He came suddenly out of a clear blue sky. Ensconced in his Black Hawk Marine One helicopter, and flanked by three Osprey MV22 tiltrotor military choppers, Donald Trump descended on the English countryside like an alien invader.
The engines were deafening and a dust cloud blown up from the dry paths below almost obscured the view of Chequers, Theresa May’s grace-and-favour Tudor home.
It proved to be a taste of things to come, as the President proceeded to stage an extraordinary press conference in which he generated so much noise, and kicked up so much chaff, that Britain’s so-called ‘special relationship’ with the US was left reeling.
Things had started off so well. This was the morning after the night before’s Sun interview, in which he slated her Brexit plan, backed Boris Johnson and suggested May had spurned his advice. Trump largely stuck to the script in front of him as he stood at the lectern in the un-British hot sunshine, trying to lower the temperature.
May referred to him as ‘Donald’ and the President read slowly, like a schoolboy reading a particularly tricky piece of prose, from his prepared speech. He said how delighted he was to be at Chequers, which he claimed he’d read about as a child.
Trump began by being conciliatory about Brexit and for May he needed to be. He was standing in front of the very building where exactly a week earlier the PM had secured what she thought was one of her greatest political triumphs, getting her entire Cabinet to agree to a ‘soft’ customs plan.
Yet within minutes he departed from the words in front of him, raising the idea that Britain may not actually leave the EU at all.
There was a supremely Trump-like moment when he said she had not taken up his ‘suggestion’ on Brexit. This ‘suggestion’ remains a mystery, though some present speculated that it could be the refusal to pay the UK’s bills to the EU. “I think she found it too brutal, I could fully understand why it was a little bit tough,” he said.
For good measure, he again raised the prospect that there would be no UK-US trade deal if May remained too close to Brussels. “I don’t know what you’re going to do. Perhaps the UK will have left, but whatever you do is OK with us – just make sure you can trade with us”.
Not for the first time during the event, May was firm in response. “I heard the turn of phrase the President used earlier, let me be clear: we are leaving the European Union.”
Love Actually Moment?
It was during the Q&A that Trump really let rip on what seemed to be his main theme, the dangers of immigration, linking it explicitly to terrorism and claiming it was the real reason Brits voted for Brexit. It felt like the most borderline racist set of remarks by any President on British soil in living memory.
Again, May made clear she disagreed. Asked if immigration had damaged the cultural fabric of Europe, as Trump claimed in his Sun interview, she replied by talking about the UK’s “proud history of welcoming people who flee persecution or want to contribute to our economy and society”. “Over the years, immigration has been good for the UK,” she said.
It wasn’t quite the ‘Love Actually’ moment some had been urging on her, but it put down a marker. If she’d really wanted to ram home the point, May could have pointed out that Trump’s own mother was a migrant from Scotland to the US. Still, No.10 did perhaps the next best thing, later presenting to him a gift of an illustrated ancestral chart of the lineage of his maternal line Mary Anne Macleod.
The press conference itself was supposed to be more tightly controlled than Trump’s previous free-wheeling displays. Both the White House and Downing Street prefer a controlled environment. So much so that when May was planning her trip to Washington in 2017, there was even the idea of ditching the traditional press conference.
Instead, the plan was to stage a three-minute pooled clip of the two leaders, sitting together sipping Earl Grey tea. And not in the White House, in Trump Tower in New York. The idea was killed off amid fears that a 40-strong press pack would not see the funny side of a plan that didn’t include a single media question.
Fast forward to Chequers, July 2018, and Trump’s loathing of the media proved too tempting. What was meant to be a 10 minute Q&A turned into a full-blown, 28-minute shoot-from-the-lip performance, Trump firing out news lines on everything from immigration to nuclear disarmament to Brexit.
Squeaky Bum Time
Just before the event, the CNN anchor had said it may be unlikely that the President would repeat his praise of Boris Johnson. He added this rider: “It’s a day that ends with a ‘y’ so anything is possible”.
And so it proved, and May had to look on helplessly as the ex-Foreign Secretary received the Presidential seal of approval as a future PM. Jeremy Hunt, who was sitting in not far away and wearing sunglasses, appeared to visibly shift in his seat.
Right from the start, the hostility between Trump and his own media was palpable. This was the first ever press conference where I’ve not seen the White House press corps stand to attention on the arrival of their Commander in Chief. British journalists never get to their feet for our PM, but it was a strange sight to see the Americans follow suit.
