British Prime Minister Theresa May looked like she'd scored a coup when she became the first world leader to meet U.S. President Donald Trump last week and she stressed that the visit illustrated the special relationship between the two countries.
But now, four days after their meeting, Ms. May is struggling to deal with Mr. Trump's order restricting refugees and banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Parliament has seen an outcry over Mr. Trump's actions and Ms. May's muted criticism. Protesters took to the streets across the country and more than one million people have also signed a petition demanding that Ms. May cancel a state visit by the President.
It's a tough and early lesson for Ms. May and other leaders about how to deal with the mercurial U.S. President. Ms. May has been grappling with how to balance Britain's need for a strong trade relationship with the United States, especially with the Brexit process about to start, against the pressure from people at home who want her to stand up to Mr. Trump. It's a trick other leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, will have to master as well if they want to get along with Mr. Trump and cope with his outbursts.
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It all started so well for Ms. May. In the days leading up to her Washington visit last Friday, she hailed her invitation to the White House as a triumph of U.S.-British relations and saw it as a vindication for her refusal to engage with Nigel Farage, the former leader of the ardently pro-Brexit United Kingdom Independence Party who had been to see Mr. Trump twice since the U.S. election and mocked the Prime Minister for not getting there first. Ms. May also vowed to be tough with Mr. Trump when called for, telling reporters: "Whenever there is something that I find unacceptable, I won't be afraid to say that to President Trump."
The visit went off without a hitch. Mr. Trump had high praise for Brexit and promised to start discussions on a trade deal with Britain, something Ms. May keenly needs to demonstrate the value of being outside the European Union. The two leaders talked about building a relationship much like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had in the 1980s and they even held hands at one point, though officials said later that it was more of a chivalrous gesture by Mr. Trump to help Ms. May navigate a ramp. Ms. May felt so assured by Mr. Trump that she invited him to Britain for a state dinner hosted by the Queen. He promptly accepted.
But within hours of leaving Washington, Ms. May confronted the reality of dealing with Mr. Trump's impulsive behaviour. During a stopover in Turkey on her way back to Britain, she was asked repeatedly about Mr. Trump's executive order restricting the flow of refugees and temporarily banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries. At first she demurred, saying only that, "the United States is responsible for the United States' policy on refugees. The United Kingdom is responsible for the United Kingdom's policy on refugees."
That fell flat in Britain, where opposition to the travel ban was building. Party leaders and many members of her own government criticized the ban and attacked Ms. May for being silent. There were also growing calls to cancel the invitation to Mr. Trump, including a petition that has now topped 1.4 million signatures. By Monday, protests were being held in London and other cities condemning Mr. Trump's actions.
"Donald Trump should not be welcomed to Britain while he abuses our shared values with his shameful Muslim ban and attacks on refugees' and women's rights," Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn said. Others were more blunt. One Labour MP described Mr. Trump as a "wretched and bigoted man," another said Jesus would be banned from travelling to the U.S.
"Strong leadership means not being afraid to tell someone powerful when they're wrong," Tory MP Heidi Allen said, while another Tory MP, Nadhim Zahawi, who is of Iraqi origin, said it was "a sad, sad day to feel like a second-class citizen."
Ms. May scrambled to clarify her remarks, saying she did "not agree with this kind of approach and it is not one we will be taking." Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson went further, calling Mr. Trump's order "divisive and wrong."
During a parliamentary debate Monday on Mr. Trump's measures, Mr. Johnson said he had told American officials that it's wrong "to promulgate policies that stigmatize people on the basis of their nationality."
However, Mr. Johnson rejected calls to cancel the state visit by Mr. Trump. "He is the elected head of state of our closest and most important ally and there is absolutely no reason why he should not be accorded a state visit, and every reason why he should," he said, adding that the best way to influence change was to engage.
At one point, Mr. Johnson noted that Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had been hosted by the Queen, and he said Mr. Trump's "bark is considerably worse than his bite." Mr. Johnson also talked about trade and the "vital importance" of the U.S.-British relationship.
By Monday evening, Ms. May tried to refocus on Brexit as well, with a series of meetings with the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. But her efforts were overshadowed by the debate about Mr. Trump and she was forced to defend the state visit invitation to him.
"The United States is a close ally of the United Kingdom, we work together across many areas of mutual interest and we have that special relationship between us," she said. "I have formally issued that invitation to President Trump and that invitation stands."