Britain and America, it has been said, are two countries divided by a common language. Ahead of Prime Minister Theresa May’s presser with President Donald Trump on Friday — the first for Trump with a foreign head of government — that capacity for near-miss communication was fully on display.
Right from the start, in fact — the traveling British press corps was temporarily denied access after some confusion over credentials and the use of the dd-mm-yy birthdate format (something used not just in Britain, but much of the world).
For May, the most critical audience was always going to be the British public, with whom Trump is wildly unpopular. She needs to watch her back: Britain, like America, is enduring choppy political waters. May was elected by the Conservative Party to replace David Cameron as prime minister in July 2016, which has left some questioning her mandate from the British people as a whole.
Generally viewed as a steady pair of hands to manage the shock Brexit result that ended Cameron’s political career, she has occasionally stumbled in the face of the mammoth task. What protects her — so far — is the hopeless performance of the hard-left opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has proved unable to unify the Labour Party.
Britain’s social conscience has been outraged by Trump’s campaign rhetoric over the use of torture. It’s not just campaigners who are worried — Britain’s spooks are concerned that American use of torture may actually reduce the amount of US intelligence they can use. After all, the European Court of Human Rights — an entity separate from the European Union, to which Britain at present remains a signatory — limits the extent to which security officers can act on intelligence they believe to have been obtained by an allied nation through the use of torture.
The British government’s interrogation policy, published following a lawsuit by activists, bans spies from involvement in situations where they know or believe that torture will occur. It does allow officers to interact with detainees where they reasonably believe a British presence will “mitigate the risk of mistreatment” during interrogation, by obtaining “reliable caveats or assurances” from their foreign partners.
Yet with President Trump openly calling for the use of waterboarding on the campaign trail, it may be harder for British spies to claim such Pollyannaish deniability about the activities of their American colleagues, especially if they end up in a European court.
May was under pressure to confront Trump over torture before she left London. So it was no surprise that a BBC journalist used the first British question in the Trump-May press conference to address British concern over Trump’s “alarming beliefs,” citing his praise for torture at the top of a four-part list.
But that is not the only pressure point for the British Prime Minister in Washington. Throughout the recent EU referendum, critics of the European Union promised British voters they could hope for a better trade deal by looking to America as a major partner.
Then-President Barack Obama caused some resentment here by declaring Britain would be at “the back of the queue” for deals should it leave the EU, and some saw Trump’s seeming love affair with all things Brexit as a potential opening. So there was consternation in Britain following Trump’s inaugural address, which seemed to herald a new era of trade tariffs and protectionism. (“Two simple rules: buy American and hire American.”)
Thus May faced domestic pressure to deliver on two things: An American promise to refrain from torture — however loosely defined — and the promise of a major US-UK trade deal exempted from Trump’s protectionist rhetoric.
She made some headway, at least judging from some careful parsing of President Trump’s noncommittal language. Trump promised to demur to Defense Secretary James Mattis, a waterboarding skeptic, on the matter of torture, while both leaders spoke of a beginning trade negotiations as soon as possible.
More importantly, May avoided any major dramas while sharing a podium with the mercurial new President. (Awkward images of Trump taking her hand during a walk through the White House colonnades hit front pages, but will probably only be classed as a lucky escape).
Still, some in Britain will not forgive May for her haste to meet the new President. And it’s true that her appearance beside Donald Trump, in the White House Palm Room, did seem to help “normalize” him as a legitimate international leader. Trump’s critics will even be disappointed that the political insurgent avoided any of his characteristic outbursts, which may reassure other world leaders concerned about sharing a podium in future.
The President’s decision, hours after she left the White House, to curb the entry of Muslims to the US — including Muslim refugees from Syria — will immediately tarnish May’s claims to have lured him into the diplomatic mainstream, at least with liberal British audiences. But May was also unafraid to school Trump in front of GOP leaders Thursday night, invoking Ronald Reagan when warning him to be wary of Russia.
Reagan is a hard authority for a Republican president to ignore, especially when invoked by a female Tory Prime Minister. Liberal British commentators would have preferred May to reach out to Democrats — Britain’s friendship, she could have added, extends to all American citizens and not just those who voted for Trump. But with a populace back home genuinely fearful of Mr Trump’s trigger finger and short temper, flattering him was praised even by UK outlets as the best way to keep British citizens safer.
The only painful moment for May came during her first appearance at the White House. In an icy photo call, both leaders were photographed by a bust of Winston Churchill, which the President is said to have moved back to the Oval Office at the request of Mrs May’s UKIP opponent, Nigel Farage.
Farage is a largely discredited figure in Britain — exiled from the official Brexit campaign, which was run by more mainstream figures. But he has made much of his friendship with the new US President. The alleged disrespect shown by President Obama to Churchill has been one of his favorite ways to rally wounded British pride among nationalists. (In reality, Obama’s “snub” has been shown to be largely a misunderstanding).
Of course, few Americans will fully appreciate the indignity for May of being trapped in a photo shoot that highlights a Farage diplomatic victory. But she is unlikely anyway to worry too much. Obama may not have been Britain’s favorite president, but his approval ratings far outstrip those of Trump.
So, while Farage may have won the early race to be President Trump’s best British buddy, May knows full well that the British public expect her to be a wary partner, not a pandering friend.