May Heads to Washington as Mexico Shows Trump Ties Can Sour Fast

  • U.K. premier’s visit overshadowed by Mexico-U.S. trade spat
  • May seeking to capitalize on U.S.-U.K. ‘special relationship’

Trade Relations High Priority at Trump-May Meeting

As Theresa May arrives at the White House on Friday, the fury that Donald Trump unleashed on Mexico is a reminder that relations can sour quickly with a leader who is rewriting the trade rulebook.

The British prime minister is planning to pitch a free-trade deal to the new U.S. leader just as the reality of a new era of protection for American workers sinks in. The first victim is President Enrique Pena Nieto, who Trump threatened with a 20 percent tax on all Mexican imports in a escalating row that saw relations between the neighboring countries sink to a low point virtually overnight.

Theresa May on Jan. 26.

Photographer: Dominick Reuter/AFP via Getty Images

May visits Trump as he begins to implement his vision for a more assertive U.S. approach to trading relationships. On his first day in office, he announced the U.S. will pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and has got to work on rewriting a 25-year-old agreement with Canada and Mexico.

Even so, May is going all-out for the closest possible relationship, arguing this is how Britain’s interests are best served. The prime minister said she believed she could work with the president to forge a new commercial relationship despite his protectionist rhetoric.

Opposites Attract?

Asked on the plane over to the U.S. how a pastor’s daughter with a reputation for caution would deal with a president regarded as brash and impulsive, May smiled. “Haven’t you ever noticed?” she said. “Sometimes opposites attract?”

While Trump has talked of recreating the close relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher -- the initiative risks causing unease back in Britain. Tens of thousands of Britons joined the worldwide protests the day after Trump’s inauguration, attacking his statements about women.

May will become the first foreign leader to meet Trump at the White House since he took office and ripped up the rule book, from trade policy to his use of Twitter. The two leaders will meet at 1 p.m. Eastern Standard Time and then offer a joint press conference later.

The premier is trying to portray Britain as open and ready to do business with the world, even as she prepares to officially trigger two years of talks about leaving the European Union. The relationship with the world’s biggest economy is an important plank in Britain’s post-Brexit future.

Brexit Limits

While May is seeking agreement from Trump to begin work on a trade deal, it can’t be formalized until Britain has completed its withdrawal from the EU.

“There will be a limit to how far we can go in terms of a formal free trade agreement,” May said. “I think there is much that we can do in the interim in terms of looking at how we can remove some of the barriers to trade in a number of areas.”

Pena Nieto’s dealings with Trump took a turn for the worse when the president doubled down on campaign pledges to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement and charge his southern neighbor to build a border wall. The Trump administration wasted no time in retaliating.

After decades of greater economic cooperation boosted activity on both sides of the border, Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said Thursday was the worst day for U.S.-Mexican relations in living memory.

Fellow Conservative

May’s own speech in Philadelphia, two hours after Trump’s, showed the difficult course she is trying to navigate, flattering the president while rejecting many of his stated positions.

May opened by praising Trump for delivering “a new era of American renewal.” She was, she told her audience, “a fellow Conservative who believes in the same principles that underpin the agenda of your Party.”

But where Trump had told his audience that “the world has taken advantage of us for many years” and assured them that this was “not going to happen any more,” May told them that it was in the U.S.’s interests to continue to take a leadership role.

It remains to be seen whether May and Trump will hit it off or if she incurs his wrath with even a hint of criticism. She told Republicans to “beware” of Russia under Vladimir Putin, who Trump has openly praised. A day after meeting May, Trump and Putin will exchange views in a phone call on Saturday.

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