White House

Another ally prepares to fete Trump, but ample disputes remain

Like in Japan, Trump’s UK visit comes amid trade and security disagreements

President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May hold a joint press conference at the White House in 2017. May announced last month she will step down, but before she does, she and Trump will meet again in London. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

For the second time in as many weeks, President Donald Trump is headed overseas, where he will be feted by a foreign government despite long-standing differences on combustible issues that could overshadow the pomp and circumstance.

Trump will land in the United Kingdom on Monday morning for an official state visit that will allow him to rub elbows with the British royal family. He will also meet one-on-one with outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May, who last week delivered a tearful announcement that she will step down on Friday.

Trump has said the two countries have “a bond like no other.” And the British government’s decision to host him for a state visit despite his unpopularity there shows how London — like other American allies — is eager to keep the “America first” president as close to its orbit as possible.

While 46 percent of Britons surveyed in a recent YouGov poll wanted Trump’s visit to go forward, almost as many — 40 percent — said it should be canceled. They were even more evenly split when it came to Trump’s meeting with Queen Elizabeth II on Monday, with 41 percent saying she should meet him and 42 percent saying she should not.

“The timing ... gives evidence to the fact that the special relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. is real and enduring,” a senior administration official told reporters late last week. “Even in the most difficult times, where you may have political upheaval and uncertainty, we need to stand together shoulder-to-shoulder. And that’s what we will be demonstrating in Portsmouth and during the meetings that we’ll have here in London.”

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Trump will attend a ceremony in Portsmouth on Wednesday to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Allied D-Day invasion of France. The Hampshire, England, town was a major launching point for that pivotal mission. 

His itinerary also includes a visit to Ireland on Wednesday, where he will meet with Leo Varadkar, the prime minister. He will wrap the trip in France on Thursday, where he will attend a larger D-Day ceremony in Normandy before a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron.

The appearance with the queen will be at an official state dinner.

“A state visit is very special. It is an honor that is given very selectively,” said Heather Conley, who was deputy assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs during the George W. Bush administration. “I think President Trump is perhaps looking most forward to his interactions with the royal family and, of course, the highlight of the state dinner. … Like his visit to Japan last week, this is going to be very focused on the ceremonial.”

But Trump will also meet with May on Tuesday, giving the two leaders time to discuss a number of prickly issues.

During that huddle, ongoing trade disputes and how to handle Iran will likely be front and center, foreign policy experts say.

The senior administration official said a potential U.S.-U.K. trade deal is “obviously going to be on the agenda,” but also sought to tamp down expectations.

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“Although they will obviously discuss these issues, we’ve already been thoroughly exploring them over the course of several months now,” the senior official said. “So I don’t think that this is going to be some major earth-shattering breakthrough on any of the issues that you described.”

Conley, now with the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted Trump has refused to waive or ease steel and aluminum tariffs on British — and French — goods as part of his broader import fee policy.

“If the president in six months were to impose auto tariffs, that would certainly impact the U.K. economy,” she said. “So this is, again, a very fraught conversation — on the one hand, wanting the benefits of a bilateral free-trade agreement, but [on the other] seeing where the United States is using all of its leverage with its special relationship to maximize its benefit.” 

Much of Trump’s private conversation with May will be setting the stage for when she passes the torch to a new prime minister, the senior official said.

But at the same time, “there’s a lot of bilateral disagreement,” Conley noted. “First and foremost is on Iran.”

“The U.K. has remained very faithful to its position with the other EU member states” that supported a nuclear deal that the United States, under Barack Obama, and other countries reached with Tehran, Conley said.

Trump withdrew from that agreement, and Democrats in Congress, including several running to challenge him in 2020, have criticized him for breaking with America’s oldest allies on crucial economic and security issues.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, one of those hopefuls, called Trump’s tensions with Iran over its small boats and short-range missiles a “self-inflicted problem.”

“First of all, [the Trump administration] got out of the Iran agreement, something that I would not have done, leaving this all to our allies to enforce and giving more leverage to China and to Russia, the last thing that we should be doing. It is no surprise, then, that we’re seeing volatility,” she recently told CNN. “Then you have the president saying he doesn’t want to go to war. However, perhaps he has created such a volatile situation that this kind of activity is happening right now.”

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