The two leaders will convene a breakfast session with top business executives, as Trump and his British interlocutors thrash out a possible post-Brexit trade deal and discuss a slate of other pressing matters, from Iran to climate change to Britain’s dealings with controversial Chinese technology firm Huawei. Finally, Trump will host an official dinner at the U.S. ambassador’s residence before joining in D-Day commemorations the next day.
But the pomp and solemnity of the proceedings can’t hide the obvious strains posed by Trump’s arrival. His state visit to Britain — stalled for months amid acrimony and awkwardness — seems less a rekindling of the “special relationship” than a hostile incursion. On Tuesday, a mass protest rejecting Trump and his perceived anti-immigration, anti-environment, anti-feminist policies is expected to rock the heart of the British capital.
For his part, Trump is up for the fight. Before landing in Britain, he indicated in an interview with the Sun tabloid — yes, the same interview in which he also called Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, “nasty” — that he favored hard-line Brexiteer politicians Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. Trump made no secret of his support for Britain quitting the European Union, eagerly wishing for the country to get “rid of the shackles” of the continental bloc. (Never mind that Britain’s faltering attempts to figure out how to exit the E.U. have plunged the country into political chaos and doomed May’s career.)
Johnson, a top contender to replace May in the Tory leadership contest beginning Friday, may have a cheerleader in Trump, but that wasn’t always the case. On Sunday night, anti-Brexit activists projected onto Big Ben footage of Johnson in 2015, when he was mayor of London, decrying Trump’s “stupefying ignorance” and deeming him “unfit” for the Oval Office. Even now, few Conservatives want to be seen too close to an American president who is historically unpopular among Britons.
Then there’s the current mayor of London. Trump had barely reached the tarmac at London Stansted Airport when he lobbed angry tweets at Sadiq Khan, the city’s mayor. Trump branded Khan a “stone cold loser” after Khan wrote an op-ed citing Trump as “one of the most egregious examples of a growing global threat” of far-right nationalists in power.
“They are picking on minority groups and the marginalized to manufacture an enemy — and encouraging others to do the same,” Khan wrote about Trump and his ultranationalist counterparts in Europe. “And they are constructing lies to stoke up fear and to attack the fundamental pillars of a healthy democracy — equality under the law, the freedom of the press and an independent justice system.”
True to form, Trump also issued tweets from Britain attacking U.S. media for coverage he did not like and complaining about his inability to watch right-wing Fox News. His conspicuous antipathy toward Khan, a liberal politician of Pakistani origin, has been on display for more than three years.
“In truth, this is all of a piece for Trump,” BBC diplomatic correspondent James Landale wrote. “He gets the pictures and the pageantry that he wants and will look good in his re-election campaign next year, and he gets to pick a fight with a liberal, Muslim politician that will play well with his base.”
For good measure, a number of prominent British politicians skipped Monday’s state banquet, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Vince Cable of the Liberal Democrats.
Trump’s “attitudes to women and to race are abhorrent. And his crude protectionism has placed the world on the brink of trade war between the US and China, with an exposed Brexit Britain stuck in the crossfire,” Cable wrote in the Financial Times. “No amount of pomp, circumstance and royal regalia can disguise the fact that Trump poses a real risk to the world, and to Britain.”
That Trump is a possible menace, not just a nuisance, is a leading line of commentary. “It is hard to imagine anything, including a Trump visit, making British politics worse than they are now,” Amanda Sloat, a former State Department official who specializes in Europe at the Brookings Institution, told my colleagues. “He sees the European Union as an economic foe, welcomes Britain’s decision to leave the E.U. and has taken a predatory approach to bilateral trade talks.”
Suggestions that a putative trade deal could see U.S. business interests reshape or fundamentally alter Britain’s publicly funded National Health Service outraged opposition politicians on the eve of Trump’s arrival. Analysts pointed to the leverage Trump would have if Britain came to the United States cap in hand after losing the collective bargaining power that comes with being part of the continental club in Brussels.
“The U.K.’s rupture from Europe holds many attractions from a Trumpian worldview,” observed Bloomberg columnist Therese Raphael. “First, it means luring the U.K. away from the EU system of trade rules and regulations and toward the U.S. one. Second, the absence of Britain will weaken the EU’s geopolitical heft . . . The bonus: It leaves the Brits more dependent on America’s friendship and goodwill than ever before.”
Though Brexiteers see their quest as one of reclaiming “sovereignty” from Europe, noted Guardian columnist Zoe Williams, “allied to Trump, we’d be more of a satrapy than a nation state.”
She added that, even among hardcore supporters of Brexit, “there will be a number whose sense of national pride is challenged by such effrontery, not to mention their sense of fair play. Say what you like about the EU and its shackles, they never would have told us who our prime minister should be.”
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