The Memo

The Memo: Trump’s Muslim tweets roil Britain

President Trump’s latest Twitter controversy is reverberating across the Atlantic, complicating U.S. relations with one of its most stalwart allies, the United Kingdom.

The president’s sharing of anti-Muslim videos from a leader of a fringe ultranationalist party in Britain early Wednesday ignited an instant firestorm on social media.

Trump was criticized by Muslim groups and liberals in the U.S., including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who described the president’s actions as “a new low.”


But the controversy reached an even sharper pitch in the U.K., where a spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May condemned Trump’s actions as “wrong.” The main opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party, called Trump’s retweets “abhorrent, dangerous and a threat to our society.”

Other British political figures worried about the broader picture — one in which they said Trump’s deep unpopularity in the U.K., and his taste for inflammatory language, makes it harder to maintain the traditional closeness between the two nations.

Alastair Campbell, who served for many years as a spokesman for then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, described the level of British “antipathy” toward Trump as unprecedented.

“You keep thinking he can’t get any worse, and he gets worse. I just think people have a total disrespect for him — it’s overwhelming,” Campbell told The Hill.

Trump has yet to make a state visit to the U.K. since entering office early this year. Officially, an invite for Trump to visit the U.K. in 2018 still stands, though there is no trip currently planned.

Campbell asserted that there would be widespread protests if Trump actually came to British shores, given a series of controversies that have put Trump at odds with U.K. politicians.

Some of those controversies have been the proverbial storm in a teacup. 

During Trump’s transition, for example, he suggested that leading Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage should be made British ambassador to the United States.

Farage, a fervent Trump supporter, rose to prominence as the leader of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), a rival to May’s Conservative government. 

The president-elect’s suggestion was swiftly rebuffed.

Other rows have been about more substantive matters. 

The British intelligence organization GCHQ reacted with fury in March when then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer implied that it had previously spied on Trump at the behest of former President Obama.

GCHQ, which rarely makes public statements about contentious matters, called the allegation “nonsense” and “utterly ridiculous.”

In June, Trump also tangled with London Mayor Sadiq Khan in the wake of a terrorist attack in the British capital that killed eight people. Trump miscast remarks Khan had made about there being “no reason to be alarmed” about a future attack. A spokesman for Khan called Trump “ill-informed.”

May, who had been the first foreign leader to visit Trump at the White House, was herself embarrassed back in January when Trump announced his controversial travel ban within hours of her leaving Washington. After several days of domestic political pressure, May eventually condemned the move as “divisive and wrong.”

James Boys, a political historian and associate professor at Richmond University in London, said that dealing with Trump is difficult for May “because she has to walk a very fine line.”

“She tried to put the national interest first by being the first leader to visit Trump in the White House, but then she opens herself to all kinds of attacks if she is not critical of Trump,” he said.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday defended Trump’s retweets of anti-Muslim videos, saying that “the threat is real and that is what the president is talking about.”

Later, White House spokesman Raj Shah told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Missouri for a speech on tax reform that Trump had merely been “raising the security issues that he has been raising for years.”

Asked about the criticism Trump had received from the other side of the Atlantic, Shah insisted that “the president has the greatest respect for the British people and for Prime Minister May.”

While British polling on Trump is sporadic, results show the U.S. leader is deeply unpopular there.

Back in March, a GfK poll found that just 18 percent of the British public approved of him, while 60 percent disapproved.

A YouGov poll last month asking Britons if they would accept hypothetical invitations from various political leaders showed that 56 percent would decline an invite to meet Trump at the White House. That was a worse showing than parallel scenarios involving May, the Queen, the Pope or even Russian President Vladimir Putin.

BBC anchor Emily Maitlis, who is based in London but reports frequently from the U.S., said that most people in Britain see Trump as “America’s gameshow invention. And there’s a certain relief that he is. We can stand back and snigger from the sidelines.”

Still, Maitlis warned that Trump’s move Wednesday to retweet videos from Jayda Fransen — a deputy leader of the fringe Britain First movement who was convicted of a hate crime last year — may have changed things.

Maitlis said that while there is a cohort of Britons who back Trump because of his populist appeal, others find him “truly terrifying, and hold a semi-apocalyptic vision of the destruction he may be capable of.”

“The retweeting today of Britain First was in some ways a watershed moment,” she said. “It was the confirmation bias many had been waiting for: If you had long believed that Trump was an enabler of the far-right, racist, xenophobic, purveyor of fake news etc. here was your proof.”

Fransen’s first tweet read: “VIDEO: Islamist mob pushes teenage boy off roof and beats him to death!” The others read, “VIDEO: Muslim Destroys a Statue of Virgin Mary!” and “VIDEO: Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!”

The videos themselves have not be independently authenticated.

Some observers warned that Trump’s actions could have a significant effect on the storied special relationship between the U.S. and Britain.

Campbell, the former Blair spokesman, lamented that Trump’s behavior was “bad for America.”

“You go outside Trump’s base in the U.S, or to any other country in the world, and you are going to get very, very negative views of him. That does have a spillover,” he said.

“Are people more or less likely to want to visit [the U.S.], to do business there? At the diplomatic level, it’s harder to quantify. But it’s important to build relationships. How do you build relationships if people don’t trust the leader?”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Bernie Sanders Britain First Donald Trump Donald Trump Great Britain Theresa May Twitter

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