PHILADELPHIA — Prime minister Theresa May has said she wants to work closely with Donald Trump, sees similarities in their political objectives, and hopes to build a new special relationship between the UK and the US as part of an all-out pitch to win the support of the new US president.
Speaking to reporters – including BuzzFeed News – travelling on the plane with her on Thursday to meet Trump and Republican members of Congress, May was asked how she would be able to bond with the new president, given their radically different characters and backgrounds.
Smiling, she replied: “Haven’t you ever noticed? Sometimes opposites attract.”
May also laid out her objectives for the trip and how she was committed to gaining the support of the temperamental inhabitant of the White House.
She even suggested the new president would agree with her slogan of “a country that works for everyone and an economy that works for everyone”.
“We both share a desire to ensure that governments are working for everyone and particularly that governments are working for ordinary working families and working-class families,” she said.
She will meet senior Republicans – including House speaker Paul Ryan, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, House foreign affairs committee chair Ed Royce, and his Senate counterpart Bob Corker – in Philadelphia on Thursday afternoon in an attempt to gain their support for a new trade deal between the UK and the US. She will then travel to Washington for the crucial meeting at the White House with Trump on Friday.
May insisted British policy on torture would not change, in the wake of Trump telling ABC News that he believed waterboarding worked.
“We have a very clear view in the United Kingdom that we condemn the use of torture, we absolutely condemn the use of torture,” she said. “That has not changed and will not change.”
But on other issues there were hints of a commitment to a more Trump-esque foreign policy, some of which will only increase anxieties among European allies about a change in direction by Britain.
May said Russia was considered a threat, but that the UK must engage with Moscow. She said she would attempt to shore up support for the NATO defence alliance while also acknowledging Trump’s concern that the institution was flawed.
May’s team also insisted there was no way the prime minister would ever lead the UK into an Iraq-style foreign war aimed at imposing Western values on another country.
“The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over,” said the prime minister’s spokesperson.
When Trump was a candidate, May was highly critical of some of his policies, particularly his proposed restrictions on immigration from Muslim countries. But now he is president, she avoid criticising the policy, which became reality this week in one of the first executive orders he signed after taking office.
Asked by a reporter what her message would be to British Muslims worried about travelling to the US under Trump, May said she was clear that she wanted an "open and tolerant society" in the UK, adding: "The rules that the United States introduce will be obviously be rules for the United States, but I’m very clear about the opportunities I expect everyone in the UK to have. I will be representing the interests of everyone in the UK on a whole range of things we will talks about."
More than anything she relied on the words "special relationship", using the term nine times in a question and answer session lasting just 10 minutes. Exactly what that special relationship will look like when transferred into a trade deal is unclear – she declined to offer any extra clarity on whether a new US–UK agreement would open up the NHS to private competitors.
When asked by BuzzFeed News whether she was concerned about Trump’s trustworthiness in future trade negotiations, given his willingness to push debunked theories about millions of missing votes, she said it was a matter for the US authorities.
In the process she summed up her strategy:
“What I’m clear about is that we have an opportunity through this early meeting with Donald Trump to start that process of building on that special relationship, that special relationship which is on our national interest, and I think that we can together not just build that special relationship but do it in a way that is good for both for us and good more widely.”
Read the full transcript of Theresa May’s Q&A with journalists.
Question: “What will you say both to the Republicans and the president about in your view the importance of strong NATO, strong EU, standing up to Putin?”
Theresa May: “Obviously the purpose of this trip – I mean, I'm pleased I'm going there so early in the administration – is to build on the special relationship. I think that special relationship between the UK and the US has been an important part of security across the world particularly to the West. Of course, part of that is NATO. We're committed to NATO. From the conversations I've already had with President Trump over the phone, he has shown to me his commitment to NATO as well. I believe a strong NATO has been the bulwark of our defence in Europe. Obviously that's important in the UK national interest and I believe it's important in the US national interest.”
Q: “So some on the record from him on NATO would be good?”
TM: “I expect to be talking to him about NATO obviously in the discussions that we have. As I say, he has already confirmed to me his commitment to it.”
Q: “We were briefed on your speech that you think a strong European Union is important. His advisers don’t seem agree with that. Will you talk about why a strong EU matters to you?”
TM: “I was clear last week as you say about why I think a strong EU is important. We want in the UK to have a good trading relationship with the EU. I think that's in our interests, I think that's in their interests as well. I want to continue to be cooperating on criminal justice, on security and defence, with the EU, I think that's important for the safety of Europe.”
Q: “What is our position on torture, will you be taking the opportunity to have a conversation with the president about it, and is it still the case we won't share intelligence with agencies that use it?”
TM: “The UK's position on torture has not changed. I confirmed this yesterday in the House of Commons. We condemn torture and my view on that won't change – whether I'm talking to you or talking to the president.”
Q: “Does that mean we won't share info with America? We have a very strict code of conduct.”
TM: “As I say the UK's position on the issue of torture and the use of torture has not changed. Our policy is the same as it has been. We condemn torture.”
Q: “Our guidance says that if other countries do it, we won't work with them. So are you saying that if the US returns to using those techniques, we will no longer work with them?”
TM: “Our guidance is very clear about the position that the UK takes, and our position has not changed.”
Q: “Does torture ever work?”
TM: “We have a very clear view in the United Kingdom that we condemn the use of torture, we absolutely condemn the use of torture. That has not changed and will not change.”
Q: “But does it work?”
TM: “The real question you should be asking is, what do we think about torture? What we think about torture is we condemn it. We do not believe in torture. That position has been clear for some time and that position is not going to change.”
