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Trump Tests The U.S.-U.K.'s 'Special Relationship'


President Trump is stress testing the special relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. Hours after landing in London, he broke protocol, undercut Prime Minister Theresa May and blasted the London mayor. In an interview with The Sun newspaper, he chastised the British prime minister, accusing her of not listening to him when it comes to how she should handle Brexit. Then, at a press conference, standing right next to Prime Minister May, he seemed to change his tune.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This incredible woman right here is doing a fantastic job, a great job.

MARTIN: With us now, Lord Peter Ricketts. He spent more than 40 years as a diplomat and in national security. And he's currently a fellow at Harvard University. Lord Ricketts, thanks for being with us.

PETER RICKETTS: It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: President Trump says that at this point, after they have had the state dinner last night, that he and Theresa May have a much stronger relationship than they had two days ago. Do you think that's true?

RICKETTS: Well, I think it's been the first exposure to the president's style for many people in the U.K. and probably many of the press as well. And it's been something of a rollercoaster, actually, quite an experience. As you say, the day started with headlines about his interview with The Sun, which were hardly helpful to Theresa May or her Brexit project. And then we just had a press conference where he was fulsome in his support and backing for the prime minister, with a lot of very pleasant things to say about her.

So, I mean, I deduced from that that the dinner last night with a lot of industrialists and corporate leaders and then the talks this morning have helped him to get a bit of perspective on the U.K. and the issues that we're confronting with Brexit. And he's heard a lot from the prime minister. And he's decided to put a much more positive gloss on the visit than was the case when he was arriving.

MARTIN: It was interesting, though, to see Theresa May standing there next to Donald Trump and not acknowledging any of what he had said in just hours previous, even calling out Boris Johnson. President Trump said that Boris Johnson, her now former foreign secretary, would make a great prime minister.

RICKETTS: Yes. And Mrs. May was in a very, very difficult position because the president's - this is the president's first visit to the U.K. as president. He's not going on a state visit, but it's a very formal visit with a lot of ceremonial. And I think everyone here, from Mrs. May down, wants to make the visit a success, to show respect for the president - quite apart from the personality of Donald Trump - and that it should go well and that it should strengthen what for us is still, I mean, I know special relationship is sometimes overused but a key strategic relationship with the U.K.

So she has to try to steer a path on this rather difficult day. And she's chosen not to up the public rhetoric with the president. And indeed, the president was cooling the rhetoric in the press conference just now. So I think Mrs. May is looking at the long-run key interests we have in good relations with whoever is the president of the time. And she's been handling her rather difficult media moments in that spirit.

MARTIN: What do you make of President Trump's remarks that immigration is changing the culture of Europe and not in a good way?

RICKETTS: Well, we hope that by coming to the U.K. and getting a flavor of the modern U.K. that he may take away a different impression because as the prime minister said in the press conference, yes, the U.K. has changed. Many other countries have changed over the decades, but most people here would think broadly for the better. We've had our stresses and strains over immigration, and it was a factor in the Brexit vote clearly.

But overall, it strengthened the U.K. and enriched much of our lives. And I'm sure he heard that from a lot of people he's been talking to in the U.K. But certainly, that familiar position from the president came through very strongly at several points in the press conference.

MARTIN: Does May survive this moment, though? I mean, she's suffering political pressure domestically. She's had Cabinet - key Cabinet members resign in the last week because of her Brexit plans. Now, she's got an American president on her soil demeaning her and undercutting her prime - her premiership.

RICKETTS: Well, we're getting to know the style of your president, if I may say so. It tends to start with him going in very hard, shaking the tree very strongly. He did that in the G-7 and in NATO and with Germany, and then often coming out at the end with a rather more balanced message and more praise for some aspects and, of course, then saying that this was all a great victory, and it's been a huge success. I think if the president takes away a feeling that it's been a huge success, then that's great.

It has not been easy for Mrs. May. Clearly, she's got huge domestic issues with Brexit. But the president coming this morning to say actually The Sun interview was all fake news and misunderstood, then, you know, that helps her to show that this is not something fundamental and that the fundamental relationship that we've been trying to strengthen over the last 48 hours is still there.

MARTIN: All right. Lord Peter Ricketts, longtime British diplomat. Thanks so much.

RICKETTS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.