President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May looked past an embarrassing spelling gaffe and a week’s worth of public criticism on both sides of the Atlantic to reaffirm their countries’ so-called “special relationship” during a meeting at the White House Friday.
At a joint press conference following the meeting, the two leaders pledged to move forward with talks on a trade deal, tackle terrorism, and maintain their commitment to NATO.
May, whose government is keen to pursue a trade deal with the U.S. after Britons voted to leave the European Union, has faced criticism at home for her overtures to the new president, following a tumultuous first week in office in which he has upended many presidential norms.
“Great days lie ahead for our two peoples and our two countries,” Trump said, hailing the relationship as “one of the great forces in history for justice and for peace.” The relationship has “never been stronger,” he said.
Following their first face-to-face meeting and Trump’s first with a foreign leader since taking office Jan. 20, the leaders identified defeating the Islamic State group and the policy of Islamic extremism as their first foreign policy priority.
Responding to doubts concerning Trump’s commitment to NATO after he derided it, May stressed Trump had confirmed to her he was “100 percent in favor” of the treaty.
“We’re united in our recognition of NATO as the bulwark of our collective defense and today we’ve reaffirmed our unshakeable commitment to this alliance,” May said, adding that they would try to better equip the alliance to fight terrorism and cyberwarfare.
She said they had discussed how to establish a trade negotiation agreement and lay the groundwork for a bilateral trade deal, a measure she was convinced was “in the national interest of both countries.”
Trump shared May’s enthusiasm, telling the British prime minister, “Brexit is going to be a wonderful thing for your country.”
“There goes the relationship”
The toughest questions came from a British journalist, who asked May what issues the pair had disagreed on.
“I’ve been listening to the president and the president has been listening to me,” she said, ducking the question. “The point of the special relationship is that we are able to have that open and frank discussion.”
Trump was then asked what he would say to Britons concerned about his positions on issues such as torture, Muslim immigration, and abortion.
“This was your choice of a question? There goes that relationship,” Trump joked to May. He then said that on the question of torture, he would defer to the wisdom of his defense secretary, James Mattis, who has stated his opposition to the U.S. military’s use of torture.
“I don’t necessarily agree but I would tell you that he would override because I’m giving him that power,” he said.
A rocky start
While the leaders were complimentary and spoke warmly of each other, events leading up to the press conference were hardly promising. May’s first name was misspelled numerous times in a White House briefing, while members of the British press corps had trouble gaining access to the White House due to clerical errors.
May’s receptiveness to the divisive new president has been criticized at home and abroad, including by members of her own party. In recent days, Trump has praised the effectiveness of waterboarding, authorized the construction of a border wall with Mexico, and placed restrictions on Environmental Protection Agency scientists from releasing data, alarming climate scientists around the world.
Ahead of the leaders’ meeting, French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron told radio station France Culture that Britain was “becoming a vassal state, meaning it is becoming the junior partner of the United States.” Trump’s destabilizing actions during his first week meant the U.S. could no longer be relied upon to protect Western values and safeguard the international order, he said.
Sarah Wollaston, a Conservative MP in the U.K., rejected the suggestion that Britain and the U.S. could provide global leadership, given Trump’s illiberal positions.
“You cannot lead on a global stage by advocating torture, disgusting racial stereotyping, [and] turning back the clock on women’s rights worldwide,” she tweeted.
Ed Miliband, former leader of the opposition Labour Party, condemned May for aligning herself with Trump, telling the BBC: “Her speech was a perfectly decent speech if it had been normal times, but to align yourself so closely with his project, which is what she did, that, I think was the mistake.”
Days of intervention are over
At a gathering of Republican leaders in Philadelphia on Thursday, May stressed that the “days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.” She said the two countries still had “a joint responsibility to lead,” as “when others step up as we step back, it is bad for America, for Britain, and the world.”
But they could not repeat the “failed policies of the past.”
British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn accused May of peddling “alternative facts” in her statement against interventionism, pointing out she had voted in favor of invading Iraq in 2003.
“I don’t remember her joining me in the voting lobby. Maybe she has alternative facts?” he tweeted.