President Trump once declared himself “Mr. Brexit,” and before his trip this week, he offered advice on Britain’s negotiations to leave the European Union.
But after arriving in London on Monday, he showed little interest in expending his time or political capital to rally the Brexit movement, which he sees as a result of the same nationalistic forces that lifted him to the presidency.
Instead, Trump spent the day tending to grievances with his critics on Twitter — he called the mayor of London a “stone cold loser” — before visiting with Queen Elizabeth II and touring Westminster Abbey. He mostly avoided talk of Brexit, the contested departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union.
Trump’s approach leaves him as the world’s most famous nationalist, but one who is somewhat distant from the debates destabilizing Europe.
His handling of the visit so far also fits a pattern. He gives candid commentary before he travels abroad on a nation’s political scene and stokes controversy that leaves officials bracing for chaos. But after he lands, he rarely uses the international stage to advance a discernible agenda or to wield his influence to shape world events.
During Trump’s last visit to the United Kingdom, he gave an explosive interview to the Sun tabloid in which he criticized Prime Minister Theresa May for not taking his advice on Brexit. Before the Group of Seven summit in Canada in 2018, Trump launched into a Twitter attack on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling him “indignant” amid a trade dispute. And at various NATO and Group of 20 summits, as well as other global gatherings, Trump has crashed into the meetings with Twitter tirades against U.S. allies — complaining about everything from defense spending to pipeline deals to trade concerns.
By the end, the view of Trump’s trips is usually more focused on the comments he made before he arrived and after he departed than on what he achieved in between.
“He’s behaving like he does in domestic politics. He’s a chaos agent,” said Brian Klass, who teaches global politics at University College London. “I don’t think there’s an endgame; I don’t think there’s a strategy.”
Trump regularly dismisses any suggestion of tumult or tensions despite prompting them in the first place.
“London part of trip is going really well,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Monday. “The Queen and the entire Royal family have been fantastic. The relationship with the United Kingdom is very strong. Haven’t seen any protests yet, but I’m sure the Fake News will be working hard to find them.”
How Trump would handle the political crisis facing Britain was the biggest question heading into the trip, including whether he would seek to buttress the prospects of any of May’s potential replacements.
But flashes of solidarity with the nationalist and Brexit-linked leaders in the United Kingdom have been scattered and lacking any evident agenda, beyond Trump being appreciative of their warm words for him.
The two leading faces of Brexit — Boris Johnson, the former foreign minister who is the front-runner to replace outgoing May, and Nigel Farage, who leads the Brexit Party that gained seats in the recent European Parliament elections — have not yet been invited to meet with Trump, according to U.S. and British officials. Farage has complained that May and her allies are blocking him from meeting with Trump, and no meeting is scheduled.
Speaking on Fox News on Monday, Farage said he nonetheless welcomed Trump’s presence and aligned himself with him, even as the president resisted the chance to tout Farage’s nationalist movement, which has surged amid frustrations over immigration and European regulations.
“Of course, Brexit isn’t just a British issue,” Farage said. “Donald Trump’s election was very much along the same kind of lines as the Brexit vote itself happened.”
Farage is one of several nationalists in Europe who have seen their political fortunes rise as voters have turned to right-wing parties. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s nationalist deputy prime minister, said last month that the European elections have created “a new geography” in the E.U., boosted by his own efforts in Italy, plus the National Rally in France and Austria’s Freedom Party, among others.
While some Trump supporters, such as former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, have strained to forge a deeper connection between the president and other nationalists, Trump habitually operates through a personal prism. There is no obvious global political project he is building, only a thicket of relationships to navigate.
“Well, I think I may meet with him. He’s been a friend of mine. He’s been very nice,” Trump said of Johnson on Friday before boarding Marine One. “I have a very good relationship with him. I have a very good relationship with Nigel Farage — with many people over there. And we’ll see what happens, but I may meet with him. They want to meet. We’ll see what happens.”
That uncertainty is a far cry from a hot summer night in 2016, when Farage appeared at a campaign rally alongside Trump in Mississippi and cast himself and Trump as champions of “little people” around the world. “I was very supportive of their right to do it and take control of their own future,” Trump said at the time of Brexit, as thousands of supporters cheered inside an arena.
Veteran Republican strategist Ed Rollins, a Trump ally, defended the president’s approach to the trip, saying he is “trying to be right down the middle in what he says, due to how hot” the Brexit debate is in Britain.
“But there is no question that the president sees the value of being associated with nationalism,” Rollins said. “It’s about saying, ‘We want what’s best for our country. We want other countries to have what’s best for them.’ He knows that resonates and it can be effective, here and there.”
For now, Trump is hewing to the traditional playbook of a U.S. president making a formal visit to Britain, albeit with repeated instances of animus that most world leaders take pains to avoid. His Monday was dominated by his meetings with British leaders and the royal family, following battles with reporters over his use of the word “nasty” in remarks last week about Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. He also publicly clashed with London Mayor Sadiq Khan on Twitter on Monday, calling him a “stone cold loser who should focus on crime in London, not me.”
When Trump stepped off Air Force One and was greeted by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, the president didn’t use the time to press Hunt on any policy issue or ask him about the Brexit fallout. He vented about Khan.
“He mentioned some of his feelings about the mayor of London, which I saw subsequently he just tweeted out as well,” Hunt told the BBC on Monday, recounting his conversation with Trump. “He wasn’t exactly saying that he’s going to be inviting Sadiq Khan for royal treatment at the White House any time soon.”
Trump lashed out at Khan after the London mayor wrote an op-ed in the Guardian calling the U.S. president “one of the most egregious examples of a growing global threat,” a reference to nationalism.
Britain voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, but it is still an E.U. member, as May has pushed for an extension to a deadline for the exit. A White House memo released Monday said Trump “supports Brexit being accomplished in a way that will not affect global economic and financial stability while also securing independence to the United Kingdom.”
Molly Montgomery, a former State Department official who now is a vice president at Albright Stonebridge Group, said Trump “certainly doesn’t shy away from populists and autocrats,” and could still meet with Farage or Johnson to be “supportive of Euroskepticism in general.”
Trump may also still publicly push his views on Brexit while in Britain, something he didn’t hesitate to do in the days ahead of his trip. He and May will hold a news conference Tuesday.
“If you don’t get the deal you want, if you don’t get a fair deal, then you walk away,” Trump said in an interview published Sunday in the Sunday Times. Trump also said he “wouldn’t pay” the $50 billion “divorce bill” to settle Britain’s financial obligations with the E.U.
“I’m only saying this from my standpoint. I would not pay; that’s a tremendous number,” Trump said.
By Monday in London, however, Trump’s attention appeared to be off Brexit and back to Khan and other topics.
Olorunnipa reported from London.