Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
President Donald Trump’s decision not to visit London next month to open the new US Embassy may be a relief to beleaguered British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Trump declared the closure of the old US Embassy in the heart of London’s swanky Mayfair district a bad move by his predecessor: “the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for ‘peanuts,’ only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!”
If you ignore the fact that the decision was actually made by Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, it’s not hard to see why Trump the businessman would say this: For a man whose life has been dedicated to profiting on property deals, the idea that the old 1960s concrete embassy in Grosvenor Square will make way for an upscale hotel that he doesn’t own might feel particularly galling.
His logic, however, provides some convenient political cover for what was expected to be a particularly troublesome visit.
Police working in diplomatic protection whom I have talked to recently were already bracing themselves for extra duty – long days and more overtime.
Since he came to office a year ago, Trump has been stirring anger in the UK.
May made sure she was the first world leader to visit him in Washington days after he took over at the White House. But before she got back to London, her efforts to shore up the “special relationship” between the two countries had already begun to backfire.
The political cost of her closeness to Trump started with his travel ban for Muslim-majority nations. May was lambasted for not criticizing him fast enough or loudly enough.
More than 1.8 million people signed a petition to stop Trump from meeting Queen Elizabeth II during a state visit that May announced while in Washington.
The ink was barely dry on the invitation, and thousands gathered in angry anti-Trump protests in London. The relationship has gone further downhill since then, and May has been under increasing pressure to make her differences with Trump clear.
He has added to the animus many Britons feel toward him by criticizing the UK’s response to terror attacks last year.
Not only did he insult London’s popular Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, he also questioned the UK’s counterterrorism agencies – suggesting they are not doing enough. Khan responded to Trump canceling his UK visit with this statement: “It appears that President Trump got the message from the many Londoners who love and admire America and Americans but find his policies and actions the polar opposite of our city’s values of inclusion, diversity and tolerance.”
Then in November, Trump responded to May’s criticism of him for retweeting anti-Muslim videos from Jayda Fransen of the far-right British political group Britain First, telling her: “(Don’t) focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom.”
Trump’s behavior toward Britain is without precedent for a modern American leader and has made him an unpopular figure for many UK citizens.
Refusing to open his own embassy in the country that historically is America’s closest ally will not help repair any of the damage he has already done.
If his disgust at Obama’s apparent profligacy (again, not Obama) has a silver lining for him, it will be that he does not have to risk facing angry crowds and negative headlines during a visit that no amount of extra police could protect him from outpourings of negative public opinion.
In the United States, Trump has a reputation for seeking out favorable crowds and is known to bristle and fight back against negative publicity. May would have likely struggled to find such a crowd – and any attempts to placate the US leader would have piled further pressure on her.
A disastrous election last summer, coupled with tortuous Brexit negotiations, has left her vulnerable.
Yet Trump’s decision to skip the embassy ribbon cutting may also have a double silver lining for May. It not only saves her the troublesome currents that accompany Trump these days, but it also denies her biggest political rivals a chance to ingratiate themselves with the US leader.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Agriculture Minister Michael Gove have spoken positively about the US President, with both men having sought him out for meetings or handshakes over the past year. These two are widely estimated to be scheming for the day they might replace May.
In short, Trump may have just done May a huge favor.