It was an uncomfortable spectacle for an American president — thousands of protesters greeting his arrival in London for a state visit with the queen.
For President George W. Bush, the moment called for a direct response.
“The last noted American to visit London stayed in a glass box dangling over the Thames,” Bush said at Whitehall Palace in November 2003, referring to a recent stunt by illusionist David Blaine. “A few might have been happy to provide similar arrangements for me.”
Bush’s stab at self-deprecation did not spare him — in Britain or elsewhere — from withering criticism over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that year. But his response to the public dissent — acknowledging that the war was unpopular and attempting to rebut his critics — stands in sharp contrast to President Trump’s reaction to thousands of demonstrators who have taken to the streets during his three-day state visit to London this week.
Instead of recognizing the public’s expressions of anger, which included a 20-foot-tall, diaper-clad “Trump baby” blimp flying above Parliament Square, the 45th president has adopted a different tactic — denial.
“I heard there were protests,” Trump said during a news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday. “I said, ‘Where are the protests?’ I don’t see any protests. I did see a small protest today when I came — very small. So a lot of it is fake news, I hate to say.”
Trump’s efforts to minimize opposition to his presidency on the first stop of a week-long tour of three European nations represented his latest attempt to misrepresent his public standing and rewrite perceptions about the popularity of his agenda — an effort that began on his first week in office, when a White House spokesman argued, against evidence, that the president had the largest inauguration crowd in history.
The president’s claims in London were just as easily proved false. After the news conference, CNN aired footage of the demonstrators, including a giant Trump robot sitting on a toilet and repeating two of his catchphrases: “Fake news” and “witch hunt.” On social media, photos circulated of protesters holding signs reading “Trump climate disaster,” “Don’t attack Iran” and “Trump, you are a mind-bending [expletive] human being.”
Organizers estimated that 75,000 people turned out for the demonstrations.
To Trump’s critics, the display showcased a president refusing to come to grips with the reality that he remains deeply unpopular around the world and that perceptions of U.S. global leadership have plummeted during his 2½ years in office. Although Trump has expressed support for Britain’s decision to exit the European Union, his stances on Iran, climate change and other matters have been met with widespread opposition.
In Britain, 19 percent had a favorable view of Trump, while 68 percent viewed him unfavorably, according to an Ipsos MORI poll last summer. Fifty-three percent of the public said Trump had weakened the “special relationship” between the United States and Britain, while just 6 percent said he had made it stronger.
“The Bush protests were largely focused around Iraq, an ongoing war Britain was involved in,” said Thomas Wright, a Europe security expert at Brookings Institution. The opposition to Trump “is more generic. It’s not about a conflict or a particular policy. It’s a large array of policies and Trump himself.”
Trump has sparked protests during several of his trips abroad, but he often has attempted to schedule his itineraries to avoid encountering the public. He has not held town-hall-style forums or visited local restaurants or schools, as his predecessors regularly did to promote policies and democratic values.
Trump delayed his first visit to Britain for months amid the threat of protests, then held a working visit with May in July 2018 outside central London, far from the demonstrations of an estimated 100,000 Britons.
“Some of them are protesting in my favor,” Trump asserted in an interview with television host Piers Morgan on that trip.
“It’s an open question of whether Trump actually understands the profound outrage that he engenders from foreign publics,” said Ned Price, who served as a White House national security spokesman under President Barack Obama.
Price noted reports that the White House asked the Pentagon to “minimize the visibility” of the USS John S. McCain during Trump’s visit two weeks ago to a naval base outside Tokyo.
“The staff goes to great lengths to pull the wool over his eyes,” Price said. “One can only imagine what other tactics they are using to provide him with sources of information that inflate his popularity overseas.”
Since taking office, Trump has avoided visiting Mexico, where his approval ratings have remained in the single digits over his threats on immigration and trade. The White House canceled a visit to Ireland last year amid reports of potential protests, then rescheduled it for this week in the tiny town of Doonbeg, where Trump owns a golf resort and enjoys more robust public support.
Trump also has expressed admiration for strict control on public expression in authoritarian countries, including China, where he marveled at a military honor guard performance during a visit to Beijing in 2017. Trump came away from his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia in an ebullient mood, which Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross credited to how well he was treated in Riyadh.
“There was not a single hint of a protester anywhere,” Ross said on CNBC, prompting anchor Becky Quick to point out that public protests are against the law in Saudi Arabia.
In London this week, Trump traveled mostly by helicopter, traversing even relatively short distances in Marine One.
Protests swelled Tuesday as Trump met with May at 10 Downing Street. Chants could be heard from the interior courtyard of the building, as opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn addressed the crowd of a few thousand people.
Minutes later, Trump and May took a walk across the courtyard to the room where they held a news conference. It was not clear if Trump could hear the commotion.
“We’ve had anti-Americanism in Europe before,” said Molly Montgomery, a former State Department official who now is a vice president at Albright Stonebridge Group. “But it’s another level that this president, in traveling to the country with which we have the special relationship, feels the need to travel by helicopter everywhere to not be exposed to protests.”
To Peter Wehner, a former Bush speechwriter, the difference in how Bush and Trump responded to the protests speaks volumes. During his speech at Whitehall Palace in 2003, Bush noted that Britain’s “tradition of free speech . . . is alive and well here in London.”
“We have that at home, too,” Bush said, adding that “they now have that right in Baghdad, as well.”
“There was no effort to hide or keep him away or pretend it didn’t exist,” said Wehner, whose book “Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump” was published Tuesday. “The effort was to try to make the case in a way that was dignified and had a touch of humor and grace where necessary.”
Olorunnipa and Karla Adam reported from London. Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.