After two-and-a-half years of unsteady dealings and the occasional insult, President Donald Trump offered a deeply gracious send-off for Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday, their final interaction before May steps aside amid a paralyzing debate over Brexit.
It was an uncharacteristically courteous display from a President who a day earlier was insulting London’s mayor from his plane and griping about negative coverage of his state visit here.
Twenty-four hours later, Trump appeared charmed by the overt displays of flattery on offer by Britain’s royal family and members of the government, deeming Queen Elizabeth II a “fantastic person” and hailing the long-established special transatlantic relationship.
Trump weighs in
While he professed to be wary of taking opinions on Britain’s internal matters, Trump predicted Brexit would and should happen – and said May had “brought it to a very good point where something will take place in the not too distant future.”
“I think she’s done a very good job,” Trump said, reversing past critiques of her failure to strike a deal that both Parliament and the EU can accept.
“This is a great, great country and it wants its own identity,” Trump said. “It wants to have its own borders. It wants to run its own affairs. This is a very, very special place and I think it deserves a special place.”
Still, for all his praise of May, Trump did not hide his enthusiasm for some of the men who may replace her, even those who have been sharply critical of May’s handling of Brexit.
He said Boris Johnson, the former London mayor who resigned in protest from May’s cabinet, “would do a very good job” as prime minister. Earlier in the day, Trump phoned Johnson and offered a one-to-one meeting, according to a British official. Johnson thanked the President for the invitation, but declined the meeting to focus on a political event that was happening at the same time, the official said.
Trump also offered praise for foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, another contender to replace May. And though he claimed not to know Michael Gove, the environment minister and a third possible candidate, he was assured that he, too, would suffice as prime minister.
Less favorable was Trump’s view of two left-leaning British politicians. Asked about Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, Trump at first seemed to misunderstand, launching into an attack on London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who Trump deemed “a negative force, not a positive force.”
Asked again to respond to Corbyn, who spoke at a demonstration earlier in the day, Trump said he declined a meeting request from the opposition leader.
“He wanted to meet today or tomorrow,” Trump said. “I decided I would not do that.”
The various opinions on Britain’s political life were offered at a difficult moment. May is stepping down as head of her party at the end of the week, entering a lame duck period as the conservatives select a new leader. In some ways, her talks with Trump were purely symbolic since she’ll soon hand over her myriad troubles, principally the Brexit matter, to a successor.
But White House and British officials maintained the talks would be substantive, given the general continuity in UK foreign policy between prime ministers and the long list of shared concerns between the two countries.
That includes Iran, which the UK still hopes will adhere to the Obama-era nuclear deal that Trump scrapped, and the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, which the US is working to prevent from establishing 5G networks in Europe and elsewhere.
Trump said during the news conference the two countries would likely strike an agreement on the Huawei issue, and downplayed prospects the US would curb intelligence sharing with Britain as a result.
“We’ll be able to work out differences,” Trump said. “We have an incredible intelligence relationship.”
Trump and May started the day jointly hosting a breakfast of business chiefs at the Tudor-era St. James’s Palace, joined by the President’s daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump and a dozen or so executives from American and British firms.
At the start of the session, Trump said it had been an “honor” working with his British counterpart and joked she should delay her departure as prime minister until a new trade deal is struck.
“It’s an honor to have worked with you,” Trump told May. “Stick around. Let’s do this deal.”
The US President later toured the underground warren of rooms from which Winston Churchill ran his war efforts, a paean to a British leader Trump has long revered and hoped to emulate, at least in photographs.
Instead of taking his armored motorcade from point to point in London this week, Trump has relied on his Marine One helicopter – even for short distances – avoiding protests on the city’s streets. That included the inflation of a giant balloon depicting Trump as a baby wearing a diaper.
Perhaps because he was traveling over London in the air, Trump claimed on Tuesday to have not witnessed many protests – and questioned whether they were a fabrication by the media.
“I don’t see any protests. I did see a protest today when I came, very small,” he said. “A lot of it is fake news.”