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Acrimony in the UK: Trump Visits

Decca Muldowney Jul 14

President Donald Trump’s welcome to the United Kingdom was far from friendly. He was met with mass protests, a giant inflatable baby and a U.S.-U.K. relationship threatened by chaotic Brexit negotiations.

Trump’s visit came at a bad moment for his ally Prime Minister Theresa May, who last week faced the resignations of her top Brexit officials. As the March 2019 Brexit deadline draws ever closer, the ruling Conservative Party are struggling to produce a plan for Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Shortly before Trump’s visit, May presented a document detailing her plans for a “soft” Brexit, which would keep close ties with the EU and maintain a degree of freedom of movement for EU citizens. This enraged the right-wing of the Conservative Party who favor a “hard” Brexit with strong borders and an exit from the customs union and single market.

Three days later Brexit Secretary David Davis resigned in protest, followed by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who said the deal would give Britain “the status of colony.”

Arriving in the United Kingdom on July 12, President Trump further inflamed the situation in an interview with the right-leaning, Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid, the Sun. He criticized the idea of a “soft” Brexit.

“I told May how to do Brexit but she didn’t listen to me,” Trump said, suggesting that the U.S.-U.K. “special relationship” would be damaged by a “soft” Brexit. “If they do a deal like that, we would be dealing with the European Union instead of dealing with the U.K., so it will probably kill the deal.”

He went on to praise May’s rival, Boris Johnson, saying he would “make a great Prime Minister.”

Trump’s vocal support for a “hard” Brexit contradicts the prevailing mood in Britain. Two years out from the EU referendum, most British people are pessimistic about Brexit’s future. Last month’s YouGov poll showed that 67 percent of British people think May’s government is handling Brexit negotiations badly and a slight majority, 45 percent, think leaving the EU was a bad idea in the first place.

Following Trump’s interview, he travelled to Chequers, the Prime Minister’s official country residence,  for a press conference alongside Theresa May. Trump and May once again held hands as they approached the podium.

Asked about U.K.-U.S. relations, Trump said they were “the highest level of special.” He then backpedalled on his early comments to the Sun. “I didn’t criticize the Prime Minister,” he told reporters. “I said to Theresa May I wanted to apologize, but she said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s only the press.’”

Asked whether he had given Theresa May advice on how to negotiate Brexit, Trump said, “I did give her a suggestion — I wouldn’t say advice — and I think she found it maybe too brutal.”

May responded by saying, “Lots of people give advice on how to negotiate with the European Union. My job is actually getting out there and doing it.”

President Trump also weighed in on the topic of immigration, saying it was “changing the culture” and was a “very negative thing for Europe.”

“We have a proud history of welcoming people to our country to contribute to our economy and contribute to our society,” May responded. “Over the years, overall immigration has been good for the UK.”

Meanwhile, crowds thronged the streets of London protesting Trump’s visit, accompanied by a 19-foot inflatable “Trump Baby” balloon.

Organizers said 100,000 people attended the march. Several handmade placards exhibited a wry British humor. “Trump Wears Poorly Tailored Suits,” read one. “Overcomb Brexit,” read another.

Jeremy Corbyn, the socialist leader of the opposition Labour Party, addressed demonstrators at a rally in Trafalgar Square. Corbyn, who opposed Trump’s state visit, told the crowd, “We are united in our hope for a world of justice not division.”

After a meeting with the Queen, President Trump headed off to spend the weekend at his golf course, Trump Turnberry, in Scotland. Next week he will sit down with Vladimir Putin for talks in Helsinki.

Trump’s meeting with the Russian president comes in the wake of special counsel Robert Mueller’s  July 13 indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

He leaves behind an undermined Theresa May, who still has to contend with criticism from within her own party and from Corbyn’s opposition on Brexit.

Recent polls show May’s popularity has fallen to an all-time low and Corbyn’s Labour Party have a two point lead.

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Photo (top): President Trump admires the pump and circumstance during his visit to the United Kingdom this week. Credit: Andrea Hanks/White House.