The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mr. Brexit? Trump, a critic of the E.U., keeps undermining Theresa May’s plan to leave it.

Donald Trump Jr. says May should have followed his father’s advice on Brexit. But what was that advice?

President Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May hold hands at the conclusion of their joint news conference at Chequers, in Buckinghamshire, England, on July 13, 2018. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

The British decision to leave the European Union in June 2016 prompted the prime minister to resign and sent the pound tanking. Donald Trump, at that time running for president of the United States, felt an affinity.

“They will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT!” Trump tweeted in August 2016, drawing a parallel between his supporters and those in Britain who wanted to leave the European Union.

It’s almost three years after Britain’s vote and the chaos is far from over. Britain is still in the E.U., drifting toward a “no deal” exit from the bloc that many experts fear will be a disaster. In recent remarks, Trump has suggested that he is now disappointed with how Brexit has panned out.

“It’s tearing a country apart,” Trump said as he met Thursday with the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar at the White House. “It’s actually tearing a lot of countries apart.”

President Trump and Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar spoke to reporters about Brexit at the White House on March 14. (Video: The Washington Post)

Though the president still speaks positively of Britain’s 2016 decision to leave the E.U., he has disagreed with the method taken since. Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., wrote Tuesday in the Telegraph that British Prime Minister Theresa May “ignored advice from my father” on Brexit, making the process take far longer and “leaving the British people in limbo.”

Looking back on several years of comments about Brexit, its easy to see Trump’s parallel attitudes to Britain’s exit from the E.U. On the one hand, he is a long-standing critic of the E.U. and voiced his approval for Brexit relatively early in the campaign.

At the same time, he thinks Britain is doing Brexit wrong.

The art of the “no deal”

Trump has made seemingly positive gestures to May, the first foreign leader to visit the White House after his inauguration. He recently suggested that the country could negotiate a new trade deal with the United States after it leaves the E.U.

“My Administration looks forward to negotiating a large scale Trade Deal with the United Kingdom. The potential is unlimited!” Trump tweeted Thursday, the day after May lost a second vote on her proposed deal.

However, the president has returned frequently to criticizing May. He told reporters Thursday — one day after the British prime minister was undermined again by a complicated series of votes that symbolically opposed a “no deal” Brexit — that the British leader should have taken his negotiating advice.

“I gave the prime minister my ideas on how to negotiate. I think she would have been successful; she didn’t listen to that,” he said.

In December, the president told reporters that the deal that the British prime minister had reached with the E.U. may block trade with the United States. “Sounds like a great deal for the E.U.,” Trump said. And before the deal had even been reached, Trump had told Britain’s Sun newspaper that May "is striking a much different deal than the one the people voted on.”

What is Trump’s advice? Only hints have been revealed. “He told me I should sue the E.U. — not go into negotiations. Sue them,” May told the BBC in an interview after Trump’s visit to London last July.

In an interview with Sky News this week, former Trump campaign manager Stephen K. Bannon said that Trump had given May several points of advice on Brexit, including “overshoot the target on your deal because it will come apart,” “get on with it” and “use every arrow in your quiver even if you have to do litigation later.”

And Nigel Farage — a British ally of Trump and an advocate for Brexit who favors leaving the E.U. without a deal — told the Telegraph newspaper last week that he had spoken with the president and both agreed that aborted talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam showed the value in walking away from negotiations.

It’s far from clear that any of these tactics would work in practice. Britain’s exit from the E.U. is quite different from bilateral denuclearization talks with North Korea. For example, Trump has said that post-Brexit Britain shouldn’t align its trade too closely with the E.U. so that it can write its own free trade agreements later, but such a move could potentially result in a hard border with Ireland — something the E.U. is unlikely to agree to.

Amanda Sloat, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs, said she wasn’t sure that Trump understood the nuances of negotiations.

“Walking away from Brexit with no deal doesn’t mean that nothing happens,” Sloat said. “It means you have significant rupture in all the existing arrangements.”

“I think the E.U. is going to break up”

Trump is a long-standing critic of the E.U., but he has made a number of predictions about it that did not pan out. In 2012, the then-businessman made a number of claims that the euro, the currency used by 19 of the 28 E.U. member states, was “done” and “going to collapse soon.”

The president has repeatedly claimed to have predicted Brexit itself. However, his retelling of a June 2016 visit to his Turnberry Golf Course in Scotland omits a key detail: Trump arrived in the country June 24, the day after the referendum, not the day before as he has claimed.

Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke about Britain leaving the European Union in Turnberry, Scotland on June 24, 2016. (Video: Reuters)

Trump did make a prediction a few days later. “I think the E.U. is going to break up,” he said in an interview with the Times of London on June 27. That has not occurred.

The president’s support for Britain and opposition to the E.U. is not surprising. His family originated in Scotland, and he is fond of Britain, but in the past few years he has suggested that the E.U. is a “foe” and that it was formed as a “consortium so that it could compete with the United States.”

In his 2000 book, “The America We Deserve,” Trump spoke of the need to pull back from Europe and “save this country millions of dollars annually.” In the same book, Trump suggests that the United States has been there for “England” because they are “there for us.”

Even in the years before Brexit, however, Trump could be critical of Britain’s leadership. Between 2012 and 2014, he sent a number of tweets that said then-Prime Minister David Cameron was “making a fool of himself” by “spending vast amounts of money to subsidize ugly wind turbines in Scotland that nobody wants.” Cameron would go on to resign after losing the British referendum on leaving the E.U.

Trump’s advice may not have sway in Britain. Numerous polls have shown the president is deeply unpopular in the country and that his favored tactic for Brexit, walking away without a deal, is not supported by a majority of the country.

But the president has said he would seek to negotiate a bilateral trade agreement with Britain after it leaves the E.U. If that happens, he may put to use some of the negotiation tactics that he had advised May to use for Brexit — in particular, pushing Britain to accept agreements on U.S. agriculture and pharmaceuticals it has long opposed.

“There are going to be things that Trump will try to make a hard bargain on,” Sloat said.

Conservative British lawmaker Ken Clarke disparaged hopes for improved U.S.-Britain trade relations after Brexit in the House of Commons in London on Jan. 15. (Video: Reuters)

Read more:

The 400-year-old legal precedent that might break Brexit

What is Brexit? Britain’s ongoing drama, explained.

Brexit may no longer mean Brexit