At one point, the mobile phone of Robert Peston, ITV’s political editor, went off, its hunting horn ring tone sharply apt as the President tried to shoot down his critics with cries of ‘Fake News!’. From refusing CNN a question, to the press hacks heckling him and his bizarre decision to suggest a bald reporter took his hat off, it was classic Trump, 2018 vintage.
In Chequers itself, there is a stained glass window that reads: “This house of peace and ancient memories was given to England as a thank-offering for her deliverance in the great war of 1914–1918 as a place of rest and recreation for her Prime Ministers for ever.”
Trump at least made a nodding reference to the need to maintain alliances as he pointed out that Churchill was in Chequers when he rang Roosevelt after Pearl Harbour, the act of aggression that finally forced the US to ally with Britain once more to fight a second war in Europe. “It was a victory and a total victory,” he said.
Yet for all his talk about uniting Nato and the benefit of having US troops to protect Europe, he swiftly undermined it by adding “there is also a benefit not to do it”. One big surprise came when he suggested he could sort a deal with Putin to reduce both America’s and Russia’s nuclear arsenals.
Quixotic, folksy, with an eye on the bottom line, his words were a study in Trumpism: “Proliferation, to me, is the biggest problem in the world. I understand nuclear. I used to talk nuclear with my uncle. It is the biggest problem the world has. We aren’t the only ones who have nukes. It would be the other ones that have to come along. Ideally get rid of them, that’s a dream. It’s also very expensive.”
Another US President, Richard Nixon (who curiously arranged for Chequers to have a swimming pool installed after a visit in the 1970s) was the first to come up with what he called the “madman theory” of nuclear warfare: the idea that American’s enemies would be deterred if they thought the US President was so unhinged he would press the button.
So far in his dealings with North Korea, Trump may have shown that the madman theory works. His ‘friend’ Boris Johnson was famously caught on tape recently saying “I have become more and more convinced that there is method in his madness”. And after today’s word-blizzard of a press conference, there is some supporting evidence.
Sir Alan Duncan tried to play down the Sun interview by saying: “He’s a controversialist”. One former aide said that the No.10 team had long known Trump’s style. “He’s a provocateur, deliberately so. Steve Bannon [Trump’s former strategist] once told us: ‘He’s going to say stuff like that, that’s just his style’. Now everyone’s talking about Nato and spending. So, in a sense it’s effective, but it’s the way he does it that causes problems.
“I think the jury’s out on whether he doesn’t understand the consequences of what he says or whether he understands them all too well. It’s possible the whole thing is much more strategic than people give it credit for, not necessarily because of him but those around him.”
In some ways perhaps, we should be grateful to Trump for exposing the reality behind the carefully choreographed sham of summits and foreign visits. He’s laid bare that all that matters is raw national interest. It would be stretching it to call his approach to politics ‘strategic’, as it is instead just him setting a serious of goals and bullying his way into getting them.
On Nato spending, he has indeed forced European countries to increase their contributions. On North Korea, he’s so far stopped missile testing. However much he’s disliked overseas, back home he is delivering his Republican backers a huge tax cut plan and the most socially conservative Supreme Court in a generation.
“The Highest Level Of Special”
For Theresa May, Friday was yet another day where she had to wade through Trump’s excesses and bank the small victories. Trump had been forced to say the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US was “the highest grade... the highest level of special”. He had to agree that he couldn’t reduce sanctions on Putin over Crimea.
At the start, she said the US leader was “prepared to say things that others might rather not hear”, while gently making clear her own position. On Nato, she offered a subtle reminder that its nations had only ever invoked its Article 5 edict on joint defence – to rally around America after the 9/11 attack.
Amid the chaos of the press conference, May even seemed to loosen her usual reserve. “Lots of people give me advice about how to negotiate with the EU,” she said pointedly. But few actually have to do it, she added. And the biggest prize of all for her, on this very trying day, came when Trump admitted to the Daily Mail that “she can’t walk away” from the EU with no deal. That one answer gave her all the ammunition she may need to fend off the Borises, Bills and Bernards in coming months.
It was as if she had come to the realisation that Trump was so predictably unpredictable that the only way to handle him was to watch for what he did rather than said. Trump still has the power to surprise, but not to shock. As they packed up, even the photographers seemed bored by yet another hand-holding snap, its currency devalued from over-use.
As the final questions of the press conference were asked, in a nearby field cows were lowing, as if to say ‘we’ve heard enough now’. May’s face seemed to say the same. As Trump’s helicopters left with another dust cloud, she looked like she’d survived the storm.