(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump risked provoking a diplomatic row with one of the U.S.’s closest allies, and embarrassing Prime Minister Theresa May ahead of a general election, as he amplified his mockery of London Mayor Sadiq Khan over a terrorist attack that killed seven people.
The president first went after Khan, one of Britain’s most prominent Muslims, on Sunday over the mayor’s statement that people had “no reason to be alarmed.” Khan had been referring to the increased presence of armed police on London’s streets in the wake of the attack. Trump lashed out again Monday.
“Pathetic excuse by London Mayor Sadiq Khan who had to think fast on his ‘no reason to be alarmed’ statement,” the president tweeted. Mainstream media -- or MSM -- “is working hard to sell it!”
Trump’s escalation, as the U.K.’s capital city returns to normal after the London Bridge attack, puts May in a difficult position in the closing stages of a tightening election race. She has already taken criticism for her decision to get as close as possible to the president, even holding his hand as the two of them walked through the White House in January.
Earlier on Monday, before the president’s latest outburst, May was pushed hard before saying he was “wrong” to attack Khan. After avoiding several attempts by reporters to get her to condemn the U.S. president, May was asked what it would take for her to criticize Trump.
Instead, she reiterated her disappointment over his decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. After some further heckling, she went further. “Sadiq Khan is doing a good job,” she told a news conference in central London. “It’s wrong to say anything else.”
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that “picking a fight with the mayor of London” was not the president’s intent, and that instead Trump was simply trying to argue that “we have to be more committed to national security.” Pressed on whether the comments could strain the relationship between the two countries in the aftermath of the terror attacks, Sanders said Trump was “extremely clear that we stand in complete solidarity” with London.
Sanders also denied that Trump had taken the mayor’s remarks out of context, without providing an alternate explanation for what the president meant. She dismissed suggestions Trump may be targeting Khan because of his Muslim heritage as “utterly ridiculous.”
Trump is due to make a state visit to London later this year as Britain tries to persuade him to sign a post-Brexit trade deal. That offer from May has already been the subject of protests. Following his comments about the London Bridge attack, Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrat party, said the invitation should be withdrawn.
Asked about the state visit in an interview with Channel 4 News, Khan replied, “I don’t think we should be rolling out the red carpet to the president of the USA in the circumstances where his policies go against everything we stand for.”
He said Britain’s relationship with the U.S. should be like a close friendship: “you stand with them in times of adversity and call them out when they’re wrong and there are many things about which Donald Trump is wrong.”
Khan brushed aside a question about the U.S. president’s criticism. “I haven’t got time to respond to tweets from Donald Trump.”
Last week Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn described the prime minister’s position as “subservience” to the president. In a speech on Monday, he asked: “Do we want a country that will say to Donald Trump, ‘You are wrong’?”
While British officials can point to a need to be diplomatic with the U.S., May has previously shown herself capable of attacking other leaders. She used a speech at the start of her election campaign to accuse European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker -- an important figure in the coming Brexit talks -- of trying to sabotage the vote.
As well as mocking Khan, Trump sought to turn the London attacks to domestic political advantage by renewing his call to ban travel from some Muslim-majority countries, and saying the attack by a truck and knives underscored the futility of tighter gun control laws.
May’s concession on Monday that she was “not afraid to say when President Trump gets things wrong” follows her openly complaining last month about U.S. security agencies leaking details of the Manchester Arena suicide bombing, which British police said hurt their investigation.
Shortly after Saturday’s attacks and before they were confirmed as terrorist events, Trump took to Twitter to say “we need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety.” He followed that about eight minutes later with a more conventional expression of concern: “Whatever the United States can do to help out in London and the U.K., we will be there - WE ARE WITH YOU. GOD BLESS!” His criticism of Khan came the next day.
In response to Trump’s latest tweet, a spokeswoman for Khan had this to say: “The Mayor is focused on dealing with Saturday’s horrific and cowardly attack.”