WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May appeared chummy as they faced a curious world together for the first time Friday, pledging allegiance to the special relationship between their countries while trying to mask stark differences on some major issues.
It was Trump’s first White House meeting with a foreign head of state, a hastily arranged confab held precisely one week after the businessman and reality TV star, who remains a largely unknown figure to European audiences, was sworn into office as president.
Trump sought to charm May from the outset, showing her the bust of Prime Minister Winston Churchill that he’s using to decorate the Oval Office. He then opened a joint news conference by noting that his late mother was born in “Stornoway, which is serious Scotland.” Scotland is part of Great Britain.
Trump and May were seen briefly holding hands as they walked along the White House colonnade after leaving the Oval Office. Their talks continued in the State Dining Room over lunch of iceberg wedge salad, braised beef short ribs with potato puree and salted caramel crème brulee.
For her part, May congratulated Trump on his “stunning election victory,” and announced that he had accepted the queen’s invitation for a state visit for the president and his wife, first lady Melania Trump, later this year.
But the attempts at mutual flattery didn’t completely mask the leaders’ differences over some issues, including NATO and Russia.
May tried to push Trump toward positions she supports, noting that he had assured her he was “100 percent” behind NATO, a world body he has dismissed as “obsolete.” Trump did not contradict May as they stood together and answered journalists’ questions in the White House East Room.
May also took a tougher stance on sanctions against Russia.
When asked how close the U.S. is to lifting penalties that were imposed on Russia after its incursion into Ukraine, Trump said it was “very early to be talking about that.” May said sanctions should remain until a 2015 cease-fire agreement for Ukraine is fully implemented.
Trump has been less critical of Russia and its leader, President Vladimir Putin, than his predecessor and some lawmakers, including fellow Republicans. He has cast doubt on findings by U.S. intelligence officials that Russia interfered in the presidential election to help him win the White House, and has praised Putin’s leadership. Trump’s stance has fueled speculation that he could ease or remove the sanctions against Russia.
Trump also reiterated his belief that torture works. Britain takes a vocal stand against it.
The appearance alongside May was more amiable than Trump’s most recent public appearance with a foreign leader: a joint news conference with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto last August. Trump was more staid and serious then, and read from lengthy prepared remarks.
Coincidentally, Trump and May met a day after Pena Nieto canceled his own trip to Washington next week amid disagreement with Trump over which of their countries will pay for the wall Trump wants to build along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump says Mexico will pay; Mexico says it won’t.
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 was on a bit of a scouting mission.
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, and is eager for a bilateral trade deal with the U.S. The United States is Britain’s biggest export market, and such a trade deal would be a major prize.
Trump has drawn parallels between Britain’s choice to leave the EU and his own success, using the Brexit vote last June to bolster his derision of the 28-nation bloc and his preference for striking bilateral agreements.
Often combative in the presence of journalists, Trump seemed relaxed and humorous alongside May. At one point, after a British journalist asked whether people should be alarmed by his past statements, Trump joked: “This was your choice of a question? There goes that relationship.”
He backed May’s determination to make Britain strong and prosperous once it leaves the European Union, saying he thought Brexit would be “a tremendous asset and not a tremendous liability.”
And when asked whether the two very different leaders had found common ground, Trump said they had.
“I think we’re going to get along very well,” he said. “I am a people person. I think you are also, Theresa.”
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