WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is set to meet his first world leader since taking office — British Prime Minister Theresa May, a friendly ally who hopes to nudge the populist president toward the political mainstream.
The visit Friday comes a day after Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto called off his own trip to Washington, planned for next week, amid wrangling over who will pay for Trump’s planned wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump’s spokesman said the president would seek a 20 percent tax on Mexican imports to pay for the barrier, then later clarified that such a tax would be a possible approach.
May’s meeting with the president in the Oval Office is being hailed by the British government as a sign that the trans-Atlantic “special relationship” is valued by the new administration.
The White House said late Thursday that May and Trump would hold talks, followed by a press conference and a working lunch — in a statement that misspelled the prime minister’s first name as Teresa. It was later corrected.
May’s visit, so soon after Trump’s inauguration, has been criticized by her political opponents, and risks being overshadowed by the flood of announcements, plans and proposals coming out of the White House. On Thursday May was repeatedly asked about Britain’s stance on torture — the U.K. condemns it — after Trump said he thinks torturing terrorism suspects works.
Trump is something of a mystery to world leaders, many of whom expected Democrat Hillary Clinton to win the election. His administration’s main interlocutors with foreign governments so far — including son-in-law Jared Kushner and senior adviser Steve Bannon, a conservative media executive — are also unknown to many of their counterparts.
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 U.S., 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.
Trump and May both addressed a Republican retreat Thursday in Philadelphia, though their visits did not overlap. During his remarks to lawmakers, Trump bemoaned the fact that Wilbur Ross, his nominee to be commerce secretary, would not be confirmed in time for a visit that was expected to focus heavily on trade.
“I don’t have my commerce secretary,” Trump said. “They want to talk trade. So I’ll have to handle it myself.”