“I fear that this has become a bad relationship. A relationship based on the president taking exactly what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to, erm… Britain. … A friend who bullies us is no longer a friend. And since bullies only respond to strength, from now onward, I will be prepared to be much stronger. And the president should be prepared for that.”
These are strong words from a humiliated Prime Minister to a brash American president who takes both political and sexual liberties.
Of course, those are the lines from Hugh Grant’s bumbling but charming PM in the movie Love Actually. Unfortunately, they are not the words our Prime Minister used when faced with an eerily similar situation.
At a key moment in the complex negotiations over Brexit, Trump had barrelled in to his meeting with Theresa May with an explosive interview in the Sun. In it, he had attacked the Prime Minister on her approach to the negotiations with Europe, and effectively allied himself with the hardline Brexiteer rebels in her government, especially Boris Johnson, who resigned as foreign secretary just days before the presidential visit.
Trump has his own line in flattery, too; like all cowards, he saves his most powerful attacks for when he is not face-to-face with their recipient. “It was very special, it was really something,” he said about his and May’s dinner at Blenheim Palace at their joint press conference at Chequers on Friday afternoon. He flattered May, contradicting his remarks from the interview, which had been made only the previous day.
Reading his remarks, as always, appeared to take all of Trump’s cognitive bandwidth; understanding their content on the other hand is an exercise in which Trump seems entirely uninterested. You can hear it in his voice, as he spells out words syllabically without seeming to note their meaning at all.
“Whatever you do is OK with us,” he said as a throwaway line, probably the closest May will come to hearing an apology from Trump on his the Sun interview slamming her leadership on Brexit. The author of the Sun interview, Tom Newton-Dunn, was there; Trump said “I said lots of nice things, why didn’t you write those?”
“I did write those,” he protested.
“I wish they’d put them in the headline,” Trump responded, proving, if evidence were needed, that he had not read the article. Of course he hadn’t. He never does.
Asked by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg about the disparities between what he said in the interview and his comments today, Trump said that the interview was “basically fine” but also called the Sun “fake news,” so, you may make of that what you will. The words he uses are ultimately always meaningless. The president, as always, rambled incoherently across the countryside of foreign relations, snatching words and names from a word-salad seemingly at random at points.
May, for her part, remained under control, and succeeded in not rolling her eyes at the juggernaut of vacuous crap rolling beside her.
Asked to defend his remarks that immigration had “damaged the cultural fabric” of Europe, the president doubled down, as he always does. “I just think it’s changing the culture. I think it’s a very negative thing for Europe,” Trump said, unthinkingly echoing the substance of white supremacist dogma. “I know it’s not politically correct to say that,” he added, “but I will say that, and I will say it loud. … it’s a very sad situation, it’s very unfortunate.”
“We are doing very well considering we virtually don’t have immigration laws,” he added bizarrely.
“The UK has a proud history of welcoming people fleeing persecution,” Theresa May said, ignoring both Trump and Britain’s recent shameful history of failing to meet their obligations to take in refugees from the Syrian civil war. “Of course what is important is that we have control of our borders,” she added. Trump seemed to like that, of course, as it contained the correct Trumpian buzzwords, and that was May’s main audience.
She squirmed, but kept control as Trump explained to her that “NBC is possibly worse than CNN,” apropos of nothing, always returning to his safe ground of attacking the free press. May, stood beside him, was like a harried substitute teacher, trying to control of but also standing in fear of a giant but powerful toddler.
“That Brexit is a very tough situation”, Trump said, appearing to repeat something May must have said to him a hundred times. “I would give our relationship the highest level of special. Am I allowed to go higher than that, I’m not sure,” he replied when asked how he would characterise the special relationship, before turning back to slam CNN again.
We live in an era where life imitates art at its most ridiculous, but it imitates it as a pale, incompetent shadow. Just like in the film, the American president humiliated the British PM; but in their joint press conference on Friday afternoon, Theresa May declined to stand up to Trump, choosing instead to do what everyone does: flatter his ego, and tell him what he wants to hear. Pretend, against all the available evidence, that everything is fine. Keep calm and carry on.
It was a depressingly British performance.