Two days before the British general election, Donald Trump has turned into a campaign issue. Following Trump’s online outbursts against Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, opposition politicians and media commentators are pressuring Theresa May, the Prime Minister, to distance herself from the American President and to rescind an invitation for him to make an official visit later this year.
Trump was very unpopular in Britain before this week. And, as I noted on Monday, his tweets criticizing Khan in the aftermath of Saturday’s terrorist attack caused widespread outrage. “Sadiq Khan has shown dignity and leadership,” Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said on Monday. “Theresa May absolutely must withdraw the state visit. This is a man insulting our national values at a time of introspection and mourning.”
Khan himself was among those calling for the cancellation of Trump’s visit, which is scheduled for the fall. “I don’t think we should roll out the red carpet to the President of the U.S.A. in the circumstances where his policies go against everything we stand for,” he told Channel 4 News. Khan is a Labour politician. But even some of May’s fellow-Conservatives expressed agreement with him. “I think we should just keep kicking this visit into the long grass,” Sayeeda Warsi, a Tory member of the House of Lords and former co-chair of the Party, told the BBC.
For May, who has already come under heavy criticism for running a lackluster election campaign, Trump’s ghastly criticisms of Khan were the last thing she needed. Since November, she has doggedly adhered to the traditional (and bipartisan) British policy of cozying up to American Presidents, even as many people have pointed out that Trump is anything but a normal occupant of the Oval Office.
In January, a few days after the Inauguration, May became the first foreign leader to visit Trump in the White House. Shortly after she left Washington, Trump unveiled his anti-Muslim travel ban, and she initially refused to condemn it, drawing the sort of criticism that has come to a head this week. Just last month, she even defended Trump after he gave classified information to the Russian foreign minister about an intelligence source inside ISIS. “Decisions about what President Trump discusses with anybody that he has in the White House is a matter for President Trump,” she said.
At a press conference on Monday, reporters asked May numerous times about Trump’s tweets, in which he first misrepresented a statement from Khan to make it look as if he had downplayed Saturday’s terrorist attack, and then accused Khan of inventing a “pathetic excuse” to cover his tracks. May’s response made her look like a fish wriggling on a hook.
In her first two answers, she didn’t mention Trump at all and merely said that she thought Khan was doing a good job as mayor. A questioner than asked her what Trump would have to say in order for her to criticize him. That one hit home. May said that it was a mistake for America to pull out of the Paris climate-change agreement, adding, testily, “I’m not afraid to say when I think President Trump is getting things wrong.” Still, she hadn’t directly addressed Trump’s tweets. The questioner pressed her on them again. “I think Sadiq Khan is doing a good job, and it’s wrong to say anything else,” she finally said.
Watching this tortured performance, Yvette Cooper, a Labour M.P. and former Home Secretary, tweeted, “Oh for heavens sake…… What will it take to get her to stand up to Trump?” Perhaps sensing a political opportunity, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, on Monday evening quoted one of Trump’s Khan tweets—the one in which Trump used the phrase “pathetic excuse”—and wrote, “Sadiq Khan has spoken for London and our country in standing up to hate. That is how we stop terrorists winning, not by promoting division.”
Why was May so reluctant to criticize Trump directly? “We know that Trump can only cope with unctuous flattery and that, satisfying as it may be to criticise him, doing so isn’t likely to advance the UK’s interests vis a vis its relationship with the United States,” the columnist Alex Massie noted, in The Spectator. “So Mrs May says nothing, even though saying nothing makes her look terrible. This is no time for a showboating Prime Minister, she might say, and she might have half a point. But it still looks weak and miserable and craven and all kinds of rotten.”
It also reflects poorly on her strategic judgment. Countries like France and Germany also have close relationships with the United States and partly rely on it for defense and intelligence. That hasn’t prevented their leaders from adopting a more critical attitude toward Trump, and even, in the case of Angela Merkel, from suggesting that the days when Europe could rely unquestioningly on Washington might be coming to an end.
At least in public, May has stuck to the fiction that, with Trump in the White House, it is business as usual. She has caged the British bulldog and replaced it with a poodle. If she had come out straight away and blasted Trump’s tweets, she would have risked a rupture with the White House. But, despite this, she would have had the support of Britain’s foreign-policy establishment, the members of which are almost all aghast at the U.S. President. (“World leaders call for unity. Trump tweets the complete opposite,” Sir Christopher Meyer, a former British Ambassador to Washington, tweeted on Sunday. “Let me be diplomatic. Trump makes me puke.”)
On Tuesday, May appeared in Stoke-on-Trent, where she told a small crowd of Conservative supporters that the main issue voters faced on Thursday was deciding “who has the leadership to take us through those Brexit negotiations and build a stronger future for our country.” Even here, however, she couldn’t entirely escape Trump. After she delivered her speech, a reporter asked her whether she agreed with Warsi that the state visit should be postponed.
May didn’t answer the question. (Earlier in the day, Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, had said that the visit should go ahead.) Instead, she reasserted the importance of the U.K.’s “special relationship” with the United States, describing it as the country’s “deepest and strongest” security alliance. Then, though, the Prime Minister finally said what she should have said forty-eight hours earlier, and used the words “Donald Trump” and “wrong” in the same sentence.
“I think Donald Trump was wrong in the things he has said about Sadiq Khan,” she said. In the aftermath of the London Bridge attack, she went on, the government had worked with Khan and put party politics aside to insure an effective response. Loud clapping almost drowned out her final words.
That tells you something. In a campaign that has been dominated by Brexit, Corbyn’s stronger-than-expected performance, and, in the past few days, domestic security, the controversy over Trump’s tweets is unlikely to affect the result. But, regardless of which party wins on Thursday, criticizing the oaf in the White House will continue to be an applause line.