkward attempts to overcome a lack of personal chemistry.

May was the first foreign leader to visit Trump after he was sworn in as president. He’ll become the last foreign leader to visit her before she resigns as head of the Conservative Party.

Unlike the close partnership between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, Trump and May increasingly have been at odds on issues including immigration, trade and Iran’s nuclear program.

Despite the president briefly taking the prime minister’s hand on her January 2017 White House visit, the relationship between the two leaders lacked any personal connection. Trump has hinted he may even meet with her political rivals while he’s in Britain.

Trump’s second trip to the U.K. as president is built around a state visit with Queen Elizabeth and official commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion during World War II. As with his first visit, Trump will be greeted by protesters in London who plan to fly an inflatable version of the president that’s orange and wearing a diaper.

Given that May plans to step down next week, the prospects for substantive negotiations over key differences appear remote.

“This is a caretaker government and May is seen as a weakened leader,” said Rachel Rizzo, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

American officials downplayed the chance of a significant breakthrough on any of the topics Trump and May will discuss, including the U.S. effort to convince the U.K. and other allies to freeze Huawei Technologies Co. out of new 5G broadband networks. The trip is instead intended to lay groundwork for issues Trump will pursue with May’s successor, the officials told reporters.

The officials asked not to be identified as a condition of participation in the briefing.

Trump, said Thursday that he may meet with Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Johnson is the former foreign secretary who quit May’s cabinet over her Brexit compromise and stands a good chance of succeeding her as prime minister, while Farage’s fledgling Brexit Party embarrassed May’s Tories by topping the U.K.’s May 23 elections for the European Parliament.

Trump’s Friends

“Nigel Farage is a friend of mine, Boris is a friend of mine, they’re two very good guys, very interesting people,” Trump said. “I think they are big powers over there. Maybe it’s not my business to support people. But I have a lot of respect for both of those men.”

In an interview with the Sun, a London newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., excerpts of which were released on Friday, Trump said Johnson would be “excellent.” The president added that while he likes Johnson, his words shouldn’t be construed as a full endorsement.

A U.K. official said the government hadn’t received any request or notification from the U.S. government about a meeting with Johnson or Farage.

“American presidents have traditionally, uniformly not tried to involve themselves in other democracies internal battles,” said Nicholas Burns, a professor of diplomacy and international relations at the Harvard Kennedy School and the former under secretary of State for political affairs under President George W. Bush. “He ought to refrain from doing that in the U.K.”

May and Trump are expected to discuss China, the Middle East, Russia, Syria and Iran in their talks, in addition to Huawei and trade, the U.K. official said.

China is the latest sticking point between the two allies.

May’s government regards the American trade conflict with China as pointless and wasteful. And though they agree with the U.S. that China poses a serious cybersecurity risk, British intelligence officials have hinted they won’t push for an outright ban on Huawei technology in 5G infrastructure.

Strategic Differences

According to Tom Tugendhat, chairman of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, cooperation between many levels of the British and American security hierarchy remains close. But there are divergent views at the top about strategic direction.

“At an operational level, things have never been better,” he said. “But at a political level, Trump is continuing a longstanding American desire to pull back within its borders and avoid foreign entanglements. We need to consider the implications for the U.K. and our allies and position ourselves as an essential partner to enable wider cooperation.”

The American president won’t be accorded some of the honors sometimes extended to dignitaries on state visits. His trip to Buckingham Palace won’t be in a gilded carriage because of security concerns; he won’t stay at the place because of extensive renovations; and he won’t be given the opportunity to address both Houses of Parliament because of opposition from politicians, including the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow.

He will be greeted on this trip, as he was last time, with large street protests in London.

Strained Relationship

British popular sentiment toward Trump has seeped into May’s personal relationship with him. She has been forced to speak out against his immigration policies, his criticism of London Mayor Sadiq Khan, and his re-tweet of a post by the far-right group Britain First. She has remonstrated him for U.S. leaks of U.K. intelligence on the 2017 bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester.

Even before he took office, Trump riled the British government by welcoming Farage, then the acting leader of the U.K. Independence Party, to the U.S. and tweeting that May should make him ambassador to the U.S.

The president also publicly undermined May on his first visit to the U.K. In an interview with the Sun on the eve of their official meeting, he said he didn’t think the U.S. could make a trade deal with the U.K. under the terms May had negotiated for Brexit, and mused that Johnson would make a “great” prime minister.


British officials have privately offered a variety of views of the Trump administration, from an insistence that things are better than they seem -- which tends to lapse into an observation that the president has a unique style -- to outright contempt.

Defenders of May’s approach point to what they say are diplomatic victories: Trump’s continued engagement with NATO, and the U.S. expulsion of Russian diplomats after the attempted murder of a former spy on British soil last year.

Their differences are sometimes less a disagreement about the nature of a problem -- on Iran, for instance, U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said this month that he and his American counterpart, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, “share the same assessment of the heightened threat” -- than how to deal with it.

Trump urges confrontation. May and other U.K. officials worry that will lead to escalation, and have pledged to continue working with European allies.

Shared History

For Europeans, the D-Day anniversary is about remembering the struggle against fascism, and celebrating the peace in the decades since. Trump, watching the Spitfires flying overhead, may choose to see it -- as some pro-Brexit U.K. politicians do -- as a reminder of a time when Americans and Britons fought together against Europeans. He has described the European Union as a worse trading partner than China, and has urged May to take a more aggressive stance in Brexit negotiations.

“I hope President Trump appreciates the full sweep of history” on his visit, said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “That European unity is very much an American project, that Europeans’ prosperity and security are interlinked with America’s security and prosperity, and that this is a project that needs America’s support.

“It does not need America’s encouragement of its increasing fragility.”

  – Via the original publication source.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Trump’s Reunion With May Caps Allies’ Deteriorating Relationship.” Bloomberg, June 1, 2019.