Report

Democrats Incensed at U.K. Prime Minister’s ‘Partisan’ Visit to GOP Retreat

Britain’s leader hasn’t scheduled a parallel meeting with Democrats.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 04:  Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) (C) is joined by fellow Democrats from both the House and Senate, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (R) following a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the U.S. Capitol January 4, 2017 in Washington, DC. Obama came to Capitol Hill to encourage his fellow Democrats to work to preserve his signature health care law, also known as Obamacare.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 04: Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) (C) is joined by fellow Democrats from both the House and Senate, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (R) following a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the U.S. Capitol January 4, 2017 in Washington, DC. Obama came to Capitol Hill to encourage his fellow Democrats to work to preserve his signature health care law, also known as Obamacare. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Calling it a “partisan visit” and a “breach of standard protocol,” top Democrats in the House and Senate are upset about British Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to meet with congressional Republicans in Philadelphia for their biannual retreat, without similar plans to meet Democrats, Foreign Policy has learned.

“Given the special relationship, this is a very big mistake for the prime minister,” said a senior Democratic aide.

On Thursday, May will become the first foreign leader to join the Republican huddle in Pennsylvania as they devise their 2017 agenda. The announcement of the visit with House and Senate Republicans surprised Democratic leaders in both chambers because it’s normal practice for a foreign leader to coordinate with both parties.

“A partisan visit is a breach of standard protocol,” said the aide.

Still, Republican leaders in Congress are eager to make her feel welcome.

“We are grateful for her visit and look forward to hearing her vision for the United Kingdom as we strengthen this important bilateral relationship with our new Republican-led government,” said Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the House Republican Conference chair, and South Dakota Sen. John Thune, her Senate counterpart, in a joint statement.

The trip comes as May scrambles to shore up ties to President Donald Trump and top Republicans after getting caught flat-footed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the first head of state to visit Trump after the election, and Nigel Farage, the former Brexit leader who enjoys a better relationship with Trump than anyone in the British government.

Democratic lawmakers declined to publicly comment on their frustrations about the trip, but leadership aides in both chambers said the snub wasn’t taken lightly. A Senate aide said Democratic leaders are currently weighing whether to invite May to their own party retreat, but “no decision has been made.”

An official at the British Embassy in Washington said “the program is still being finalized,” leaving open the possibility of a last-minute meeting with Democrats.

May is scheduled to visit Trump on Friday, the day after she meets with both the House and Senate Republican conferences.

As leader of the Conservative Party, May has had to compensate for a series of public broadsides leveled at Trump during the 2016 election campaign by her foreign minister, Boris Johnson, and Britain’s former ambassador to the United States, Peter Westmacott.

Johnson previously called Trump “clearly out of his mind” and accused him of “quite stupefying ignorance,” a tenor that has radically shifted since Trump assumed the most powerful office in the world.

Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said May is trying to make up for lost time.

“Nigel Farage dashed off to meet Trump first while May and no one else in the British government had much of any contact. And Boris Johnson was completely rude to him. So they probably felt completely on the back foot,” she told FP. “I’m not even sure that the president-elect even knew who Theresa May was.”

May succeeded David Cameron in July after he resigned in the wake of shocking referendum vote by British voters to leave the European Union. In her meeting with Trump, May is expected to begin laying the groundwork on a new U.S.-Britain trade deal. That’s increasingly important for both countries, especially as Britain decided to cut itself off from the EU’s common market. But EU officials warn any U.S.-U.K. trade deal will have to wait until the so-called Brexit is finalized, which could take years.

May also told the Financial Times last week that she hopes to impress upon Trump the benefits of the NATO alliance and the EU, two institutions he has repeatedly denigrated.

On the day of Trump’s inauguration, May expressed optimism about working with Trump to broaden the special relationship between the two countries, even though he spent much of his campaign attacking America’s overseas obligations.

“From our conversations to date, I know we are both committed to advancing the special relationship between our two countries and working together for the prosperity and security of people on both sides of the Atlantic,” she said in a statement.

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Staff/Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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