Inside Theresa May and Donald Trump’s not-so-special relationship… And what does it mean for the UK?
They meet, but there’s no spark. Theresa wants to discuss policy, Donald wants to chat about the golf. She’s ‘weak’, ‘a schoolmistress’. He ‘spirals off topic’. The Telegraph’s US editor Ben Riley-Smith speaks to aides and confidants on both sides of the Atlantic about how the prime minister can catch the president’s eye – and whether she should even bother
29 JUNE 2018 • 8:52PM
As a display of Western unity, it was nothing short of a disaster. World leaders had gathered in Canada for the G7 earlier this month with low expectations. Donald Trump’s raging trade war had driven a wedge between allies, as had his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
Even so, the conference could not have gone much worse. The US president began by proposing Russia rejoin the group, continued by rejecting demands to drop his trade tariffs and ended by refusing to sign the joint communiqué and insulting Justin Trudeau, the host country’s leader.
The gathering shone a harsh light on Trump’s unpredictable, unprecedented leadership. But for British eyes, it also illuminated something else – the apparent disconnect between the US and UK leaders.
For it was Prime Minister Theresa May who had spent the last three months building an international coalition against Russia after the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. It was May who failed to secure face-to-face talks with the US president in Canada. And it was May who was pointedly missing from the list of world leaders with whom Trump said he rated relations as 10 out of 10, naming Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau, but not the British prime minister.
On 13 July, May has a chance to turn things around. Finally, after visiting 17 countries and states as various as Vietnam and Vatican City, Trump is coming to Britain, probably.
What is the truth of the pair’s stuttering relationship? Is Trump and May’s failure to click actually harming Britain’s national interests? And if so, what does that mean for the post-Brexit trade deal that the US president has promised?
To get a deeper understanding of the Trump-May relationship, we talked to more than 20 people with direct experience of the leaders.
These government officials, friends, current and former colleagues and allies paint a complex picture of two different characters who have failed to develop a political friendship.
Early 2016While Trump is still on the campaign trail, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, senior aides to Theresa May, then Home Secretary, call the presidential hopeful a ‘chump’ and object to ‘reaching out’ to him.
They also shed light on how the so-called ‘special relationship’ has bent and buckled under pressure from this most unorthodox of American presidents.
Back in November 2016, the month of Trump’s unlikely victory, the chance of a partnership along the lines of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s was already looking slim. A year earlier May, then Home Secretary, had felt confident enough that Trump would not win power to call his immigration policies ‘divisive, unhelpful and wrong’.
Her closest aides went further. ‘American politics was depressing enough before Trump took off,’ bemoaned Nick Timothy on Twitter. Fiona Hill wrote simply, ‘Donald Trump is a chump.’ Come US election day, they were the prime minister’s joint chiefs of staff.
Trump, for his part, displayed little enthusiasm for sticking to the rules of diplomacy after winning the White House.
November 2016In the hours after his shock election win, President Donald Trump calls nine other world leaders before Theresa May. Trump then suggests Nigel Farage would make a ‘great’ US ambassador. A delighted Farage tweets a photo of him and the president-elect at Trump Tower.
May was not on a list of world leaders to get an early call. Then he publicly backed Nigel Farage, the ex-Ukip leader, to be Britain’s ambassador to Washington. Blindsided by the outsider’s sudden rise and facing fundamental policy differences, May’s team quickly settled on a new strategy – get beside the new president.
‘There was pretty much immediate recognition and advice to match from the Foreign Office that the best thing to do would be to get close,’ says Timothy, who left Number 10 last year. ‘The Anglo-American relationship is the most important factor in British foreign policy and you don’t want to jeopardise it.’
The hope was that by befriending him May could gain the trust necessary to influence Trump’s thinking – while creating the political space to criticise when necessary.
‘Don’t fall into the trap of thinking about Trump in the way you would think about any other politician’
December 2016Hill and Timothy make a ‘secret’ trip to the US in an attempt to ‘reach out’ to Trump and his team.
