But for a tabloid interview, Trump mostly contained and US-UK relations preserved

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Britain can begin to breathe a sigh of relief. The working part of Donald Trump’s visit is over, and the American president has departed England. Soon he will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and the memory of Trump’s United Kingdom visit is likely to diminish rapidly, at least for the rest of the world.

Trump’s visit to the UK was read by the transatlantic community, and especially by the UK’s foreign policy establishment, as a litmus test for the Special Relationship. Many commentators have described Trump’s UK trip as the worst visit ever by a U.S. president. They are not wrong; it was not good. But sounding the death knell for relations between the United States and United Kingdom is alarmist (after all, even the president has designated the UK’s status as being at the “highest level of special”) and looks in the wrong place. The Special Relationship may have had its origins in a certain kind of chemistry between Britain and America’s leaders, but to read its current status off this visit is to look in the wrong place.

{mosads}In fact, Trump’s UK tour was about Trump and, especially, about Trumpism in the UK. Trump sought to engage and ignite Trumpism. The government sought to contain Trump.


And so, read through this lens, it went exactly as we might have expected. In fact, everybody stuck to their script. The UK government designed a trip whose main ambition was one of damage control, even if its main policy priority was trade. Trump was virtually sequestered, but in a grand way with trips to Blenheim Palace, Sandhurst, Chequers and, to top it off, Windsor Castle. He was kept away from Britain’s people, especially its protesters. But he was also cut off from any potential supporters (even with his negative favorability ratings, Trump has many fans on the British Isles).

Not one to play Rapunzel, Trump found his way to his people through the vehicle of Britain’s tabloids — in this case, The Sun. The most surprising thing about his interview was possibly the timing. World leaders have become used to bruising tweets delivered hours after a presidential visit has concluded. Trump’s attacks on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit white paper, Britain’s immigration policy, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s counterterror strategy were published on the eve of his business discussions with the prime minister.

The Sun interview — the only aspect of Trump’s visit that is likely to have a decent tenure — was an essential element of his foreign policy, and so, hardly surprising. The tabloid play was for Trump the virtual rendition of a political rally (or perhaps a twitter tirade). It was intended to seek out Brexiteers, and remind them not only of their reasons for voting Leave, but also that they were being ignored by the elite political establishment and given the false promise of an exit from the European Union under the disguise of a white paper designed to keep Britain as close to Europe as it could be without staying in.

As with his rallies, Trump attempted with this one interview to reignite politics around the question of immigration and trade. This was, in effect, Trump’s plea to put Britain First. All the tools that Americans have come to understand over the past 18 months were in place. The effort to bolster former Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Secretary Boris Johnson, both for his affinity to Brexit and his loyalty to Trump, could hardly have been more transparent.

Despite all this, May was unflappable, subtly admonishing the president for his interview with one of Britain’s leading tabloids by withholding smiles, keeping a careful distance and sticking to a script. Security is robust and trade cooperation is progressing between the United States and United Kingdom. In the best of British traditions, May’s strength was passive, not active, expression. A fly-by visit to Windsor was short, sweet, but with ample scope for minor diplomatic misstep.

The protesters also played their part, much as they have for the past 18 months, turning out passionately and in force to demonstrate against the failings of this American president on any number of issues — from environmental protection, to women’s rights, LGBTQ, separation of migrant families and more.     

When it comes to foreign policy, little is likely to change as a result of Trump’s visit. That in itself is an accomplishment, and for this, credit where credit is due: the success is down to the prime minister, Queen Elizabeth and Britain’s business community. Each party, in its own way, did the minimum necessary to keep open the possibility of a return to a strong, if not special, relationship between the two countries. It was no more and no less than turning up to Christmas dinner during a period of temporary hostility.    

But the real question for those who wonder about the likely effect of Trump’s visit is one for Britain. A single intervention, even one by someone as powerful as an American president, seems unlikely to irreversibly deepen the domestic divide over Brexit in the United Kingdom. But even the attempt raises the age-old question: with friends such as these, who needs enemies?

Leslie Vinjamuri is head of the U.S. and the Americas Programme and dean of the Queen Elizabeth II Academy, Chatham House, and a professor of international relations at SOAS University of London. She writes and speaks on transatlantic relations, the U.S. role in the world, international order, conflict and intervention. Follow her on Twitter @londonvinjamuri.

Tags Boris Johnson Donald Trump Donald Trump; Sadiq Khan; London; United Kingdom Special Relationship Theresa May

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