The US ambassador to the UK has said he expects Donald Trump to go ahead with a working visit to the UK in the new year, despite a recent Twitter row with Theresa May over the terror threat posed by Muslims in the UK.
The remarks by Woody Johnson to the BBC’s Today programme represent the first official confirmation that the president is expected to visit in early 2018, when Trump may formally open the new American embassy.
A formal state visit – which would include a meeting with the Queen – is not envisaged. The Queen is likely to be preoccupied with preparations for a Commonwealth summit next year.
Johnson told the BBC the disagreement over Trump’s sharing of videos posted by the far-right group Britain First was “probably misinterpreted”.
The ambassador was being interviewed about the US embassy’s move from its current UK headquarters in Grosvenor Square in central London to a new £800m complex in Battersea, south of the river Thames. Johnson said the new embassy would need to be dedicated by an American president.
May said Trump had been “wrong” to share videos posted by Britain First, prompting the president to tell the prime minister to focus on her job.
Johnson, a close friend of the president, said Trump’s relationship with the UK was “very, very good”. The president had not yet set a date for the possible visit, he added.
Johnson said of Trump: “He understands the special relationship and while there may be disagreements about the way he says something or how he does something you can rest assured security and prosperity are very important.”
Asked about the Britain First tweet, he said: “The way I would look at [it] and the way he would look at it is that security is the number one oath protecting Americans here and in the US. … If you look at it in that context that is what is he trying to do.”
Claiming Trump had not really changed in the 35 years of their relationship, he said it was not widely known that Trump “will canvass opinions from 50 people, and he will look at you, listen to you, will give you feedback on your opinion, and actually if he agrees with you, he will use your opinion. He listens to advice and to people around him, but he is going to make his own decisions.”
The UK government has found itself in a series of disagreements with Trump over climate change, the Iranian nuclear deal and the imposition of tariffs on the plane and train manufacturer Bombardier. Harold Wilson’s falling out with President Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam was probably the last time there has been as big a wedge between the two countries.
In June, Trump criticised the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, for his response to the London Bridge terror attack, misquoting Khan’s message to Londoners not to be alarmed by the increased presence of armed police.
“There may be disagreements of how [Mr Trump] says something, or how he does something,” Johnson said. “He wants to protect Americans. He is not going to be namby-pamby about it. I mean, he is going to come out. He is probably going to take some chances and maybe he will ruffle feathers.”
The ambassador insisted the security alignment between the two countries remained intact. Speaking of May’s visit to the Oval Office in January, Johnson said: “The prime minister was his first visitor, the first official foreign leader to visit.”
There were calls for a high-level reciprocal visit to be abandoned after Trump retweeted three anti-Muslim videos last month.
After a Downing Street spokesman said he had been wrong to do so, the president hit back, telling May to focus on “destructive” terrorism in the UK. Trump tweeted: “Don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive radical Islamic terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!”
Trump has previously told May that he did not want to come on a state visit if there were large-scale protests, but the chances of such protests not going ahead during any visit are minimal. The House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, has said the president would not be welcome to speak to both houses of parliament, an honour typically given prestigious overseas politicians.
Huge security preparations would be needed to ensure the visit is not disrupted.
UK diplomats privately acknowledge that a state visit offered by May seven days after his inauguration was premature, believing the UK government was yet to understand the extent to which the current occupant of the White House marks a break from all previous Republican presidents.
The Labour MP for Walthamstow, Stella Creasy, called for peaceful protests during Trump’s visit, saying the dignity and self-respect of the UK was at stake. She added that “by showing and promoting videos by Britain First, he has undermined our democratic process and put people at risk in our communities. He did not listen to our prime minister and I fear what else he would do if he came here.
“For goodness sake, this country would not let Martha Stewart in because it said it would not be conducive to the public good. What does Donald Trump have to do? How much damage does he have to do to security and tensions in our communities before our prime minister says this special relationship is enough to say: ‘Not now’?”
The former UK ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, said many Americans, including those had not voted for Trump, would be offended if the invitation was withdrawn.
He said: “The government is right to say the invitation is on the table,” but he added the visit would be highly circumscribed due to the security risk, posed by “enormous demonstrations and public disorder”. He said: “It may so scaled down the public will hardly see him and it will barely justify being called a state visit.”
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