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Trump’s U.K. state visit puts “special relationship” to the test

Donald Trump and Theresa May seated next to each other at a conference table
President Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in November 2018. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

State visits by American presidents in the U.K. are typically smooth sailing, but a combination of British political events and bilateral tensions could unsettle President Trump's current trip.

The big picture: Trump arrives in London amid the upheavals of the unresolved Brexit issue, a Conservative Party leadership crisis and the sizable win for far-right leader Nigel Farage’s party in the European parliamentary elections. His commentary on the politics of Brexit has not always been welcome, and disputes over Huawei and other foreign policy issues have added to the strain.

Background: Trump has never cultivated a close working relationship with Prime Minister Theresa May. During his visit in July 2018, he offended May by suggesting publicly that Boris Johnson “would make a great prime minister” and criticized her government's approach to Brexit negotiations with the EU, directly undermining her domestic standing.

  • Unilateral actions by the Trump administration — sanctions against Iran, threatened military withdrawal from Syria, exit from the Paris climate agreement — have deepened policy rifts between the two countries. Trump's allegations of British spying on his 2016 campaign haven't helped relations either.

What to watch: Little should be expected from Trump's meeting with May, who plans to step down immediately after the visit, but 2 issues will loom large:

  • Brexit: While Trump is sympathetic to Brexit, viewing it as analogous to his own "America first" populism, pushing too hard for a no-deal Brexit could further complicate Downing Street’s effort to secure House of Commons approval for a withdrawal agreement before the late October deadline. Trump has called both Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage “very good guys,” and a meeting with them could be perceived as interference in Britain's domestic politics at a delicate time.
  • Huawei and 5G: The Trump administration is lobbying the U.K. and other European allies to drop the Chinese technology company from building out their 5G networks. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Britain that the countries' close intelligence partnership would take a toll should the U.K. go ahead with Huawei and Trump is likely to reiterate that stance, putting further pressure on the British government’s deliberations.

The bottom line: The “special relationship” is fundamentally sound, but it remains unlikely that ties between Washington and London will deepen after Brexit, at least as long as Trump is in the White House.

Erik Brattberg is director of the Europe Program and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.