LONDON — Since Donald Trump was elected president, perhaps no U.S. ally has gone to greater lengths to make friends than British Prime Minister Theresa May.
As other European leaders have kept their distance, wary of the new president’s seeming willingness to veer away from core Western values, May has repeatedly stressed her support.
Her government boycotted European gatherings to wring hands over Trump’s erratic behavior, and she echoed the reality star's talking points by pointedly criticizing the Obama administration’s stance on Israel during the 44th president’s final days in office.
She even sent Trump a highly symbolic Christmas gift: a copy of a wartime speech Winston Churchill delivered to the American people, along with a letter expressing belief that the “unity and fraternal association” between the United States and Britain is “as true today as it has ever been.”
May’s loyalty is being rewarded this week with a plum designation: On Friday, she will be the first foreign leader to meet Trump in the Oval Office. The meeting will give her a prime chance to pitch Trump on a U.S.-Britain free-trade deal, an agreement that May has signaled will be a top priority of her premiership as Britain prepares to leave the European Union.
But as she was winging across the Atlantic on Thursday, she also faced a wicked backlash in London from lawmakers who say her courting of the new U.S. president has gone too far.
The criticism came after Downing Street released excerpts from a speech May intends to deliver Thursday at a retreat for Republican congressmen in Philadelphia. Trump is also due to address the gathering.
In her speech, May seems to endorse Trump's view of himself as a turnaround artist who can restore America to lost greatness. Both the United States and Britain, she is due to tell the Republicans, are “rediscover[ing] our confidence.”
“As you renew your nation just as we renew ours — we have the opportunity — indeed the responsibility — to renew the Special Relationship for this new age,” May will say, according to the excerpts. “We have the opportunity to lead, together, again.”
May’s office also said she would be bearing gifts when she meets the Trumps: “a hamper full of produce” from the prime minister's country retreat, Chequers, for first lady Melania Trump; and for the president, “an engraved Quaich” — a two-handled cup that is an ancient Scottish symbol of friendship.
But back in London, May’s friendship mission was falling flat, as lawmakers wondered how their leader could seemingly ignore Trump’s more extreme positions and actions, include his advocacy of torture, his promotion of protectionism and his proposed ban on Syrian refugees.
Today he starts on wall, praises waterboarding, bullies climate scientists.She says they can lead together.Surely decent Tories feel queasy? https://t.co/3NUNuVLi1y
— Ed Miliband (@Ed_Miliband) January 25, 2017
— Vince Cable (@vincecable) January 25, 2017
— Vernon Coaker MP (@Vernon_Coaker) January 26, 2017
Please don't do this Theresa. UK can work with US without praising him. Really hoping you are better than this https://t.co/RgMoTk9nth
— Yvette Cooper (@YvetteCooperMP) January 25, 2017
As all we know, love & admire about the US falls under a dark shadow, Mrs May arrives in Washington in supplication. We should all quaich.
— Paddy Ashdown (@paddyashdown) January 26, 2017
Although the public criticism came primarily from members of other parties, May faced barbed words even from fellow Conservatives:
You cannot lead on a global stage by advocating torture, disgusting racial stereotyping & turning back the clock on women's rights worldwide https://t.co/LqNQ08Lgbu
— Sarah Wollaston MP (@sarahwollaston) January 25, 2017
May’s U.S. visit became an issue as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson testified Thursday before a parliamentary committee. Asked about Trump’s comments supporting the use of torture, Johnson affirmed that Britain remained opposed to it. “Our principled position and objection to torture is unchanged,” he said.
Johnson noted that Trump hadn't necessarily changed U.S. policy on torture, either; the president had simply stated his position, which was that torture works and that you “have to fight fire with fire.”
Of the overall future of British relations with the United States under Trump, a grinning Johnson stressed he was “very hopeful.”
Karla Adam contributed to this report.