After meeting figures from both Trump’s election campaign and his business life, they came to one overriding conclusion – ditch the rule book. ‘Don’t fall into the trap of thinking about Trump in the way you would think about any other politician,’ Timothy recalls. ‘He hasn’t spent 50 years thinking about every global, geopolitical problem. He doesn’t have any especially strong ideology, which means he doesn’t really buy into any of the received wisdom or consensus views. There is clearly danger in that sometimes, but there is also opportunity as well.’
It did not take long for No 10 to put the plan into action. Just days after Trump’s inauguration, May was on a plane to America.
‘She’ll be my Maggie,’ Trump reportedly told aides before May’s visit. At the White House, he tells her that Brexit will be a ‘wonderful thing’ and accepts the offer of a state visit.
Becoming the first world leader hosted by Trump in the White House, the prime minister came bearing a gift – an invitation on behalf of the Queen for a state visit. Trump, who inherited his Scottish mother’s love of the Royal family, in turn offered his own symbolic gesture – the return of Sir Winston Churchill’s bust to the Oval Office.
Downing Street was thrilled by the trip. The coverage suggested the special relationship was back on – an unplanned hand-holding picture splashed across the front pages confirmed as much. Gone were the concerns about Britain being caught short.
May also proved she could win policy concessions. Trump had been critical of Nato on the campaign trail but, displaying a politician’s touch at a joint press conference, the prime minister bounced Trump into confirming he had committed ‘100 per cent’ to Nato in their talks. ‘People forget what a successful trip that was,’ said one UK source who accompanied May.
The feeling, it would seem, was not mutual.
Those in the White House then recall thinking there was ‘nothing impressive’ about the prime minister and that the leaders had failed to hit it off. ‘Everything to Trump is personal,’ explains Steve Bannon, the White House chief strategist at the time, who sat in on the meetings. ‘For him and May there was no click, there was no chemistry. May just does not have the charisma. That’s not her fault, you’ve either got it or you don’t.’
That first impression has altered little. The pair have met and talked dozens of times since then, without a spark. They talk with professional courtesy. There are no blazing rows. But the warmth seen between some of their predecessors is simply absent.
Trump has grown frustrated by the prime minister’s ‘schoolmistress’ manner. It is a view substantiated above all by an incident that occurred last November.
The US president, enjoying a familiar early morning social-media session, shared some videos on Twitter. ‘Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!’ read the strapline to one. ‘Muslim destroys a statue of Virgin Mary!’ declared another. A third showed a boy being hurled off a roof.
The president sent all the tweets by 7am. Come lunchtime, Trump was in a full-blown row with one of America’s closest allies.
‘Everything to Trump is personal’
For May, the sharing of three messages posted first by Jayda Fransen – deputy leader of the far-right group Britain First – could not go unanswered. First through a Downing Street spokesman and then in person with the cameras rolling, the prime minister made her stance clear: ‘Retweeting from Britain First was the wrong thing to do.’
But the US president hit back. ‘Theresa May don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom,’ he tweeted. ‘We are doing just fine!’
Behind the scenes it was worse. Trump, fuming at the public dressing down from May, let rip at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
‘He was very upset,’ recalls Chris Ruddy, a long-term friend of the president and CEO of Newsmax Media, who was present. ‘He thought she was overly critical and overly harsh… she was over the top.’
Inside Downing Street, thoughts of sending back their own barbed tweet were dismissed. But those by May’s side at the time never regretted going public. ‘It was beyond the pale,’ said one No 10 insider at the time. ‘There comes a point when you say, “I’m sorry, that’s unacceptable.”’ It would be almost a month before the pair spoke again.
May’s willingness to criticise the US president in public was not the only complaint from Trump. One senior US diplomat said the prime minister’s frequent demands had begun to cause friction.
The fallout from the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury was an example. As May scrambled to build support against the Kremlin, Trump pushed back. ‘Why are you asking me to do this?’ the US president said, according to The Washington Post, apparently reluctant to help an ally whom weeks earlier he had pledged to stand beside in the event of an attack. Trump eventually expelled 60 Russian diplomats, delivering the prime minister a tangible success – even if subsequently he reportedly complained that aides had misled him about the diplomatic responses of Germany and France in the crisis.
