President Donald Trump is heading to the United Kingdom on Thursday for his first official visit. The trip will follow a two-day NATO meeting in Brussels, and will come at a time of total chaos for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.
On Tuesday, Trump told press in advance of his trip that he anticipates “turmoil.”
“So I have NATO, and I have the U.K., which is in somewhat turmoil [sic] and I have Putin. Frankly, Putin might be the easiest of them all. Who would think. Who would think,” Trump said, referring to his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week.
On Wednesday, at the NATO summit, Trump criticized Germany as being “captive” to Russia. He also slammed most members of the 29-state alliance for not spending enough (by his standards) on security, although the U.K. is among the few who spend more than 2 percent of their gross domestic product (the level other countries aspire to meet by 2014) on defense.
Given his rather harsh rhetoric on allies, including the U.K., the president could use Thursday’s trip to improve relations with the British government.
Rachel Shabi, a London-based journalist and political commentator, told ThinkProgress that polls indicate that May was wrong to invite Trump there to start with and that, “with the UK government in such chaos over Brexit, it’s unclear whom Trump might mend fences with — his visit is especially ill-timed.”
Just as May was hoping her Brexit plan (the roadmap to getting the United Kingdom out of the European Union, as per the wishes of voters) would unite her divided cabinet, things went to hell in a handbag.
First, her Brexit Secretary David Davis resigned late Sunday night. Then, the next day, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson stepped down. Both have been replaced (by Dominic Raab and Jeremy Hunt, respectively).
With 15 weeks left to reach an agreement with the European Union on Brexit’s terms, May is holding on to power for now. The U.K.- E.U. separation is to begin in March 2019 and be complete by the end of December 2020.
Trump, by the way, was a vocal supporter of the “leave” vote that triggered the Brexit process:
They will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 18, 2016
Indeed, his visit is considered to be “diplomatically embarrassing,” said Shabi, and might do more harm than good.
“[T]he opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn said the UK should cancel Trump’s visit, citing the mounting trade dispute as well as the deplorable treatment of child detainees as ‘ample reasons’ to cancel,” said Shabi, who answered questions via email.
“And that’s on top of the president’s boastful misogyny, his hateful racist remarks and refusal to condemn neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville last year and his constant undermining of democratic norms, not least an independent media. He is such an unpleasantly jarring clash with Britain’s self-professed liberal values and should never have been invited to meet the prime minister, much less the queen,” she said.
She added that even the U.S. embassy in the U.K. has warned Americans to “keep a love profile” during Trump’s visit. This is alarming, given that Americans are welcome in the United Kingdom, and, said Shabi, are “also welcome to join the UK protests against their awful president!”
But May faces threats, first, from the Labour Party, who are hinting at a referendum to overturn the Brexit referendum, and then from the possibility of a snap election, which could see her being replaced by a number of Conservative players (including Johnson, who has been eyeing the post for a while) or Labour leader Corbyn.
During his trip, Trump will certainly meet with May, who will likely discuss a number of things with him, including steel and aluminum tariffs (which have riled Canada as well as U.S. European allies), possibly the Iran nuclear deal (which the U.K. is trying to stick with and Trump is not), and the poisoning of multiple people on U.K. soil with a Russian nerve agent.
It is also likely that May will push for more bilateral trade with the United States as the United Kingdom starts to cut ties with the European Union. But Trump is in a trigger-happy mode when it comes to meting out tariffs and tearing up trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
When not pursuing an entirely isolationist agenda, the president does prefer bilateral deals to multilateral ones and his administration has indicated interest in such a deal with the U.K., but U.S. ambassador to the U.K. Woody Johnson said on Monday that the Brexit agreement leaves a bilateral agreement with the U.S. “up in the air” at the moment.
President Trump said he might also meet with Johnson, a man he calls “a friend” who has been “very, very nice” to him. He added that it’s “up to the people” if May stays in her job, which indicates that he’s in support of an election — an interesting statement to make just as he is poised to (perhaps) meet with Johnson.
This throwaway comment seems to undermine May’s position. And a meeting with Johnson only further supports that stance.
“Boris Johnson, even more so after his recent, Brexit-related resignation, is seen as a self-interested charlatan — so its small wonder he and Trump get on,” said Shabi.
“In a just world, Johnson would disappear from politics, but unfortunately he is quite likely to be plotting a return — though its unclear, from his current polling among his own Conservative party, that any leadership bid of his would succeed,” she added.