BIARRITZ, France — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday offered rare face-to-face criticism about the U.S. trade war with China to President Trump, but it was presented so gently that Trump may barely have registered it.
The two disrupters-in-chief met head-to-head for the first time since Johnson ascended to 10 Downing Street last month, over breakfast at the Group of Seven summit. Johnson’s assumption of power gives Trump a new spitball-throwing comrade at international meetings where the U.S. leader has often been isolated in his attempts to dismantle the multilateral global order.
But Johnson has had to walk a tightrope in his relationship with Trump, anxious to secure a strong trade partner in the middle of Brexit negotiations but wary of coming off as Trump’s lap dog. The U.S. leader is deeply unpopular in Britain. Johnson, who has a one-seat majority in the House of Commons, may soon face elections. Johnson has sometimes been called the “Britain’s Trump” — in a way that has not always been positive.
So Johnson treaded carefully on Sunday.
“Look, I just want to say I congratulate the president on everything that the American economy is achieving. It's fantastic to see that,” Johnson said. “But just to register the faint, sheeplike note of our view on the trade war, we’re in favor of trade peace on the whole, and dialing it down if we can.”
The “sheeplike” attitude may not play well in Britain. But the criticism probably will.
Even more extraordinarily, the jab from Johnson came shortly after Trump said he had gotten no pressure from allies to give up the trade war with China.
“I think they respect the trade war,” Trump said. “So, the answer is, nobody has told me that, and nobody would tell me that.”
Johnson said that “the U.K. has profited massively in the last 200 years from free trade.”
Trump pushed back, just a little bit.
“How about the last three years?” he said, a reference either to the three years since Britain voted to leave the European Union or to Trump’s 2016 election victory. “Don't talk about the last three. Two hundred, I agree with you.”
The body language was nothing but friendliness. The two leaders pointed at each other and grinned. They told jokes and cracked up their aides. Trump and Johnson are both nationalists and populists, offering a devil-may-care attitude toward some of the international institutions that have underpinned the global order since World War II.
But the friendliness masked a range of disagreements. Britain wants to preserve the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran; Trump pulled out of it. Britain is waffling about a broad ban on Huawei technology in its cellular networks; Washington is pushing one. Britain has also sought swifter movement to fight climate change; Trump questions the science.
Still, at their Sunday breakfast — hours after Trump clashed with other leaders abut his desire to bring Russia back to the annual summits — the U.S. leader had only friendly words for his British counterpart, at least in public.
“He's the right man for the job. I've been saying that for a long time. It didn’t make your predecessor very happy,” Trump said, referring to his frosty relationship with former British leader Theresa May.
Trump said the United States and Britain could sign a free trade deal as soon as Britain leaves the European Union.
“So, we're going to have some very good trade talks and big numbers,” Trump said. “Before, we were sort of stymied. Well, I was stymied by the other side.”
Britain faces an Oct. 31 deadline to leave the European Union. If it exits without a transition deal to ease the way, analysts warn of deep economic pain on both sides of the English Channel.