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Trump’s state visit may come back to haunt May

by Hugo Dixon | 06.06.2017

The US president’s outburst against Sadiq Khan underlines the prime minister’s folly in rolling out the red carpet. Donald Trump’s state visit could end up as a rallying point for opposition against Theresa May – assuming she wins Thursday’s election.

Khan said Trump’s state visit should be cancelled after the president’s Twitter response to the London Bridge attack. There is, however, little chance of that happening – short of a change of prime minister. May can’t scrap the invitation without destroying her new “special” relationship with Trump.

The prime minister could, nonetheless, come to regret her invitation. The president is just about the most unpopular person she could have decided to honour with a state visit. Even when she extended it in January, it was clear that Trump was pushing through policies that confront our interests and values. Not only were comments about women and Muslims bad enough; he was suspicious of Nato, friendly towards Vladimir Putin, keen on protectionism and didn’t care much for the rule of law.

Since then, things have gone from bad to worse. First, there was his attempt to ban travel from seven mostly Muslim countries – which May was slow to criticise. Then his decision to pull out of the Paris climate change accord – which the prime minister merely said she was disappointed about.

Now there is the president’s Twitter tirade. The president misunderstood Khan’s words that Londoners should not be alarmed by the sight of more armed police on the streets as suggesting that Londoners should not be bothered by terrorism. When the mayor’s office said the president had taken his remarks out of context, Trump retorted: “Pathetic excuse.”

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In January a huge petition was raised against the state visit. Protests were held across the country. After his misguided carping at the London mayor, the antipathy against him will only have grown. As Peter Ricketts, our former national security advisor, told the BBC Today Programme this morning: “It does not create the conditions for a successful celebratory visit.” We can expect angry demonstrations uniting a vast array of British society when he finally comes – and the prime minister could get caught in the cross-fire.

This may also feed into the Brexit process. Being anti-Trump and anti-Brexit is not the same thing. But there’s a huge overlap between being the people who are outraged by the US president and those who voted to stay in the EU. If Trump’s visit comes at a sensitive time in the talks – and especially if May is weak at that point – pro-Europeans may find they can exploit it to fight her plans for a destructive Brexit.

This article was updated shortly after publication to insert the comment by Peter Ricketts

Edited by Alex Spillius