(CN) – Amid protests, pageantry and political spats, President Donald Trump arrived in London on Monday for a three-day state visit, only the fourth by an American leader.
His arrival was met by wide-scale protests and with political leaders on the left boycotting a lavish state dinner Monday night hosted by the royal family. The refusal by the leaders of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats to be seated with Trump was blasted by those on the right as disrespectful to Britain’s closest ally.
Trump is very unpopular in the United Kingdom and his visit is even drawing unfavorable comparisons to embarrassing past visits the royal family hosted with dictators such as Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.
The president’s visit comes at a crucial moment for the U.K.: It is caught between leaving the European Union and forging an even closer relationship with the United States or remaining tied to the EU and its closest neighbors.
For Trump and his administration, there’s a clear strategy: Entice Britain to leave the EU and open up its markets, and even its government-run healthcare system, to American companies.
Many within the Conservative Party are pushing for closer ties to the U.S. and say Brexit will lead to a U.S. trade deal that will lower consumer prices and boost the U.K. economy.
But critics say such a trade deal would lead to the U.K. becoming flooded with American products adhering to low standards, such as chicken treated with chlorine and hormone-laden beef.
On the eve of Trump’s trip, fears of an American invasion were stoked when the U.S. ambassador to Britain, Woody Johnson, told a BBC interviewer that Britain’s much-beloved national healthcare system should be opened up in any eventual trade deal with the U.S.
For a president in his first term, and one so unpopular in Britain, Trump’s invitation was unusual – but the result of what many now call a rash political calculation by Conservative British Prime Minister Theresa May to win Trump’s heart.
In 2017, shortly after becoming prime minister, May made her first overseas trip to the United States and extended the offer for the state visit to Trump. At the time, May was eager to buy support for a new trade deal with the United States while she was vowing to take Britain out of the EU.
Fast forward, and May is on her way out of Downing Street, undone by her inability to get Brexit done.
Instead of forcefully breaking off ties with the EU, May found it necessary to negotiate a deal with the EU that kept Britain closely tied to Europe in order to avoid potentially catastrophic economic and political damage. But her deal was rejected three times by a deeply divided Parliament.
Now, her country’s politics are paralyzed by the impasse over Brexit and Trump has turned on May, calling her Brexit negotiations a failure. The U.S. president is now supporting some of her loudest critics who are not opposed to Britain’s leaving the EU without a deal. May and Trump are expected to sit down and talk Tuesday.
Trump arrived in London stoking turmoil – as has become routine in his trips to Europe, where many political leaders see him as damaging the transatlantic relationship and promoting far-right ideas and backing political leaders, such as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and British politician Nigel Farage, who are seeking to undermine the EU project of deeper integration on the continent.
He’s also damaged relations by imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum while also threatening even more far-reaching tariffs on agricultural goods and even automobiles. At the same time, Trump has thrown into question America’s commitment to defend Europe militarily.
True to his confrontational and spat-seeking style, Trump sparked a number of controversies before he even stepped out of Air Force One at Stansted Airport on Monday with his wife Melania Trump at his side.
Last Friday, The Sun, a right-wing British tabloid, published an interview with Trump in the Oval Office where the president said he would like to see Boris Johnson replace May as prime minister. His words were seen as a provocative breach of protocol and intervention in British politics while the Conservative Party is in the midst of a leadership contest to find May’s replacement.
“I think Boris would do a very good job. I think he would be excellent,” Trump told the tabloid. “I don’t know that he is going to be chosen, but I think he is a very good guy, a very talented person.”
In 2016, Johnson helped lead the campaign for Britain to leave the EU and in recent days he has vowed to leave the EU with or without a deal on Oct. 31 if he is prime minister. Johnson, the former mayor of London, is popular among Tories but divisive. He is considered a front-runner to replace May.
In the same interview, Trump allegedly called Meghan Markle, the American-born duchess of Sussex, “nasty” for calling him “misogynistic” and “divisive” when he was running for the presidency. He added that she would make a great “American princess.” She reportedly is not attending events along with the rest of the royal family during this state visit.
But Trump wasn’t done there.
Before arriving in London, Trump went on Twitter and renewed a long-running spat with London’s Muslim left-wing mayor, Sadiq Khan. The two men have exchanged insults since 2016 when Khan became mayor and criticized Trump for seeking to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. In return, Trump called Khan “ignorant.”
On Monday, shortly before landing in London, Trump took more swipes at Khan, saying the mayor had done “a terrible job.” He called him “a stone cold loser who should focus on crime in London, not me” and compared him to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio but “only half his height.”
For his part, Khan wrote a strongly worded indictment of Trump over the weekend in The Guardian newspaper. Khan blasted Trump for supporting white supremacists, separating immigrant children from their families, questioning climate change and fomenting xenophobia.
“Donald Trump is just one of the most egregious examples of a growing global threat,” the mayor wrote. “Trump is seen as a figurehead of this global far-right movement. Through his words and actions, he has given comfort to far-right political leaders.”
He then called it “un-British to be rolling out the red carpet” for Trump and called on May to issue a strong rebuke of Trump’s policies.
“America is like a best friend, and with a best friend you have a responsibility to be direct and honest when you believe they are making a mistake,” Khan wrote. “In years to come, I suspect this state visit will be one we look back on with profound regret and acknowledge that we were on the wrong side of history.”
Trump is just the latest controversial world leader to visit Queen Elizabeth II for a state visit. The queen hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2003, Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2005, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2007 and Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015.
On Wednesday, Trump is scheduled to take part in commemorations for the 75th anniversary of D-day landings at events in Portsmouth, a port city on the British Channel, with other world leaders.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)