WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump held an Oval Office meeting Friday with British Prime Minister Theresa May, a friendly ally who hopes to nudge the populist president toward the political mainstream.
Trump’s first meeting with a world leader since taking office came a day after Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto called off his own trip to Washington next week amid wrangling over who will pay for Trump’s planned wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump’s spokesman said the president would seek a 20 percent tax on Mexican imports to pay for the barrier, then later clarified that such a tax would be a possible approach.
May’s meeting with the president is being hailed by the British government as a sign that the trans-Atlantic “special relationship” is valued by the new administration.
Trump welcomed May and promptly showed off a bust of Winston Churchill, one of May’s predecessors, on display in his office.
“It’s a great honor to have Winston Churchill back,” Trump said. The bust had been moved to another part of the White House when Barack Obama held the office.
May said it was “an honor” to be at the White House.
The White House said Trump and May will hold talks, followed by a press conference and a working lunch.
May’s visit, so soon after Trump’s inauguration, has been criticized by her political opponents, and risks being overshadowed by the flood of announcements, plans and proposals coming out of the White House. On Thursday May was repeatedly asked about Britain’s stance on torture—the U.K. condemns it—after Trump said he thinks torturing terrorism suspects works.
Trump is something of a mystery to world leaders, many of whom expected Democrat Hillary Clinton to win the election. His administration’s main interlocutors with foreign governments so far—including son-in-law Jared Kushner and senior adviser Steve Bannon, a conservative media executive—are also unknown to many of their counterparts.
She has strong reasons for wanting the relationship to work. Britain is set to leave the European Union and its 500 million-person single market. A trade deal with the U.S., Britain’s biggest export market, is a major prize.
Trump has drawn parallels between Britain’s choice to leave the EU and his own success, using the Brexit vote to bolster his derision of the 28-nation bloc and his preference for striking bilateral agreements.
Trump and May both addressed a Republican retreat Thursday in Philadelphia, though their visits did not overlap. During his remarks to lawmakers, Trump bemoaned the fact that Wilbur Ross, his nominee to be commerce secretary, would not be confirmed in time for a visit that was expected to focus heavily on trade.
“I don’t have my commerce secretary,” Trump said. “They want to talk trade. So I’ll have to handle it myself.”
May’s speech alternated between saluting Trump’s vision for what she called American “renewal” and reminding him, and his Republican colleagues, of the United States’ global responsibilities.
May urged the U.S. to join Britain and embrace “the responsibility of leadership in the modern world.” She mentioned the trans-Atlantic alliance during World War II and afterward, when the U.K. and the U.S. set up the United Nations and NATO—organizations Trump has strongly criticized.
She joined in Trump’s criticism of previous U.S. governments’ foreign policy, saying that “the days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.”
But May also said Britain supported a strong European Union and considered NATO the bulwark of global security.
May praised Trump’s dedication to fighting ISIS and Islamist extremism, but stressed the need not to tarnish “the peaceful religion of Islam and the hundreds of millions of its adherents.”
May acknowledged the need to engage with Russia to end the war in Syria, yet cautioned that the West’s approach to President Vladimir Putin should be “engage but beware.”
There are few obvious similarities between the brash businessman Trump and the quiet, diligent May.
In her speech, May referred several times to Republican President Ronald Reagan and Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—politicians from very different backgrounds who forged an alliance that helped transform their parties, and the world.
And, she said aboard her plane, “sometimes opposites attract.”