High stakes and friction points for ‘special relationship’ between Trump and UK’s May

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U.S. President Donald Trump looks down at a bust of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill  while meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 27, 2017.   REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTSXP6M

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JUDY WOODRUFF: In contrast to the ban on refugees, the White House opened its doors today to the United States’ most trusted ally.

As Margaret Warner reports, in the face of uncharted waters, there was an appreciation of a shared history.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It is a great honor to have Winston Churchill back.

MARGARET WARNER: President Trump had a warm Oval Office welcome for Prime Minister May, as the two posed beside a bust of Britain’s greatest wartime leader.

And both are now trying to steer their countries in new directions amid great uncertainty. May is charting Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union after the public voted for Brexit, which triggered her predecessor David Cameron’s resignation. May didn’t support leaving the E.U. either, but she’s now pledged to see it through, insisting it will be a clean break.

THERESA MAY, British Prime Minister: Brexit means Brexit, and we’re going to make a success of it.

MARGARET WARNER: Last April in London, then-President Obama warned a vote to leave the E.U. would jeopardize a future U.S.-U.K. trade agreement.

FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Because our focus is in negotiating with a big bloc, the European Union, to get a trade agreement done. And the U.K. is going to be in the back of the queue.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Trump, however, was a vocal Brexit supporter.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: People want to take their country back.

MARGARET WARNER: And Nigel Farage, the man who led the Brexit movement, campaigned with Mr. Trump, and visited him in New York just days after his election.

Atop May’s agenda now is to get President Trump to commit to negotiate a bilateral trade deal as soon as Britain leaves the E.U. Yet, President Trump vows to put America first, and has already issued some protectionist orders, like insisting new oil pipelines be built with American steel.

Britain’s ambassador to the U.S., Sir Kim Darroch, said what May needs now is a pledge to negotiate a deal, not the details.

SIR KIM DARROCH, U.S. Ambassador to the United States: As we leave the E.U., we intend to go global to have a global series of trading relationships. I think it’s reassuring to the British public to know that the door over here is open to doing a deal quickly.

MARGARET WARNER: Julian Borger, The Guardian’s world affairs editor, said negotiating an exit from the E.U. won’t be easy.

JULIAN BORGER, The Guardian: It is going to be economically and politically very costly to do. Trump’s arrival is really a political lifeline for her. She can say, we are now global Britain. We look beyond Europe. We have — there’s a whole world out there that’s willing to buy our stuff and stand with us. And U.S. is exhibit A, our closest ally, special relationship. These sort of ideas and phrases really resonate in the U.K.

MARGARET WARNER: Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Heather Conley said Mr. Trump had a lot at stake in this visit as well.

HEATHER CONLEY, Director, Europe Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies: President Trump needs a successful meeting with his first foreign leader. This is important. He needs to assume and be very presidential. He needs a command of the brief. He needs to make sure that he represents the United States in a very clear fashion with details and with substance.

MARGARET WARNER: Ever since World War II, both countries have hailed their — quote — “special relationship.”

In the 1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan stood firm against the Soviet Union. In the 2000s, Prime Minister Tony Blair joined President George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, at great political cost to Blair.

Today, the prime minister wanted to persuade Mr. Trump to maintain that security partnership, standing firm against Russian adventurism in Ukraine, and maintaining U.S. support for NATO, on which he’s sent mixed signals.

Days before taking office, Mr. Trump told The Times of London and the German newspaper Bild that NATO was obsolete because it wasn’t taking care of terror. He complained that other members aren’t paying their fair share, “very unfair to the United States.” Then he added, “With that being said, NATO is very important to me.”

There are other differences too. May, who criticized candidate Trump’s proposals to ban Muslim immigrants and his crude comments about women, is under pressure at home to make those differences clear here. She told a BBC interviewer last weekend:

THERESA MAY: Some of the comments that Donald Trump has made in relation to women are unacceptable. Whenever there is something that I find unacceptable, I won’t be afraid to say that to Donald Trump.

MARGARET WARNER: Another friction point, Mr. Trump’s suggestion that the U.S. should reinstate torture and other harsh interrogation techniques. She responded Wednesday in Parliament.

THERESA MAY: We do not sanction torture. We do not get involved with that, and that will continue to be our position.

MARGARET WARNER: Today, their differences on torture and maintaining sanctions on Russia were front and center when they met reporters.

On other matters, the president affirmed the two nations’ close partnership.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have one of the great bonds. We pledge our lasting support to this most special relationship.

MARGARET WARNER: But he didn’t say a word about a bilateral trade agreement, nor about NATO. That left it up to the prime minister to assert that they’d had a meeting of the minds on both.

On trade:

THERESA MAY: We are discussing how we can establish a trade negotiation agreement, take forward immediate high-level talks, lay the groundwork for U.K.-U.S. trade agreement.

MARGARET WARNER: And on NATO, after saying London would urge other members to hike their defense spending, she added:

THERESA MAY: We have reaffirmed our unshakable commitment to this alliance. Mr. President, I think you said, confirmed that you’re 100 percent behind NATO.

MARGARET WARNER: He didn’t respond on NATO. And on the prospects for a trade deal, he said only:

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My position on trade has been solid for many, many years, since I was a very young person talking about how we were getting ripped off by the rest of the world. But we will be talking to your folks about Brexit.

MARGARET WARNER: May will have to walk a fine line forging a close relationship with Mr. Trump. Thousands of protesters massed in London Saturday in opposition to him.

Again, Julian Borger:

JULIAN BORGER: He’s seen as volatile, unpredictable. Some of his remarks are seen as racist. He seems as a dangerous player on the international stage, and also suspected because of his complete refusal to say anything negative about Vladimir Putin or Moscow, who are both viewed deeply unfavorably in the U.K.

MARGARET WARNER: So there’s much work ahead for this special relationship to blossom anew.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Margaret Warner.

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