Other friends of Trump have claimed he regards May’s leadership, which has been fiercely tested by Brexit and the lack of a parliamentary majority, as weak.
‘He wishes Britain had a stronger leader,’ said one senior Trump campaign figure. Another made an unfavourable comparison to Macron, the French president, who has hit it off with Trump. ‘Macron knows how to get shit done and May just stumbles along,’ the Trump ally said. ‘That doesn’t give you confidence.’
But the frustrations cut both ways. For Britain, Trump’s shifting stance on the Skripal affair typifies the difficulty in dealing with him. First he stayed quiet on the poisoning. Then he questioned Russia’s culpability. Then he failed to mention the attack in a call to Russian president Vladimir Putin – while still finding time to congratulate him on his election victory.
‘He wishes Britain had a stronger leader’
Eventually, the US action – expulsions – was emphatic. But for days British officials were left guessing, not knowing if reassurances from the White House represented Trump’s views.
The zigzag decision-making has become a pattern. Steel tariffs were announced off-hand to reporters, European Union nations were exempted, then tariffs applied two months later.
His British ‘working visit’, announced for February 2018, was cancelled weeks later. And though Trump is currently due to be visiting next month, the state visit, offered in January 2017, is yet to be scheduled.
The unpredictability of America’s commander-in-chief has posed more mundane challenges for Whitehall, not least when the two leaders chat on the phone.
According to those who have listened in, May valiantly attempts to stick to the agreed agenda as Trump takes the conversation in any direction he fancies. One ex-minister recalls, ‘There was a word-in-edgeways problem. “I want to talk about Iran; why are you talking Turnberry [Trump’s Scottish golf course]?”’
A former No 10 aide says: ‘He does sometimes spiral off topic and talk about the thing that’s at the front of his mind, which can be anything – literally something he’s seen on the telly.’
During one call now infamous in Downing Street, Trump unexpectedly started musing on the film Darkest Hour. What happened to Churchill after he was kicked out of office in 1945, the president wanted to know. The prime minister, surprised but unperturbed, explained how he managed to win a later election, as aides raised eyebrows at the impromptu history lesson.
Apparently satisfied, Trump urged May to watch the film and said she could become this generation’s Churchill, before the conversation moved on.
On another occasion, when Trump had angered No 10 by tweeting criticism over the Parsons Green bombing in September last year, the president was spotted on television. Expressing concern to the cameras, Trump declared he was heading inside to call May immediately. It was the first Downing Street had heard of it, sending aides scrambling to find time in her diary. They talked later that day.
‘I want to talk about Iran; why are you talking Turnberry?’
Despite both being at the older end of the spectrum for premiers – May is 61, Trump, 72 – their backgrounds, personalities and dispositions differ profoundly.
May, the only child of a country vicar, married a man she met at Oxford University and worked her way to No 10 via council politics. She once said running through a field of wheat was the naughtiest thing she had ever done and named the explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger among her dream dinner-party guests.
Trump, born into riches, is on his third wife and has spent more time as a reality TV star than a politician. His lawyer once paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 to silence claims of an affair – always denied – and his tastes run to a golden lift in Trump Tower.
‘There’s a truism about Donald Trump: he likes the people that like him’
‘There’s a truism about Donald Trump: he likes the people that like him,’ his friend Chris Ruddy says. ‘And he picks it up very instinctively. I think Emmanuel Macron really liked him and wanted to go out of his way to befriend him. I’m not sure that’s the case with your prime minister.’
Ruddy said the president has an affinity for Britain but had never heard of the term ‘special relationship’ before entering politics – a suggestion that is unlikely to reassure Westminster.
Even allies of May admit she is not the most ‘clubbable’ of people. Her inability to make small talk is renowned in Westminster, which is tricky when faced with a man so open to flattery.
‘Theresa doesn’t and won’t do sycophancy,’ says an ex-minister and Mayite. ‘She won’t put on an act for Trump. Both sides have to deal with that. You have got two very strong personalities who may not naturally mesh. I think Theresa hopes that in the end it’s business.’
