Their first formal meeting marks a chance, British and American officials said, to forge stronger ties between the two nations after 2½ years of tense relations and transnational Twitter insults during the tumultuous tenure of Theresa May, Johnson’s predecessor.
“They call him ‘Britain Trump,’ and people are saying that’s a good thing. They like me over there. That’s what they wanted. That’s what they need,” Trump said in a speech last month.
Aug. 26, 2019 | French President Emmanuel Macron and President Trump shake hands as they hold a news conference on the closing day of the Group of Seven summit in Biarritz, France. (Ian Langsdon/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
The scene in France as President Trump and other world leaders gather for the G-7 summit
The American president is looking to strike a trade deal with Johnson sometime soon if his British counterpart can successfully manage an exit from the European Union — the defining challenge of his prime ministership — and Trump is expected to pepper Johnson with questions about Brexit. Trump has repeatedly sought to promote Britain’s break from the European Union, believing that what others see as a calamity for the West is an opportunity for the United States to strike lucrative trade deals with individual nations.
“Dealing with the U.K., they have not treated the U.K. very well. That’s a very tough bargain they’re driving, the European Union,” Trump told reporters recently during an exchange in the Oval Office.
Trump has more than just Brexit on his mind ahead of his tete-a-tete with Johnson.
White House aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the president’s views, said Trump will pressure his U.K. counterpart to take a more aggressive stance against Chinese technology company Huawei even as Trump’s actions toward the company have been inconsistent. But Trump is looking for an ally as his trade war with Beijing has grown more heated by the day.
Trump’s breakfast with Johnson on Sunday morning will be among his first at the G-7, officials said, and it is likely to be the least acrimonious of his bilaterals while in Biarritz.
Trump’s critics are wary of the relationship between the two populists who have staked their political careers on nationalist sentiments and a disregard for the establishment in both countries. They worry Johnson’s ascendancy will give Trump a comrade in mischief at gatherings such as the G-7 at a time when worries about the global economy are leading to calls for a united response to combat a potential recession.
“Trump is obviously going to be looking for one friend. His only real chance is Johnson,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Trump critic.
While the U.S. and British governments differ on several issues — including Iran, Huawei and climate change — many think that Johnson will be keen to curry favor with Trump during the G-7 and will seek to avoid any signs of disagreement as he seeks to establish on the world stage that the two men are allies.
“I think G-7 will be a major moment for the Trump-Johnson relationship,” said a British official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the government’s expectations for the weekend summit. “We really need international allies right now, and the first big global stage moment is huge for Johnson. The calls [between the two men] are genuinely amiable and productive. Trump’s stance on E.U. is not at all unhelpful to us.”
White House national security adviser John Bolton said that Britain would be at the “front of the trade queue” after Brexit and that some deals could be done on a “sector-by-sector” basis.
Bolton also told reporters that Trump and Johnson’s relationship was “off to a roaring start” and that they had already had half a dozen phone calls. Officials from both countries said Trump wants a trade deal with Britain within six months.
Trump sees world leaders and dealmaking in terms of personal chemistry, and he has previously grown frustrated with leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron and May, publicly criticizing all of them at times.
In Johnson, he hopes to have found a fellow Western leader with similar nationalistic views and personal style.
After Johnson’s rise to prime minister, Britain’s foreign secretary was recently treated to a rare gift: a quick Oval Office meeting with Trump. The secretary also had meetings with Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, Vice President Pence and Bolton when he visited Washington, officials from both countries said, along with having dinner at the Trump International Hotel.
May had trouble with Trump, British and American officials said, because she was not a regular on the president’s call sheet and only spoke with him regarding formal requests or issues. Johnson, on the other hand, plans to call regularly and try to cultivate a friendly bonhomie with the president.
Whether personal chemistry can lead to a strengthening of the “special relationship” between the two countries remains uncertain. British officials noted that Trump has imposed tariffs on countries led by people he says he likes and that May’s government went out of its way to court Trump, including a visit to Britain this year where he dined with Queen Elizabeth II, and tried to avoid antagonizing him.
“You can do as much as you want, but at the end of the day, you can still get a tweet,” one British official said.
British officials grew to dread May’s meetings with Trump — fearful that he would explode during his interactions with the more stilted prime minister. She would dutifully read preparation books and briefings on American politics but could not join in colorful repartee with the president, who grew frustrated at her inability to withdraw from the European Union and regularly lectured her. He attacked May recently after damaging cables from now-retired Ambassador Kim Darroch showed the British government privately held a dim view of the president’s governing capabilities.
Trump attacked the U.K. government and accused the intelligence service of spying on him, without evidence. Most of what Darroch included in his cables was no different from what was being reported in the American media.
Trump is deeply unpopular in the U.K.; polls show that a majority of Britons have an unfavorable opinion of him. During his state visit earlier this year, thousands of protesters took to the streets while a giant blimp of a diaper-clad “Trump Baby” took to the skies. Demonstrators also turned out in droves during Trump’s working visit to England in 2018.
Unsurprisingly, opposition lawmakers in Britain gleefully draw links between Trump and Johnson — and the new prime minister has to be wary of appearing too close to Trump or at least be able to show he is not overly influenced by the American president.
“Johnson is Britain’s Trump, as the U.S. president himself declared, so it must be true, it cannot be said to be fake news,” Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said in a recent speech.
British officials said Johnson must keep some distance from Trump now for political reasons back home.
Johnson was an early critic of Trump, but like many conservative American politicians, he tossed aside his concerns about the real estate developer and reality TV star when it became apparent Trump’s political appeal was more than a fleeting fancy.
In 2015, Trump provoked widespread ire in London when he said there were places in the British capital that were so radicalized that police officers were scared for their lives.
Johnson, who was then mayor of London, slammed Trump for being “out of his mind.”
“When Donald Trump says there are parts of London that are no-go areas, I think he’s portraying a quite stupefying ignorance that makes him frankly unfit to hold the office of president of the United States,” he said.
But Johnson later embraced Trump when he became the Republican presidential nominee and then president. Johnson was widely criticized this summer when he failed to distance himself from Trump after the president lashed out at Darroch following the embarrassing leak of diplomatic cables.
“The week Trump said jump — and Johnson asked ‘How high?’ ” ran a headline in the Observer newspaper.
But some in Britain say there is an upside to the affection Trump and Johnson have shown toward each other.
Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative MP and former minister, said that more could have been achieved if Trump and May had a better relationship.
Whether Johnson’s personal rapport with Trump will lead to benefits for Britain and the United States remains to be seen and will be watched closely this weekend.
“We have two complex personalities now, but they will see more eye to eye. There will be a regular drumbeat of communication and from that stems greater cooperation,” Ellwood said. “This first formal meeting couldn’t be more critical in setting the tone of where things go from here.”