A day after a dramatic back and forth with NATO allies over defense spending in Brussels, US President Donald J. Trump’s visit to the United Kingdom has once again provided wild swings from apparent discord between the president and his allies, to firm commitments of unity and claims of success.
On July 12, the British tabloid The Sun published an interview with Trump in which he criticized British Prime Minister Theresa May for her proposed negotiating strategy with the European Union, saying it “would probably kill,” a potential US-UK trade relationship after Brexit.
Trump was also quoted as saying former British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who resigned on July 9 over opposition to May’s Brexit proposals and is seen as a main political rival to May within the Conservative Party, would “make a great prime minister.”
Peter Westmacott, distinguished ambassadorial fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative and former UK ambassador to the United States, said in an interview with Bloomberg
News that Trump’s comments were “a kick in the teeth” to May, as they “point out the contradictions…which are unresolved within the [UK] government’s position on how to handle Brexit.”
Trump’s opposition to May’s new Brexit strategy, known as the Chequers agreement as it was agreed upon after hours of deliberations at the prime minister’s country residence, could destroy the fragile control the prime minister has over her party. The Conservative Party is heavily divided over the proper relationship the United Kingdom should have with the European Union (EU) after Brexit. A new UK-US free trade relationship is a major component of the Conservative Party’s post-Brexit strategy and was a primary selling point during the Brexit referendum campaign, as it was argued the windfall from this deal could cover any economic costs from leaving the EU’s single market.
At a press conference at Chequers on July 13, however, Trump and May attempted to portray a united front and pushed back on reports of disagreement. Trump specifically pushed back on The Sun’s article, labeling it as “fake news,” and saying that his team had a tape of the full interview that included unreported comments. The president said he had “read reports” on May’s Chequers agreement, that suggested future trade with the United States “would not be possible.” But he now believes “after speaking with the prime minister’s people, the representatives, and the trade experts, it will absolutely be possible.”
May defended her new negotiating strategy for leaving the EU, saying that it “provides the platform for Donald and me to agree to an ambitious [free trade] deal that works for both countries right away.”
Trump dismissed any suggestion that he personally criticized the British prime minister, insisting that The Sun had not reported on his praise of May. “I think she is doing a terrific job,” he said, adding that the Brexit deal is a “very complicated negotiation and not an easy negotiation, that is for sure.”
Trump said that May has the right “to make a decision as to what she is going to do” on Brexit and that “whatever [she does] is OK with me.” Pointing to trade specifically though, he added, “the only thing I ask of Theresa is that we make sure we can trade, that we don’t have any restrictions.”
Trump highlighted several trade “restrictions” the EU currently has on US products, especially agricultural products and cars. According to Bart Oosterveld, director of the Atlantic Council’s Global Business and Economics Program, a new UK-US trade relationship after Brexit could help both countries significantly, especially in agriculture, “if [the United Kingdom] stops complying with [European Union] product standards” that block many US goods from being sold in Europe.
The issue continues to be whether May’s negotiations with the EU will free the United Kingdom from these restrictions or not. Many Conservative Party critics have blasted May’s plan for including a comprehensive free trade deal with the EU, which they argue will retain many of the European product standards that Trump opposes. Despite these criticisms, May maintained on July 13 that “there will be no limit to the possibility of us doing trade deals around the rest of the world once we leave the European Union, on the basis of the agreement that was made at Chequers.”
Throughout the press conference, Trump attempted to distance himself from The Sun’s report and argued that his visit to the United Kingdom was a huge success. He referred to US-UK ties as the “highest level of special relationship,” and praised the United Kingdom for being meeting its full NATO commitment for contributions and defense spending, even before his push at the July 12 Brussels summit. Trump highlighted that his mother was born in Scotland, and that the United Kingdom “means something a little bit extra, maybe even a lot extra,” to him.
His visit has been met with large protests around the country, however, with more than sixty-four thousand demonstrators signed up to participate in a march in London on July 13. The center of London at at a standstill as loud, cheerful and peaceful demonstrators took to the streets, singing, shouting and cheering. “This is not against America, this is against Trump,” one protestor said on the BBC News.
“The President is very unpopular in Britain and has antagonized much of the political center in the United Kingdom,” said Andrew Marshall, Vice President for Communications at the Atlantic Council, from London. “Politically, his intervention over Brexit has been unhelpful for the Prime Minister. The visit as a whole has been a huge embarrassment for the government, and yet London needs a a strong relationship with Washington more than ever.”
The president has drawn significant ire from many in the country over his views on immigration and terrorism, after his public spat with London Mayor Sadiq Khan and his tweeting of an anti-Muslim video from the far-right Britain First. During his July 13 press conference, he doubled down on his anti-immigration stance, saying “Migration has been very bad for Europe. . . I think it is changing the culture. I think it is a very negative thing for Europe.”
Despite the considerable tension, Trump painted his visit to the United Kingdom as a success, and said he looked forward to his July 16 summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, naming Ukraine, Syria, the Middle East, and nuclear non-proliferation as the main items on his agenda. After the roller coaster of Trump’s visits to Brussels and then the United Kingdom, NATO allies will be closely watching the outcome of his discussions with Putin—the first summit between the two leaders.
David A. Wemer is assistant director, editorial, at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidAWemer.