President Trump stuck by embattled British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday, offering encouragement for the fight to take Britain out of the European Union as the political turmoil in Great Britain complicated a week of European diplomacy for Vice President Pence.
Johnson has lost his majority in Parliament just weeks into his term, and British lawmakers are in revolt over Johnson’s “do or die” plan to effect Brexit by the end of next month. His government in chaos, Johnson failed Wednesday in his effort to call a new election on Oct. 15.
But Trump sounded unruffled when asked about Johnson’s reversal of fortune on Wednesday.
“He’s a friend of mine, and he’s going at it, there’s no question about it,” Trump said, noting that he had watched Johnson on television earlier in the day. “Boris knows how to win. Don’t worry about him.”
No one was more gleeful than Trump to see Johnson’s political ascent on the back of the promised British withdrawal from the E.U., and no other world leader may have as much to lose from the stunning political humiliation of a populist brother-in-arms.
If Johnson is unable to deliver Brexit on time, or at all, or if he is ousted as prime minister, his rise and fall will be tied to Trump. The president has been willing to look past policy disagreements with Johnson on Iran, climate change and trade protectionism chiefly because of Johnson’s Trump-like rhetoric about the importance of shedding E.U. control, analysts said.
“It serves Trump’s purpose to continue cheerleading for Boris because he supports Brexit,” no matter Johnson’s political peril, said Amanda Sloat, a Europe specialist at the Brookings Institution.
Pence, who has been on a nearly week-long European tour, has found himself in the middle of the Brexit storm. The vice president, who was in Iceland on Wednesday, was scheduled to arrive in London late Wednesday ahead of a Thursday meeting with Johnson.
Pence’s message, at stop after stop across Europe, has been that the United States stands with Johnson in his cause, and he has underscored the view that it’s critical for the European Union to negotiate in “good faith” with the new prime minister. He has notably never leaned on Johnson, who could be critical for a future U.S.-U.K. trade agreement.
When asked in Reykjavik on Wednesday whether the Trump administration stands with Johnson amid the Brexit turbulence, Pence made clear that the United States was unwavering as he spoke to reporters outside Hofdi House, the site where Pence’s political hero, Ronald Reagan, once negotiated with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
“Make no mistake about it: America respects the sovereignty of the United Kingdom, respects the will of the people of the United Kingdom, and we respect and support the U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union,” Pence said.
The White House looked past the uncertainty to express confidence that trade deals can be reached with both Britain and the E.U. once Brexit is complete.
“The United States enjoys strong relationships with both the UK and EU and we look forward to continuing both after Brexit,” a senior administration official said in an email. “Looking ahead, as the President has made clear many times, the United States is committed to negotiating a robust trade deal with the UK after the UK leaves the EU. As the President said [at the recent Group of Seven summit] in Biarritz, [France,] we are also optimistic about the chances of concluding a trade deal in the future With the EU.”
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter on the record.
Pence’s travels illustrate better than anything how the United States has forgone any effort to be a mediator or go-between for Britain, Ireland and Brussels, Sloat said.
“It’s impossible,” she said. “The U.S. has just put its thumb so far on one side of the issue.”
When Pence arrived in Shannon, Ireland, on Monday evening, he sat inches away from Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney during a meeting at Shannon’s airport that was friendly but quickly drifted away from pleasantries as Coveney pleaded with the vice president for more solidarity with Ireland on Brexit.
Coveney warned of the “disruption” Brexit could cause Ireland, in terms of rupturing the peace at its northern border, and called it a “huge issue for this country.”
He told Pence that Ireland cannot tolerate upheaval at its free-flowing border or new inspection stops and hassles.
Pence, ever calm, responded by saying he was “grateful for your candor.” But he made no explicit assurances about what the United States could promise on the details of Brexit. Instead, he broadly stated that he could “assure you” that the Trump administration would work with the United Kingdom and Ireland on a “Brexit plan that encourages stability” and respects the Good Friday Agreement that maintains peace in Northern Ireland.
At a Tuesday news conference in Dublin alongside Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, Pence drew audible gasps from members of the Irish media as he generally sided with Johnson’s position on Irish soil.
“As the deadline for Brexit approaches, we urge Ireland, and the E.U. as well, to negotiate in good faith with Prime Minister Johnson,” Pence said.
Varadkar made clear his government’s concerns.
“We as a government have to stand our ground” on the Good Friday agreement, Varadkar said. “All I ask is that you bring that message back to Washington with you.”
Speaking to reporters later, Pence was pressed on whether he would push for the peace deal to be maintained and make that a priority for the United States.
“Let me leave the details to others,” Pence said. “We’re going to continue to affirm the importance of the Good Friday Agreement, but we really believe that there is an opportunity here, if all parties would come to the table and negotiate in good faith, to achieve a Brexit in a way that honors the sovereignty of the United Kingdom.”
In Iceland on Wednesday, Pence said the United States wants Britain and the E.U. to “reach an agreement that will meet the needs of the aspirations of the people of the United Kingdom and also provide for an orderly Brexit.”
Pence has nodded to the tensions he has faced as the Trump administration’s de facto spokesman in Europe amid Brexit, all as he works to maintain close ties with European nations beyond Britain.
“We recognize this is a complex issue,” Pence said Wednesday in Iceland. “During our visit to Ireland yesterday, we were reminded of the challenges that the Republic of Ireland faces having a contiguous border with the United Kingdom.”
The unraveling of Brexit added urgency to Pence’s trip, which some of his confidants had hoped would be a showcase of his Irish roots. He brought members of his family, including his mother, on the trip and spent Tuesday night at Morrissey’s pub in Doonbeg, which he once visited as a young man in 1981.
“May God hold you in the palm of his hand,” Pence said at the conclusion of his Tuesday news conference, in one of several overtures to the Irish.
Irish headlines and columnists nevertheless erupted with ire about the vice president’s handling of the charged moment in Europe.
Miriam Lord, a columnist for the Irish Times, wrote that Pence “wastes no opportunity to go misty-eyed about his love for the ‘Old Country’ as he lards on his Mother Machree schtick on both sides of the Atlantic.”
But, she added, “As Pence read from the autocue and Irish eyes definitely stopped smiling, it was clear he was channeling His Master’s Voice. Trump is a fan of Brexit and of Boris.”
Costa reported from Reykjavik.