How the PM’s visit was seen by the American mediaby Andrew Stuttaford / February 1, 2017 / Leave a comment
The prospect of Theresa May’s arrival in the United States on Thursday failed to make much of an impression on the front pages of American newspapers. (That day’s Wall Street Journal did, however, find room for an article on “wily hotel thermostats.”) Undeterred, the prime minister started her visit by addressing a gathering of Congressional Republicans in Philadelphia. In its description of the event, the right-of-centre Washington Times, related how May had told her audience that Donald Trump’s victory and the GOP wins in Congress promised “a new era of American renewal.” What’s more, with conservative governments in both the US and UK, this was an opportunity to renew the special relationship.
The Washington Times made no mention of May’s defence of the United Nations, which she called “in need of reform, but vital still.” But the Associated Press reported that May had cautioned Trump “not to turn his back on global institutions.” It noted May’s praise for Trump’s determination to take on Islamic extremism, but also that she had cautioned her Republican audience that “We should always be careful to distinguish between this extreme and hateful ideology, and the peaceful religion of Islam and the hundreds of millions of its adherents,” wording it interpreted as criticism of Trump’s campaign season comments on Muslim immigration (as it turned out, Trump’s executive order on immigration was signed the next day.)
The left-leaning CNN took a somewhat jaundiced view of the prime ministerial visit, quoting various British critics including Liberal Democrat Vince Cable, who had Tweeted that May was wrong to “grovel” to Trump, a verb repeated in coverage in Slate and the Washington Post. And did CNN’s description of the hamper of British goodies that accompanied May, which included damson jam, marmalade and Bakewell tarts, contain just a trace of mockery? Then again, Barack Obama gave Gordon Brown a box of DVDs, a modest gift made more modest by the fact that they were in the wrong format.
On Friday, the prime minister was absent from the headlines on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition (an approximate and inadequate equivalent of Radio 4’s Today programme), at least when I was getting up. The Wall Street Journal failed to hold the front page for her again, running a report filed by its London bureau a few pages in, and an op-ed by two writers from the conservative Hudson Institute on the prospects for a bilateral Anglo-American trade deal.
The New York Times also pushed news of the prime minister’s visit to the inside pages, noting it could be an episode of the US TV sitcom The Odd Couple: “The Stiff Headmistress meets the Great Salesman.” In the article Jeremy Shapiro, a former State Department official (now at the europhile European Council on Foreign Relations) says he regarded May’s trip as the visit of a supplicant, boxed in by Brexit and domestic pressures. These kind of views are regularly aired in the New York Times—as far as international affairs are concerned, the paper has the perspective of the Brahmin supranational, or perhaps, as someone might say, a “citizen of nowhere.”
Shapiro did not believe that any trade deal would be “particularly favorable to Britain.” A report in the Times’ business section was no less discouraging, suggesting that any agreement “would almost certainly amount to very little.” Tariffs are already low and, it was claimed, Brexit will mean that the UK’s appeal as a beachhead into the European Union’s market will “almost certainly” disappear. Then there’s all that “America First” business. Any deal would probably be largely symbolic, to show that post-Brexit Britain can cut a free trade agreement and that Trump, contrary to what the naysayers might expect, is willing to agree to one.
Preparations for the big meeting were marred by difficulties over the prime minister’s name. A White House release referred no fewer than three times to Trump’s coming meeting with Teresa May, dropping the ball as well as the h, another misstep from an administration not known for its attention to detail even before chaotic scenes unfolded in the nation’s airports. A glance at Twitter by @realDonaldTrump or his aides would have shown that @RealTeresaMay (“a British former soft porn actress and model,” sniggered USA Today) is clear about who she is (“a UK glamour model, not the UK Prime Minister”).
The talks between Trump and May—held before that controversial executive order was signed—appear to have passed smoothly enough. They were famously photographed holding hands, which some reports attributed to the president suffering from bathmophobia, a fear of stairs or slopes, and thus needing a soothing touch. More convincingly, Ashley Parker at the Washington Post explained the palm grab was a manipulative gesture: “as Trump has long intuited at a visceral level, the personal is political and he ended their news conference with a physical gesture that seemed to underscore the special relationship.” Mercifully, May spared everyone the horror of a Michael Gove or Nigel Farage-style thumbs-up.
The prime minister finally made the front page of Saturday’s New York Times, with a commemorative postage stamp-sized photograph of Trump and May, and the caption “allies.” In an article a few pages later, the newspaper, looking loftily down from its perch, observed of the leaders’ press conference that the president did “not demonstrate detailed policy knowledge” but “appeared comfortable and confident,” “emphasized commonalities” with May “and referred twice to the ‘special relationship’ between the two countries, a phrase Britons take seriously.” Ouch.
May’s attempt to butter up The Donald—praise for his “stunning election victory” and an invitation to meet the Queen—didn’t pass unnoticed. The New York Times reckoned that May “is eager to forge a relationship with him akin to Margaret Thatcher’s alliance with Ronald Reagan,” a view echoed in the Wall Street Journal by Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the Manhattan Institute, a prominent centre-right think-tank. Furchtgott-Roth’s confidence that this could happen might be explained by the fact she worked on the Trump transition team.
In contrast, the New York Times’ editorial implied that Trump’s foreign policy is “still a fog” and much of what can be discerned through it doesn’t play well in Britain. (Or, as the New York tabloid Daily News, put it “Li’l Brit of tension as 2 leaders meet.”) On the other hand, May needs, as the Times sees it, to demonstrate that she has “a powerful alternative source of support and trade across the Atlantic.” That need, I suspect, places her in a position of weakness that Trump, who knows a thing or two about negotiation, will not have overlooked. “At times,” wrote Parker in the Post, “as May turned to Trump, seeming to seek affirmation or at least encouragement, the president stared straight ahead, unaware of his guest’s entreaties.” Ouch, again.
However, the New York Times finished by arguing, “on balance, Mrs May seemed to collect the special recognition she came for, and Mr Trump at least appeared subdued.” (The latter is the sort of thing that a beleaguered parent might say after a dose of Ritalin calmed their unruly child.) Over at Politico, Tara Palmeri was more charitable. The president, as she saw it, “abandoned the bluster and boasting he’s kept up since his inauguration in favor of a genial, friendly tone.”
A more gung-ho Wall Street Journal editorialized that It is in both “Mr Trump’s and America’s interest to strengthen the special relationship, starting with a post-Brexit trade deal fast.” But Bloomberg’s Eli Lake pointed out that Trump neither announced a new deal nor a starting date for negotiations: “That showed restraint and savvy. Unlike his pledges to make Mexico pay for a border wall or to end radical Islamic terrorism, when it comes to the “special relationship,” Trump so far is not making promises he will have a hard time keeping.”
Meanwhile, the New York Post heralded the return of Winston Churchill. Obama had a bust of him removed from the Oval Office but Trump has now returned it there, declaring it was “a great honor” to have it back. Reading that, I couldn’t help wondering what Churchill, that grand old cynic and no mean butterer-up of American presidents himself, would have made of May’s mission to Washington. Laughter, I suspect, but sadness too, for lost grandeur.
The furore over Trump’s executive orders has now driven any memories of May’s visit from the news cycle in the US, but reinforced them in the UK—and not in a good way. The cautious manner in which May distanced herself from the new policy was emblematic of the difficulties she faces building a special relationship with the American president while preserving a good relationship with her voters. As the protests across Britain show, it won’t be easy.