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Trump finally gets his British state visit — but tensions that led to delay remain

Queen Elizabeth II and President Trump inspect the guard of honour formed of the Coldstream Guards during a welcome ceremony at Windsor Castle in Windsor, England, on July 13, 2018.
Queen Elizabeth II and President Trump inspect the guard of honour formed of the Coldstream Guards during a welcome ceremony at Windsor Castle in Windsor, England, on July 13, 2018. (Matt Dunham/AFP/Getty Images)
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The formal state visit to Britain promised to President Trump more than two years ago will finally happen in early June, although the main reasons for the delay — turmoil over Brexit and overwhelming opposition to Trump among Londoners — remain unchanged.

Buckingham Palace and the White House announced Tuesday that Trump and first lady Melania Trump will visit Britain for three days in early June. State visits typically include a banquet with the queen and a formal procession in London, complete with horse-drawn carriage.

“This state visit will reaffirm the steadfast and special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom,” a statement from the White House said.

Striking a similar note, British Prime Minister Theresa May said in a statement that the visit would be “an opportunity to strengthen our already close relationship in areas such as trade, investment, security and defense, and to discuss how we can build on these ties in the years ahead.”

The invitation is an all-the-trappings diplomatic plum. Queen Elizabeth II, on the throne since 1952, has hosted only two other U.S. presidents for these ceremonial visits — George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

This trip follows what was billed as a “working visit” to Britain last July that featured a giant balloon depicting Trump as a screaming baby in a diaper hovering above tens of thousands of protesters in London.

The planned visit comes amid strained relations between Trump and May. On the eve of last year’s visit, Trump was quoted in a British tabloid criticizing her approach to Brexit and threatening to upend the U.S.-British trade relationship. Trump and his associates continued to root for Brexit this year while suggesting that May had botched it. May’s own political position is perilous, and while the White House statement said Trump would meet with her during his visit, it is not clear whether she will still be prime minister then.

May first pledged the invitation shortly after Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. Her offer was criticized at home, as was a photo appearing to show her and Trump holding hands when she visited him as the first foreign leader to pay respects to the new president.

The state visit has been repeatedly put on hold because of the prolonged British divorce from the European Union that has preoccupied May, and by concern among advisers to both leaders about the chilly reception Trump would receive.

Disapproval of Trump among Britons has remained above 70 percent in most polling since he emerged as a leading Republican candidate in 2016, although some of the fiercest Brexit proponents see him as an ally.

What Britain thinks of Trump

“I think there will be protests,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan told the BBC on Tuesday. “I mean, it doesn’t take a crystal ball for people to predict there will be protests. Many of the things that this president has said, people find objectionable,” he said, pointing, in particular, to Trump’s “amplification” of racist views and his singling out of Muslims.

Trump was criticized across Britain, and by May in a rare public rebuke of the leader of Britain’s closest ally, when he shared inflammatory anti-Muslim videos on Twitter posted by a far-right British activist in November 2017.

Khan, a Muslim and a frequent Trump critic, called for all protests to be peaceful and lawful.

A Facebook group called “Together Against Trump” has already announced a protest in London on June 4.

Emily Thornberry, foreign affairs spokeswoman for Britain’s main opposition Labour Party, criticized the planned visit.

“This is a president who has systematically assaulted all the shared values that unite our two countries, and unless Theresa May is finally going to stand up to him and object to that behavior, she has no business wasting taxpayers’ money on all the pomp, ceremony and policing costs that will come with this visit,” Thornberry said.

Dave Webb, chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a British-based group, called the invitation shocking.

“Why is Theresa May attempting to normalize the behavior of a man who casually threatens nuclear war, who tears up nuclear treaties, who has broken every convention of appropriate behavior with his misogynistic language, his ban on Muslim immigrants, his climate change denial and retweeting material from far-right organizations here in Britain?” Webb said in a statement to The Washington Post.

With help from May and the queen, Trump was able to avoid direct interaction with most of the London protests last year. He held an official meeting with May at the prime minister’s country retreat, Chequers, and visited the queen at Windsor Castle, about 25 miles from central London. He also visited his golf club in Scotland.

During discussions about the upcoming trip, British officials informed administration officials that Trump would not be able to stay at Buckingham Palace — as is often the custom for state visits — because it is still undergoing renovations and only a few rooms were available. The administration replied that this was no problem; they could make just a few rooms work. But the British ultimately explained that they did not feel that they could give the president the proper treatment with the palace being renovated.

The British government is working on new lodging arrangements for Trump and his team, though the most likely option is the Winfield House.

A senior British source said that Trump’s not staying in Buckingham Palace is not a snub but simply an issue of logistics.

If Trump keeps to the traditions of a state visit, he will not be able to avoid encountering London demonstrators. The Trumps also plan to attend a June 5 ceremony in Portsmouth, far from London, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Portsmouth was one of the primary embarkation sites for the Allied operation that helped defeat Nazi Germany and liberate Europe during World War II.

According to May’s office, countries that fought alongside Britain in the military operation, as well as Germany, have been invited to attend. The gathering will include live performances, military displays and tributes to the Allied troops who fought in Normandy in World War II.

Portsmouth City Council leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson told the BBC that Trump’s attendance will “take away” from the event and that presidential-level security could make it harder for veterans to attend.

“Inevitably, if Donald Trump is in town, there will be controversy, there will be protests,” Vernon-Jackson said. “It would have been an open-access event on the common. Now it will all be behind steel barriers.”

Trump will be in France the following day, where he will meet with President Emmanuel Macron and travel to Normandy to observe the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings at the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.

Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect estimate of the distance between London and Windsor Castle.

William Booth in London and Ashley Parker in Washington contributed to this report.