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Talk of trump visit tests uk’s ‘special relationship’

Posted December 12, 2017 5:48 p.m. EST

It began with smiles and holding hands in the White House. Then she told him he was wrong to send a bunch of tweets the way he did. So he told her to mind her own business.

That, roughly, has been the trajectory of the ties — which some Britons call a special relationship — between President Donald Trump and Theresa May, the British prime minister who hurried to Washington to be the first foreign leader to pay an official visit to the new U.S. leader after his inauguration.

And now the relationship may be put to the test once more. The U.S. ambassador to Britain, Woody Johnson, said Tuesday that he believed that Trump would come to London to dedicate the new U.S. Embassy, which is scheduled to open in January, reviving a debate among Britons about what kind of welcome Trump might expect.

The presidential trip has been an on-off kind of affair — more off than on, it has sometimes seemed — ever since May invited Trump on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II to pay an official visit.

But its importance has been magnified by Britain’s plans to leave the European Union in 2019, forcing the country to form new trade relationships with major economic powers to offset the cost of withdrawing from the 28-nation European bloc.

Trump’s personality has injected an unpredictable element into the long alliance with Britons, whose perception of U.S. leaders has sometimes been ambiguous.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, for instance, was so close to President George W. Bush in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 that he was mocked as America’s “poodle.”

For all that, Trump’s break with the traditional orthodoxies of diplomacy has taken the perception that there is a trans-Atlantic disconnect to higher levels.

Johnson, the U.S. ambassador, told the BBC on Tuesday that Trump was “never going to go down the path of a lot of politicians” by behaving in a “namby-pamby” way. “Maybe he’ll ruffle feathers,” he said of the president. “There’s no question that maybe some feathers were ruffled.”

That was a reference to the most recent spat, when Trump retweeted three posts that had originated with a small, extreme right-wing group called Britain First. The posts included video clips portraying Muslims in a hostile way that were widely interpreted as Islamophobic.

Displaying an uncharacteristic bluntness in dealings with a U.S. president, May said Trump had been “wrong” to send the messages. The president responded on Twitter: “Don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!”

That message struck a raw nerve, because Britain has been the target of five terror attacks this year in which dozens of people have died, and the security services also claim to have thwarted several more, including a conspiracy to murder May herself.

After one attack in July, Trump also seemed to take a jab at Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim to be elected mayor of London. “At least seven dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed,'” Trump said on Twitter on June 4, after an attack on London Bridge and a nearby market.

Khan has been no less sharp-tongued about Trump, saying the U.S. president should not visit Britain because “his policies go against everything we stand for.”

Such exchanges have fanned an undisguised hostility among Trump’s critics in Britain, where there have been calls for the president’s visit to be called off or met with protests. Indeed, Trump’s reposting of the extreme-right video clips brought a rare unity among British politicians in condemning him.

Against that backdrop, British diplomats have emphasized that in areas such as security and intelligence, the two countries have deep ties whose durability and importance transcend individual leaders.

“What we have here is not just Trump the man but the institution” of the U.S. presidency, said Sir Christopher Meyer, a former British ambassador to Washington.

The BBC on Tuesday quoted unidentified sources as saying a working visit was possible in late February to dedicate the new U.S. Embassy, which is relocating from Grosvenor Square in central London to the Nine Elms area south of the River Thames.

Speaking to the BBC, Johnson, the U.S. ambassador, said no date had been set for the president to visit Britain, but “absolutely, I think he will come.”

“It hasn’t been officially announced, but I hope he does,” the ambassador said.