President Donald Trump will host British Prime Minister Theresa May at the White House on Friday, marking his first face-to-face meeting with a foreign leader since assuming office.
The meeting comes as May continues to lay the groundwork for the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union — the so-called Brexit movement that Trump often lauded and compared with his own campaign, saying both were propelled by widespread voter unrest over immigration laws they viewed as lax and disdain for trade policies pushed by “global elites.”
May arrived in Philadelphia on Thursday to address the annual Republican congressional retreat and told reporters before the event that she plans to use the meeting with Trump to discuss a future trade deal with the United States, to emphasize the importance of the NATO peacekeeping alliance that Trump has described as “obsolete,” and to discuss counterterrorism efforts.
“The leadership provided by our two countries through the ‘special relationship’ has done more than win wars and overcome adversity — it made the modern world,” May told GOP lawmakers.
The term ‘special relationship’ was coined by Winston Churchill in 1946 to describe the close diplomatic ties between the U.K. and the United States following World War II, and has been used by leaders from both countries ever since.
While Trump has thrown the diplomatic community into disarray in the weeks leading up to his inauguration — questioning the relevance of the 68-year-old NATO alliance, expressing his support for Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and tweeting directly at foreign powers such as North Korea and China — White House press secretary Sean Spicer indicated the “special relationship” between the United States and U.K. would be upheld.
“We can always be closer,” Spicer told reporters at a Monday press briefing.
Maintaining a strong alliance with the U.K. is “critical” for the United States’ national security and military interests abroad, said Steve Israel, chairman of the Long Island University Global Institute, and a Democrat who retired from his Long Island congressional seat last year after eight terms in office.
“The U.S. has no closer ally than the U.K. based on common language, ideals and democratic values,” said Israel, who once served on the House Armed Services Committee. “From World War I to countering the Islamic State, that alliance has largely underpinned global security and stability . . . the U.K. hosts 9,000 military personnel . . . we have intel sites there, it’s just an absolutely critical and essential partnership.”
Trump enters the meeting having come under scrutiny for a series of actions perceived by some British government officials as slights against the prime minister, according to British media reports.
He met twice at Trump Tower with British politician Nigel Farage — a member of the right-wing U.K. Independence Party that has often been at odds with May’s ruling Conservative Party — and in a Twitter post recommended Farage be named Britain’s ambassador to the United States.
Diplomatic protocol experts contend Trump should have met with May first out of respect for her office, and say heads of state typically refrain from making public recommendations about ambassadorships or other high-level appointments to their foreign counterparts.