Trump and May underscore US-UK special relationship

Donald Trump and Theresa May

Donald Trump and Theresa May

US President Donald Trump on Friday pledged America’s “lasting support” with Britain after he emerged from his first meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May, a leader hoping to nudge the populist president toward the political mainstream.

May, who said the meeting gave the two a chance to build a relationship, announced that Trump had accepted an invitation from Queen Elizabeth II for a state visit later this year with his wife, First Lady Melania Trump.

“I am honoured to have the prime minister here for our first official visit from a foreign leader,” Trump said, standing alongside May in the ornate White House East Room. “This is our first visit so, great honour.”

He added that the United States and the United Kingdom have “one of the great bonds.”

“We pledge our lasting support to this most special relationship,” Trump said during brief opening remarks. “Together, America and the United Kingdom are a beacon for prosperity and the rule of law.”

May congratulated Trump on what she called his “decisive victory” and thanked the president for inviting her to visit so soon after his inauguration last Friday, saying their meeting was an indication of the strength and the importance of maintaining good relations between the trans-Atlantic allies.

She said there was “much on which we agree,” adding that Trump had given strong backing to NATO, an alliance that the US president has previously called obsolete, raising fears that the US might not come to the aid of countries that don’t meet targets for their own defense spending. May’s comments were meant to put those concerns to rest.

“Today’s talks, I think, are a significant moment for President Trump and I [sic] to build our relationship,” May said.

While May took a tough stance when asked about sanctions on Russia, insisting they won’t be lifted until the Minsk ceasefire agreement has been fully implemented in Ukraine, Trump did not go as far, saying it is still “very early to be talking about that”.

The new American leader, who is due to speak with his Russian counterpart in a telephone call on Saturday, said he hoped to forge a “fantastic relationship” with Vladimir Putin. “We’ll see what happens,” he added.

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.

Her visit, so soon after Trump’s inauguration, has been criticised by her political opponents, and risks being overshadowed by the flood of announcements, plans and proposals coming out of the White House.

Trump is something of a mystery to world leaders, many of whom expected Democrat Hillary Clinton to win the election. They also don’t know his administration’s main interlocutors with foreign governments, including son-in-law Jared Kushner and senior adviser Steve Bannon, a conservative media executive.

So May is a bit of a scouting party – or guinea pig – among global politicians.

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 US, 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.

That puts May in an awkward spot. She wants a good relationship with Trump, but does not share his disdain for the EU, saying it’s in Britain’s interests that it succeed.

During the press conference, Trump called Brexit a “fantastic thing” for the UK, concluding, “I think when it irons out, you’re going to have your own identity, and you’re going to have the people that you want in your country.”

Trump ‘going with leaders’ on torture

Pressed about his stance on torture, Trump – who, since taking office, has signaled a renewed embrace of the practice in the fight against Islamic extremism – said he would defer to the views of his defense secretary, James Mattis, who has questioned the effectiveness of waterboarding, which simulates drowning.

“He has stated publicly that he does not necessarily believe in torture or waterboarding, or however you want to define it — enhanced interrogation I guess would be a word that a lot of … words that a lot of people would like to use. I don’t necessarily agree. But I would tell you that he will override because I’m giving him that power. He’s an expert,” Trump said. He called Mattis a “general’s general,” whom he would rely upon.

“I happen to feel that it does work. I’ve been open about that for a long period of time. But I am going with our leaders. And we’re going to win with or without. But I do disagree.”