A recently departed Downing Street figure says it is telling that the world leader May gets on with best is not Trump but Shinzō Abe, the Japanese prime minister. ‘He is much more like her in that he’s sort of a serious politician, a serious thinker,’ the former insider says. ‘They have a genuine, real friendship. When she went to Japan they spent hours and hours together.’
Brexit remains another enigma in the Trump/ May relationship. The president, unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, is an avowed supporter of the UK’s departure from the EU. He has promised a ‘great’ US-UK trade deal once Britain is out and, well-placed sources claim, often offers help over Brexit during the pair’s phone calls.
But will Trump follow through? The president’s willingness to apply tariffs on allies has reinforced his ruthlessness in pursuing America’s interests. In any case, Britain will remain tied to the EU until at least 2021, when Trump may no longer be in power.
‘No two leaders could have been closer, but Reagan idly invaded a former British colony without telling her’
To critics who mock the pair’s failure to click, or despair of what it means for the special relationship, May’s supporters ask: does it really matter? She has delivered policy victories, seeing off an attempt to hit the aerospace giant Bombardier with tariffs and winning the UK security services access to terrorists’ online messages stored in the United States. And though she has failed to change Trump’s mind on several issues – the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Agreement on climate change and steel tariffs – that failing is shared with most of the West’s leaders. Being friends, argues Damian Green, the Tory MP who was effectively May’s deputy prime minister until recently, and has known her since their student days, does not always cut the mustard in diplomacy.
‘You think back as far as Thatcher and Reagan,’ Green says. ‘No two leaders could have been closer, but Reagan idly invaded a former British colony [Grenada] without telling her.
‘Or Cameron and Obama, who were really good mates and absolutely got on. When it came to Syria we let them down [when MPs blocked air strikes in 2013] with terrible results.
‘There is a strong feeling that in the end objective interests will win out, even under Trump.’
Will the other halves hit it off?
Philip May, 60, a politico-turned-investment-banker, has long won praise from Conservatives for his diplomatic dab hand. He is said to have crucially propped up the PM after her disastrous election result last year.
Benazir Bhutto introduced the two of them at Oxford University in 1976 – Philip is a year younger than his wife. They married in 1980 and have remained together ever since. They enjoy hill-walking and are both cricket fans.
Melania Trump’s relationship with the US president has been dogged by allegations of his infidelities, which have been roundly denied. In recent months, the First Lady, a Slovenian ex-model, has carved out a more defined role in the White House, organising a state dinner for Emmanuel Macron, campaigning against bullying and openly criticising her husband’s policy towards child immigrants at the US/Mexico border.
Melania, 48, is expected to accompany her husband on the visit to Britain. ’Melania is going to be a big hit,’ predicts the president’s longtime friend Chris Ruddy. ‘She’s a real star, people like her when they meet her.’
The July visit – providing it happens, which is never a given in Trumpworld – may last as long as three days and is a chance to patch things up. Taking a leaf out of other world leaders’ books, UK officials are appealing to Trump’s enthusiasms to win him over.
For the man who owns golf courses in Scotland and Ireland, a turn on the fairway is being planned. For a known fan of the royals, tea with the Queen will be a highlight.
‘He doesn’t like people who do stupid shit. Donald Trump never forgets. He never forgets’
‘I’m sure Mr Trump will love seeing the bits of Britain that all Americans love seeing,’ says Green. ‘He gets privileged access: he will meet the Queen, he will see Buckingham Palace or Balmoral. Just as everyone regards it as a huge coup that President Macron can show him the French [military] parading, we can do that as well.’
The tactic certainly worked for the French leader. Having dined in the Eiffel Tower and inspected regiments while in Paris, Trump now calls Macron ‘my friend Emmanuel’, despite a hiccup at the G7.
It also worked for the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, who laid on a ‘state visit-plus’ trip, including a tour of the Forbidden City, and has been complimented by Trump ever since.
Can May pull off the same trick? It’s doubtful, thinks one Trump ally who knows the president’s mind and recalls their various fallings out. ‘He doesn’t like people who do stupid shit,’ the insider says, referring to the prime minister’s public criticism of the president. ‘Donald Trump never forgets. He never forgets.’
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