January 12, 2018 at 4:09 PM
The United States and United Kingdom have enjoyed close ties that Winston Churchill called “the special relationship” — a camaraderie that transcends the Atlantic and the roots of America as Britain's breakaway colony.
But that has strained into a special misunderstanding this week, after President Trump pulled out of the new London embassy dedication slated for next week and blasted the billion-dollar construction of the glassy diplomatic headquarters. “Reason I canceled my trip to London is that I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for 'peanuts,'" Trump wrote on Twitter late Thursday. “Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!”
Hours later, Trump's ambassador to Britain, businessman and New York Jets owner Robert “Woody” Johnson, took an entirely different approach to the embassy's relocation and construction in an age when Trump has vowed to shake up America's place in the world — even among rock-solid NATO allies such as Germany, and, it would appear, in the U.K. as well.
“The new embassy is not just bigger, it is better and capable of meeting the complex challenges of the 21st century and beyond. It is the most secure, hi-tech and environmentally friendly embassy that the United States has ever built,” Johnson wrote in Britain's Evening Standard newspaper.
Yet its “off location” Trump described is by design. The sprawling 450-acre compound south of the Thames River, fixed on a hill and surrounded by a moat and other security measures, fulfills security requirements that embassies be isolated from other buildings and 100 feet away from roads to avoid car bombs and other attacks following the al-Qaeda embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. The old embassy is located in a bustling area of central London flanked by buildings and has struggled to keep pace with rising staff levels there.
“Security concerns after September 11 meant we had to move to a location that could better protect American citizens and our British neighbours,” Johnson wrote. State Department spokesperson Frankie Sturm said officials considered more than 50 sites in the area, with a team of professionals scrutinizing locations to meet more than 170 criteria, including some security requirements codified in law.
Johnson's historical reinforcement of the special relationship, including Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin and John Adams traversing Grosvenor Square in the 1700s, appears to be an effort to mend recently strained relations. Trump sparked outrage among members of Parliament and drew a sharp rebuke from Prime Minister Theresa May after he retweeted posts from a fringe anti-Muslim group in November.
The ambassador's breakdown of the cost also is at odds with the president. Trump called it a “bad deal” after Johnson described the cost, the most expensive embassy ever, as a bargain. The money was raised by selling other U.S. government property in London, Johnson wrote, and “the new embassy did not cost the U.S. taxpayer a cent. Yet is one of the most advanced embassies we have ever built.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not reply to a request for comment.
Trump's abrupt cancellation brought speculation that the president wilted under pressure from intense scrutiny in Britain following his divisive rhetoric. “It seems he's finally got that message,” wrote London's mayor, Sadiq Khan, on Twitter in response to Trump's message about his travel cancellation. That message was echoed by David Lammy, a lawmaker for the opposition Labour Party, who believed Trump was shaken by the prospect of being “met by millions of us out on the streets protesting.”
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a frequent defender of Trump, accused Khan and others of endangering the “crucial relationship.”
Trump's roiling of diplomatic relations caused disruptions in the Western Hemisphere as well. In December, U.S. Ambassador to Panama John Feeley resigned in protest of Trump's policies, ahead of the president deriding Latin American nations such as Haiti and El Salvador as “shithole countries,” Reuters reported Friday.
“As a junior foreign service officer, I signed an oath to serve faithfully the president and his administration in an apolitical fashion, even when I might not agree with certain policies. My instructors made clear that if I believed I could not do that, I would be honor bound to resign. That time has come,” Feeley wrote.