WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Theresa May went to Washington, and President Donald Trump extended the hand of friendship. Literally.
May left Washington after a 24-hour visit as Saturday’s British newspapers splashed front-page photos of the two leaders touching hands as they walked at the White House before a strikingly collegial news conference.
May wanted her meeting, Trump’s first as president with a foreign leader, to revitalize the trans-Atlantic “special relationship.” She got her wish — delighting those who think Trump’s presidency will be good for Britain but alarming others who loathe the brash Republican populist.
She goes home — after a stop in Turkey Saturday to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — with Trump’s promise to seek an early trade deal with Britain once it leaves the European Union, a commitment from the president not to abandon NATO and Trump’s praise for what he called “this most special relationship.”
Trump gets an invitation from Queen Elizabeth II to come for a state visit later this year — a treat for a president with Scottish roots and a taste for opulence.
So there was satisfaction from May’s team aboard her RAF Voyager jet at how well the hastily arranged trip had gone.
May also praised Trump’s “stunning” election victory and declared that they shared a commitment to make government serve “working people.” May’s embrace of aspects of Trump’s policies infuriated her opponents in Britain and could make other European leaders uneasy.
British Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said May “clearly spent her time with Trump dodging his despicable comments on torture, on women, on Muslims and on Mexicans.”
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said May “failed to challenge Trump and stand up for our values” at a joint news conference with the president Friday.
Trump, meanwhile, extolled Britain’s vote to leave the EU, saying Brexit would be “a tremendous asset and not a tremendous liability.”
There’s a touch of irony in Trump’s praise for Brexit Britain. May supported the losing “remain” side in the EU membership referendum and now has to implement a decision she opposed.
But those comments and the warmth of the visit drew approval from the pro-Brexit sections of Britain’s press.
“It was one of the most extraordinary days in the long history of U.K.-U.S. relations,” said the Daily Mail under the headline “Love-In at the White House” and a picture of the hand-holding moment.
May’s office said Trump offered his hand in a chivalrous gesture as the pair approached an unexpected ramp, and she took it.
The trip will provide images for countless future stories about the trans-Atlantic bond. As well as the shoulder-to-shoulder press conference, May got a handshake in the Oval Office beside a bust of Winston Churchill that has become minor obsession for sections of the British press since it was moved to another spot in the White House by President Barack Obama. Trump restored it to a prominent place beside the Oval Office fireplace.
At times it seemed the visit would be overshadowed by Trump-related headlines that had nothing to do with May, including his feud with Mexico over who would pay for the border wall.
While May was in town the White House announced that Trump would speak by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin Saturday, amid speculation he could be preparing to lift U.S. sanctions over Ukraine. May said Britain wants to see the sanctions stay in place.
And at the news conference with May, Trump repeated his belief that torture works — though he said he would defer to Defense Secretary James Mattis, who thinks otherwise. Britain, May stressed during the trip, is firmly against torture.
May had scarcely left when Trump issued an executive order barring all refugees from entering the U.S. for four months and imposing a 90-day ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries.
On the whole, May emerged from the joint appearance looking confident and controlled. Trump, too, was notably calm and measured in her presence.
When May said Trump has assured her he was “100 percent” behind NATO, a body he once called “obsolete,” the president muttered his agreement.
And he said he was confident the two very different leaders were going to get along.
“I am a people person,” Trump said. “I think you are also, Theresa.”
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