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The Cable

How Did the White House Stumble on Theresa May’s Visit? Let Us Count the Ways.

Mind the (diplomatic) gap.


There is a storied history of the United States accidentally disrespecting its closest ally, the United Kingdom.

In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave U.S. President Barack Obama an “ornamental pen holder made from the timbers of the Victorian anti-slave ship HMS Gannet.” In exchange, Brown received a bunch of DVDs. That same year, Obama gave Queen Elizabeth II an iPod (to be fair, she gave him a photo of herself). In 2011, at a banquet at Buckingham Palace, Obama mistakenly spoke over the British national anthem. And not to get into the removal of the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office, but … Obama took the bust of Winston Churchill out of the Oval Office.

But Friday’s visit by Prime Minister Theresa May to the White House was different. May, to make her case that Britain is somehow becoming more global by leaving the European Union, needed to demonstrate just how special the special relationship is (even though Britain cannot sign a trade deal with the United States until after its divorce with the European Union is finalized). And President Donald Trump, on the heels of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s cancelled visit, likely wanted to demonstrate that he could, in fact, conduct diplomacy. Both sides, in other words, wanted this visit to go smoothly.

Alas, we can’t always get what we want.

First, the White House issued an official schedule of the visit in which Theresa May’s name was spelled incorrectly. Three times.

According to at least one former deputy assistant secretary in the State Department, that was not good.

Then the British press corps was locked out of the White House because their birth dates were submitted in U.K. format.

Then, per a White House pool report, there was this exchange:

“‘It’s a great honor to have Winston Churchill back,’ POTUS said.

‘It’s a great honor to be here,’ PM May said in response.”

It is almost as if Trump was supposed to say the honor was not just having a bust of a former prime minister but also having the real live prime minister in the White House.

Then came the joint press conference.

While the two stressed their shared interests (i.e., U.S.-U.K. trade, the working people) and their support of the special relationship (the phrase was used at least four or five times), the press conference was not without its uncomfortable moments.

For example, Trump noted that his mother was born in Scotland and that he had been in Scotland celebrating Brexit. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union and now may hold a second referendum to leave the U.K. He went on to add that while he was “scorned” for saying Brexit would happen, he was indeed proved correct and that it will be a wonderful thing for the U.K. May, who gained the prime ministership after Brexit and who now must see it through, campaigned against it.

There was also the moment that the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg (who was finally admitted to the White House after the birth date snafu) asked what Trump would say to the British people who are nervous to have him as the leader of the free world. “There goes that relationship!” the president joked.

Still, the story ends for now on a happy note (at least publicly). Trump said at the press conference that he and “Theresa” will get along very well. And May assured her audience that the two are listening to each other. “The point of the special relationship is that we are able to have that open and frank discussion,” she said. 

And also for the prime minister to give the president an engraved Quaich from Trump’s ancestral Scotland.

Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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