Trump Touts Churchill, May Prods on NATO in White House Meeting

  • President accepts Queen’s invitation for a U.K. state visit
  • May said she won assurances Trump is ‘100 percent’ behind NATO

Trump and May Discuss Commitment to NATO

Within minutes of meeting Theresa May, Donald Trump was paying homage to a second British prime minister also present in the Oval Office: “It’s a great honor to have Winston Churchill back.”

Installed in the president’s office by George W. Bush and then removed by Barack Obama, the bronze bust of Churchill was returned by Trump to a place of prominence in the White House: under a portrait of George Washington. In front of the Conservative hero, May and Trump shook hands, she in Republican red to match his signature red tie.

Theresa May and Donald Trump in the Oval Office on Jan. 27.

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

This opening act was geared at building the impression the two leaders will forge a relationship every bit as special as that enjoyed by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the geopolitical power couple of the 1980’s, even as the two stood slightly awkwardly on either side of Churchill, exchanging pleasantries. But as they walked through a White House colonnade on their way to face the press, Trump briefly took May’s hand to guide her.

Trump was an attentive host and during the 18-minute news conference that followed, more subdued than in his last interaction with the press. At one point a BBC reporter, selected by May, asked Trump whether he understood why many Britons found his views alarming. Trump merely turned to May and offered a joke. 

“This was your choice of a question?” he said, leaning into the microphone. “There goes that relationship.”

Queen’s Invitation

May’s goal is to move Trump to engage with the world by showering him with respect, and that she did: paying tribute to his “stunning election victory” and announcing he would be coming on a state visit to London later this year on a personal invitation from Queen Elizabeth II.

She even coaxed a diplomatic concession. May reminded the president that “you confirmed you are 100 percent behind NATO,” the military alliance forged in 1949 as the cornerstone of the West’s defense but questioned during the campaign and afterward by Trump. She looked over to him. He nodded. That was good enough for her, and could be enough of a reassurance to European countries worried about their security.

May, in turn, tactfully dodged loaded questions about Trump’s spat with Mexico.

When a U.S. journalist turned to her and asked if she was concerned about relations between the U.S. and Mexico, she coolly replied: “As the President himself has said, the relationship of the United States with Mexico is a matter for the United States and Mexico.” What Trump actually said was that May surely had bigger things to worry about.

‘Wonderful’ Brexit

The worries piling on her plate include the negotiation and delivery of Brexit, an increasingly aggressive Russia on the borders of Europe and the Syrian refugee crisis. On Brexit, Trump was effusive and reminisced about being in Scotland when the vote happened.

“I think Brexit’s going to be a wonderful thing for your country,” he said. “I think when it irons out, you’re gonna have your own identity and you’re going to have the people that you want in your country and you’re going to be able to make free trade deals without having somebody watching you and what you’re doing.”

Trade was foremost on May’s mind. In her opening comments to reporters, she said that high-level talks would start immediately to pave the way for a trade agreement with the U.S. once the U.K. has left the European Union, a process that may take years. May’s next stop is Turkey, where she’ll meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A day before meeting Trump, May had playfully suggested that “opposites attract” when asked about her differences with Trump. The question came up again about whether she had managed to find common ground with this “brash” new president.

This time, Trump jumped in.

"I’m not as brash as you might think,” he insisted. “I’m a people person," he said, and turned to May. “I think you are also.”

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