Trump Greets U.K.'s May as World Leaders Look For Cues

  • Prime minister will be first international leader to visit
  • She’ll try to lay groundwork for a U.S.-U.K. trade agreement

Do Trump and May Have Mutual Interests on Trade?

Theresa May will provide the first test for how world leaders can deal with Donald Trump when she arrives in the U.S. to welcome the new president to the global stage and lay the groundwork for a U.S.-U.K. trade deal.

“As we rediscover our confidence together –- as you renew your nation just as we renew ours –- we have the opportunity, indeed the responsibility, to renew the special relationship for this new age,” the U.K. prime minister will tell Republican lawmakers gathered in Philadelphia on Thursday, according to excerpts from her prepared remarks. “We have the opportunity to lead, together, again.”

The good news for May, who’s due to meet Trump at the White House on Friday, is that he’s eager to cement relations and nail down a U.K. trade deal too -- for his own reasons. He’d like to further drive a wedge into a fractured Europe and strengthen at least one trade relationship as he exits the Trans-Pacific Partnership and prepares to renegotiate Nafta.

A close relationship between the U.S. and U.K. would prove that neither nation is turning inward -- Trump after an election victory fueled by his “America First” campaign, and May as she takes Britain out of the European Union after last year’s Brexit referendum.

So May is opting to brush aside the worldwide protests that followed Trump’s inauguration and worked hard to secure Trump’s first meeting in office with a foreign leader.

‘America First’

For Trump, who will also speak Thursday to the Republican lawmakers in Philadelphia, it’s a chance to show that world leaders are eager to meet with him despite the protectionist and unilateralist themes of his inauguration address. He pledged then that “every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”

But while May will offer reassuring words in her speech to the gathering of lawmakers, she will implicitly reject the idea of a U.S. withdrawal from international entanglements.

“The leadership provided by our two countries through the special relationship has done more than win wars and overcome adversity,” she’s planning to say. “It made the modern world. The institutions upon which that world relies were so often conceived or inspired by our two nations working together.”

Ready more about May’s Brexit vision -- a QuickTake Q&A

The new president’s attitude toward some of those institutions -- in particular his criticisms of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as “obsolete” -- has alarmed European leaders. As prime minister of the country that makes the second-largest contribution to NATO after the U.S., May can make the argument that America benefits from its involvement.

Success for May’s visit would be a clear commitment from Trump to a bilateral trade deal -- even though the actual deal will be much harder to nail down and wouldn’t take effect until the U.K. completes its extrication from the EU some years from now. But it’s important politically that she isn’t seen as compromising British interests.

“They want completely different sorts of bilateral trade deals,” Colin Talbot, professor of government at Manchester University, said in a phone interview. “There’s a danger Britain gets stuffed. A quick trade deal is generally a bad trade deal.”

May was clear on Wednesday that she won’t follow Trump wherever he goes. “I am not afraid to speak frankly to a president,” she told Parliament. An aide spoke of aiming for a grown-up relationship.

No Basketball Game

For May, who lacks the relaxed bonhomie of her predecessor David Cameron, talks in the Oval Office could be more comfortable than chatting over hot dogs at a basketball game, as Cameron did with President Barack Obama in 2012.

“May will forge a close relationship, as close as she can, to President Trump and her staff to key members of his staff,” Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told reporters in Washington on Wednesday. “But I believe she will also be quite clear where there are differences. I think she’ll handle them privately to the greatest extent possible, but if required will do so publicly and will not be afraid to do that.”


Domestic Politics

Trump presents a particular diplomatic difficulty for May because he has few fans even among her fellow British Conservatives.

Eight years ago, then-prime minister Gordon Brown opened his weekly questions session in Parliament with effusive congratulations to the newly inaugurated Barack Obama. On Wednesday, May’s response to the inauguration was more restrained: “Later this week, I will travel to the United States for talks with President Trump.”

The questions that followed were even colder. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn asked May to “congratulate the 100,000 people who marched in Britain last weekend to highlight women’s rights after President Trump’s inauguration, and to express their concerns about his misogyny.” Others asked her to promise that Britain’s food safety standards wouldn’t be lowered in order to get a trade deal, and that Britain wouldn’t be involved in torture.

With Trump’s foreign policy team still taking shape, the diplomatic fine touches of his first official presidential meeting with a world leader might prove a challenge. Eight years ago, Brown brought Obama a penholder carved from the planks of a battleship that had sailed alongside HMS Resolute, whose timbers were used to make the president’s desk. Obama gave Brown a box set of 25 DVDs, which Brown later discovered wouldn’t play on his British equipment.

May’s gift to Trump this time is a hamper of produce from her official country residence, Chequers, and an engraved Quaich, a traditional Scottish cup for drinking whiskey, which symbolizes friendship. While Trump has Scottish ancestry, he’s a teetotaler.

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