Q: “You’re very different. He’s a brash extrovert, you’re the hard-working daughter of a vicar – won’t there be a character clash?”
TM: “Haven’t you ever noticed, Tom, sometimes opposites attract?”
Q: “He’s very hard to work out, isn’t he?”
TM: “What’s going to be important is having the opportunity to actually sit down with President Trump and talk to him face to face, about the interests we share, about the special relationship, about the joint challenges we both face. Talking about the future of NATO is one of the issues we will discuss, as well as a whole range of other issues – our trading relationship, counterterrorism. I will be able to hear direct from him what his views are.”
Q: “Will you leave still confused?”
TM: “I’m sure I’ll leave with a very clear picture. I want to give him a very clear picture of the UK. Also, I believe what will come out of this is a very clear determination on both sides not just to maintain the special relationship but also to build it for the future. There is a real role for the UK and the US working together.”
Q: “I did a talk in a school and a little girl in a school in a hijab said that if I had a chance to ask you a question I should ask you this one: What is your message to British Muslims worried about Donald Trump, worried about going to America as British Muslims. What can you say to that little girl in a hijab?”
TM: “As far as that little girl is concerned and her life in the United Kingdom, I want to see an open and tolerant society here in the United Kingdom, I want to see a country that works for everyone whatever their background. I want to see everyone, including that girl and others, have the opportunity to get on in life and I want a country where how far somebody goes is about their talents and how hard they’re prepared to work. The rules that the United States introduce will be obviously be rules for the United States, but I’m very clear about the opportunities I expect everyone in the UK to have. I will be representing the interests of everyone in the UK on a whole range of things we will talk about."
Q: "To get a trade deal done with the United States, what are you willing to give up and is the NHS off the table?"
TM: "We're at the start of the process of talking about a trade deal. We're both very clear that we want a trade deal. It will be in the interests of the UK from my point of view, that's what I'm going to be taking in, into the trade discussions that take place in due course. Obviously he will have the interests of the US. I believe we can come to an agreement that is in the interests of both. As regards the NHS, we're very clear as a government that we're committed to an NHS that is free at the point of use."
Q: "In your speech you will say ‘we will rediscover our confidence together, as you renew your nation just as we renew ours'. Do you see a sharing of the values of the forces that brought Brexit to the United Kingdom and Trump to the United States?”
TM: "We both share a desire to ensure that governments are working for everyone and particularly that governments are working for ordinary working families and working-class families. And I think that's important. That's what I've spoken about. I did it as you know on the steps of Number 10 when I became prime minister: a country that works for everyone and an economy that works for everyone. I think it's so important. I think we share that interest and that intention in both our countries."
Q: "How important to global security is the Iran nuclear deal and would you ever envisage Britain moving its own embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem."
TM: “The United Kingdom has an embassy in Tel Aviv, the embassy is remaining in Tel Aviv. In relation to the question of the Iran nuclear deal, I think this was an important deal that was done. I think it is important that we ensure that deal is properly enforced.”
Q: "Do you worry that a lot of people think you’re getting too close to a US president that they frankly despise or even fear?"
TM: "Donald Trump was elected president of the United States of America. The UK and the US have shared challenges, shared interests, that we can work together to deal with. We have a special relationship, it’s longstanding, it’s existed through many different prime ministers and presidents. I want to build on that relationship."
Q: “One of your not-too-distant predecessors, Tony Blair, struck a close relationship with a controversial US president and ended up being derided. How do you avoid falling into that trap?”
TM: “I’m going to be very clear in everything we do. I believe the special relationship is important to us, it's important more widely across Europe and the world. But I will also be very clear in the decisions I take and the conversations I have about UK interests. I’m not going to say anything different to Donald Trump to what I’m saying to you in terms of UK interests and where those lie.”
Q: “Donald Trump overnight claimed that millions of voters had been cast illegally in the US election. How do you deal with someone who is so happy to repeat things that have been repeatedly disproved – do you think you can trust someone who has lied repeatedly, and do you personally think there is a possibility those votes were miscast?”
TM: “What happened in the United States election is not a matter for the United Kingdom, it is a matter for the United States and the United States authorities. What I’m clear about is that we have an opportunity through this early meeting with Donald Trump to start that process of building on that special relationship, that special relationship which is on our national interest, and I think that we can together not just build that special relationship but do it in a way that is good for both for us and good more widely.”
Q: “David Davis last week said it’s a simple truth that immigration will go down to the tens of thousands after Brexit. Can you give that guarantee to voters as well, that immigration will lead to fewer than 100,000 migrants?”
TM: “We’re continuing to work to bring immigration down to the tens of thousands. One of the issues that has been an issue in how we deal with net migration up until now is that we haven’t been able to have any control over freedom of movement from the European Union. We will have that control in the future once we leave the EU. How we do that is currently being looked at by the Home Office. As I’ve said previously as home secretary, dealing with immigration isn’t just a single issue and a single measure and a single step that you take. You’ve got to keep working at that over time."
Q: “I was wondering if you could give us an idea of what areas of trade you’d like to see developed between the two countries: financial services, cars, agriculture?”
TM: “There's a whole range of areas that we'll be looking at, so I'm not at this very early stage going to specify any particular areas. As you will know, there will be a limit to how far we can go in terms of a formal free trade agreement until we've actually left the European Union. I think there is much that we can do in the interim in terms of looking at how we can remove some of the barriers to trade in a number of areas. We're able to see an advantage for both of us even if we haven't actually been able to sign that legal free trade agreement.”