Trump Wades Into U.K. Politics as May Highlights Rifts With U.S.
A protester wearing an anti-Trump placard as he walks down The Mall in London, U.K. (Photographer: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

Trump Wades Into U.K. Politics as May Highlights Rifts With U.S.

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump sent off Theresa May on Tuesday by both applauding and needling a prime minister with whom his relationship was never special -- and May showed her successor, whoever that is, how unpredictable the American president can be.

May opened a news conference following what could be her last meeting with Trump by outlining the many substantial rifts that have opened between their countries since he took office. Washington and London, she said, are now at odds -- to varying degrees -- over Iran, climate change and China.

Trump helpfully added another -- suggesting that the U.K.’s cherished National Health Service be included in future trade talks with the U.S. There was immediate backlash from British lawmakers, and Trump later told ITV’s “Good Morning Britain” that the NHS wouldn’t be on the table.

The relationship between the two leaders remains as fraught as when it began. May will soon step down after Parliament rejected her latest proposal for a Brexit deal. Trump is still around for at least another year and a half, and showed once again on his trip -- ostensibly to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings -- that he feels free to intervene in the domestic politics of America’s closest ally.

Johnson, Hunt

Trump began the trip as a provocateur. Before departing Washington, he said that former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and hard-line Brexiteer Nigel Farage had asked for meetings -- complimenting both men but demurring on whether he’d see them.

Johnson, who quit May’s cabinet in protest over her Brexit deal, is the favorite to replace her. Farage’s fledgling Brexit Party meanwhile dealt May’s Conservatives an embarrassing defeat in elections for the European Parliament last month.

Alongside May on Tuesday, Trump praised the leadership potential of both Johnson and the current foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt. The president said he rejected a meeting with Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, calling him “somewhat of a negative force.”

Trump Wades Into U.K. Politics as May Highlights Rifts With U.S.

Corbyn spoke at an anti-Trump rally before the president’s news conference with May. Trump later met with Farage at the U.S. ambassador’s official residence.

Doing Business

Ted Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, said Trump’s visit highlighted the division between the countries on the Iran nuclear agreement of 2015 but he graded the Trump-May relationship as a B- overall.

“He was noticeably conciliatory to the prime minister,” on Tuesday, Bromund said. “I think the U.S. and U.K. managed to do a decent amount of business with each other over the last two years, despite the differences in personality and style.”

Derek Chollet, executive vice president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a former assistant defense secretary under President Barack Obama, said there were “still fundamental policy differences” and that nothing significant was accomplished during the trip. “Regretfully, I have to conclude things will get worse before it gets better,” he said.

May laid out her disagreements with Trump in plain sight, while striking a cordial tone. She insisted that differences with the U.S. are normal and will remain so with the next prime minister.

She said that, in private, she and Trump had discussed the U.K.’s support for the both the Iran deal and the Paris climate accord. Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from both international agreements. May nonetheless reached for a bit of common ground.

“It is clear we both want to reach the same goal” in Iran, she said. “It is important that Iran meets its obligations and we do everything to avoid escalation, which is in no one’s interest.”

The U.S. has warned Europe that continued trade with Iran could trigger American sanctions. Germany, France and the U.K. created Instex, Europe’s Iran workaround, in January to allow companies to trade with Iran without the use of U.S. dollars or American banks.

The meeting also illustrated that the U.K. and U.S. still have to resolve Trump’s request that the U.K. ban Huawei Technologies Co., a Chinese company, from 5G networks, Bromund said. The U.S. has raised national security concerns.

“There’s probably daylight between the United States and the United Kingdom on this,” Bromund said. Trump downplayed any division and said he was confident the U.S. and U.K. would “have absolutely an agreement on Huawei and everything else.”

Trump called May “a tremendous professional and a person who loves her country dearly,” saying he believes Brexit would happen and crediting the prime minister. She has “brought it to a very good point where something will take place in the not-too-distant future,” he said.

Trade Talks

Trump repeatedly dangled the prospect of a U.S. trade deal with the U.K. during his trip, clearly regarding the accord as an incentive for London to part ways with Brussels. Trump also casually tossed another wrinkle into the Brexit debate by suggesting that the National Health Service, the country’s government-run health program, could be opened to U.S. companies in future trade talks.

“When you’re dealing in trade, everything is on the table,” he said. “So NHS or anything else, or a lot more than that, everything will be on the table.”

May responded diplomatically, saying negotiations would produce a deal. Corbyn condemned the comment, saying he’d “fight with every last breath of our body” to defend the health service.

Trump quickly reversed course on the NHS, telling ITV in a clip broadcast late Tuesday that the NHS is “something that I would not consider part of trade.”

But in that ITV interview, Trump said: "I don’t see it being on the table. Somebody asked me a question today and I said everything is up for negotiation because everything is. But I don’t see that being -- that’s something that I would not consider part of trade."

Trump’s visit to the U.K., though brief, could resonate politically as Conservatives choose a new leader and the country prepares for another potential general election.

“The aftershocks of these visits tend to be pretty profound, so I think we’ll watch closely as the leadership race plays out,” Chollet said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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