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Ahead of Trump state visit, it’s déjà-U.K. all over again

President Donald Trump greets British Prime Minister Theresa May in New York in September. | Evan Vucci/AP Photo

foreign policy

The president’s press foray into Brexit and other domestic matters recalls contentious remarks he made when last in Britain.

LONDON — On the eve of his first state visit, President Donald Trump is giving British officials reason to believe this latest overseas trip will be no different from his disruptive foray into local politics when he was here last July.

The normally unpredictable president provoked déjà vu on Saturday when he granted an explosive interview to The Sun, a newspaper owned by Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch. Weighing in on a series of British issues, Trump insisted that the outgoing prime minister, Theresa May, could have “built up a big advantage” for the U.K. during Brexit negotiations if only she had heeded his advice, and he described Meghan Markle, an American actress who became the Duchess of Sussex upon marrying Prince Harry last May, as “nasty” for once referring to him as misogynistic. In a subsequent tweet, Trump claimed his comment was taken out of context.

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The interview, which was published just 48 hours before Trump is set to arrive in Britain on Monday morning and nearly a year after he dismissed The Sun as “fake news” after his first interview with the British tabloid — which included repeated jabs at May and a threat to cancel trade talks if she pursued a “soft Brexit” deal — shattered diplomatic protocol.

This time, though, Trump’s pre-arrival media strategy stretched beyond a single outlet.

The American leader and his national security adviser, John Bolton, have given separate interviews to at least four local outlets ahead of the visit, touching on subjects such as Brexit and Iran and attempting to turn the search for May’s successor into a trans-Atlantic race. All of it comes just a week after Trump faced widespread criticism for contentious comments about North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, during a state visit to Japan.

“It’s very much the president’s style,” said Nile Gardiner, a former aide to Margaret Thatcher and a foreign policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It’s quite controversial and perhaps unusual.”

Some, like Gardiner, see a strategy behind Trump’s comments — even if they’ve set the stage for a series of awkward encounters with May and the royal family. Trump will spend time with Queen Elizabeth II during his visit, in addition to meeting Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall; Prince William and his wife, Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge; and Prince Harry, whose wife, Markle, will be absent after having recently given birth.

“I think the president sees a big U.S. national interest in the success of Brexit, and so he’s wading into the debate because of what is at stake,” Gardiner told POLITICO, describing Trump’s approach as “pragmatic.”

In a norm-breaking move, Trump told The Sun he supported former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a longtime Brexiteer, in his bid to succeed May, whom he simultaneously accused of allowing “the European Union to have all the cards” during negotiations over the Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc.

“I had mentioned to Theresa that you have got to build up your ammunition,” Trump said, claiming that May failed to give the E.U. “anything to lose.”

Trump made headlines again over the weekend in a wide-ranging interview with The Sunday Times. This time, he encouraged May’s successor to refuse to pay a “divorce” settlement to the E.U. and to “sue” Brussels in order to gain leverage during Brexit talks. Trump also said the Brexit Party’s leader, Nigel Farage, with whom he’s met several times, should be involved in the deal-making process; threatened to halt intelligence sharing with Britain if government officials grant the Chinese telecom company Huawei access to the country’s first 5G network; and said he would have to be better acquainted with Jeremy Corbyn, a staunch Trump critic, before sharing U.S. intelligence with the U.K. if the Labour leader were prime minister.

Trump’s comments about the leadership race and Brexit — two of the most sensitive political topics inside Britain — were hardly a surprise to anyone who caught Bolton’s interviews. The national security adviser conducted a series of meetings in the U.K. last week in preparation for Trump’s arrival, though a National Security Council spokesperson declined to tell POLITICO with whom Bolton met or what topics he discussed.

Theresa May

Asked by Britain’s Sky News last week whether Trump should withhold his opinions on Brexit and the Conservative leadership contest, Bolton responded: “The president will do what the president wants.”

He told the The Daily Telegraph in another interview that Britain’s departure from the E.U. would have a positive effect on global politics and longstanding military alliances

“As a separate nation again, Britain’s impact on the world has the prospect of being even greater,” Bolton said. “I think it will help us in NATO in particular to have another strong and independent country that will help NATO be more effective, and that has to be a plus.”

The media blitz by Trump and Bolton comes as British officials prepare to roll out the red carpet for the first family, despite criticism from some local leaders. London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, said on Sunday that it was “un-British” to greet Trump with the extraordinary degree of pomp and pageantry that comes with a state visit.

“In years to come, I suspect this state visit will be one we look back on with profound regret,” Khan wrote in an op-ed for The Observer.

Trump will spend three days in the U.K. with his wife, Melania, and adult children before traveling to Ireland and France for bilateral meetings and a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings. He is likely to wade into Brexit politics and the search for Britain’s next prime minister once more on Tuesday, when he and May are due to participate in a joint news conference after their final meeting during her tenure at 10 Downing Street.

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