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On her first visit to the United States as prime minister, May called the start of Trump’s term “a new era of American renewal” – but firmly rejected the president’s suggestion that torture might be acceptable, and rebuffed some of his foreign-policy views.
May flew to Philadelphia a day before she will hold talks with Trump at the White House and become the first foreign leader to meet the president since his inauguration.
May worked hard to get the invitation, and is seizing the opportunity to bolster the trans-Atlantic “special relationship” and work toward a U.S.-U.K. free trade deal after Britain leaves the European Union.
She told a gathering of Republican lawmakers at their annual Congressional retreat that a Britain outside the EU and the U.S. under Trump can “lead together again” in the world, as they did when they set up the United Nations, NATO and other international organizations the new president has strongly criticized.
Throughout the more than half-hour of her speech, May declared sympathy for Trump’s world view, then reminded the gathered Republicans – and by extension the president – of the United States’ international obligations.
She also joined in Trump’s criticism of past U.S. foreign policy, saying “the days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.”
The comment could be read as a critique of military interventions in Iraq and Libya, and suggested an insular approach to the world that echoes Trump’s “America First” stance.
But May also said Britain was a strongly internationalist nation that supports a strong EU and considers NATO the bulwark of global security.
May praised Trump’s dedication to fighting violent Islamic extremism, but seemed to reject his suggestion for a ban on immigration by Muslims. She once called the idea “divisive, stupid and wrong.”
“We should always be careful to distinguish between this extreme and hateful ideology, and the peaceful religion of Islam and the hundreds of millions of its adherents,” she said at the Republican gathering.
May acknowledged the need to work with Russia to end the war in Syria, but drew applause when she cautioned that the West’s approach to President Vladimir Putin should be “engage but beware.”
She spoke of Iran’s “malign influence,” but praised the international deal that has limited its nuclear program. And she acknowledged fears about the rise of China, but said the growth of Asian economies “is hugely welcome.”
Amid the foreign-policy suggestions, May wooed Republicans with an ode to the “special relationship” between the two countries. Her remarks were dotted with references to Winston Churchill, the Magna Carta and – of course – Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, a famously friendly Republican president and Conservative prime minister.
May’s carrot-and-stick approach to Trump is politically risky. She is under fire at home for seeking to get close to a president who has renewed his commitment to building a Mexican border wall, moved to pull the U.S. out of international trade treaties and said he thinks torturing terrorism suspects works.
May told reporters aboard her Royal Air Force plane flying to the U.S. that “we absolutely condemn the use of torture.”
Britain’s official policy is to halt intelligence-sharing with countries that practice torture. May did not say what her government would do if the U.S. reinstated waterboarding, which has been called a form of torture and was banned under President Barack Obama. But she said, “Our position has not changed.”
May said her talks with Trump in the Oval Office will focus on the fight against the Islamic State group,the future of NATO and Britain’s desire for a quick trade deal.
Not all leaders are as keen as May to meet Trump. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on Thursday canceled a planned trip to Washington next week due to his disagreement with Trump over which country should pay for the promised wall.
Critics say May’s desire for new economic partners outside the EU’s single market of 500 million people is blinding her to Trump’s disregard for facts and civil liberties, sweeping edicts and isolationist stance.
Historian Simon Schama dubbed May “Theresa Appeaser,” while Labour Party lawmaker Ed Miliband tweeted that her warm words for Trump should make her fellow Conservatives “feel queasy.”
Trump has spoken enthusiastically about having a free-trade deal with Britain, although been cool on trade agreements generally. He is pulling the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – a deal Obama worked hard on – and has promised to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.
May, in contrast, has vowed Britain will champion free trade around the world.
On a personal level, the leaders could hardly be more different. Trump is a brash, spotlight-loving businessman; May is a small-town vicar’s daughter who rose to the political top through prudence, caution and the avoidance of personal ostentation and controversy. Her most flamboyant feature is a fondness for leopard-print kitten-heel shoes.
May insisted that the U.S.-U.K. relationship was not built on personalities.
“It’s existed through many different prime ministers and presidents,” she said aboard the plane. “I want to build on that relationship. I believe, from the conversations I’ve already had with Donald Trump, that he does, too.”
And, she added: “Sometimes opposites attract.”