Sexism Not on Agenda as Britain’s May Becomes First World Leader to Meet Trump

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Theresa May gestures to members of the media after it was announced she won the second-round ballot of Conservative Party lawmakers, London, U.K., July 7, 2016.
Theresa May gestures to members of the media after it was announced she won the second-round ballot of Conservative Party lawmakers, London, U.K., July 7, 2016.Credit: Simon Dawson, Bloomberg

LONDON - British Prime Minister Theresa May was not out there with her sisters this past weekend hoisting any “This pussy bites back” signs aloft in London’s Trafalgar Square.

Nor, indeed, did she hint at any possible reservations regarding the inauguration of the United States’ 45th president – like, say, another member in the small world’s-most-powerful-female-leaders club, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was busy appreciating Monets at an art exhibition in Potsdam on Friday - giving the live broadcast of the new U.S. leader being sworn into office a miss.

No, it seems May has, from the moment Donald Trump was elected, been carefully courting the new U.S. leader.

“We are both committed to advancing the special relationship,” she wrote to him in her first, official, friendly and congratulatory November note - a mantra she has been repeating ever since.

More recently, May hinted the Queen was planning to extend an invitation to Trump for a state visit this summer, and she smiled when she heard the golf player was keen to play nine holes on the private course at Balmoral.

On Israel, May did not even wait for Trump to take office, aligning herself with his stance weeks ago when she distanced herself not only from the Obama administration but from her own foreign office.

“We do not believe that it is appropriate to attack the composition of the democratically elected government of an ally,” a spokesman for May said, in an unusually harsh rebuke of then outgoing secretary of state John Kerry, whose speech, critical of Israel’s leadership, voiced strong disapproval of settlement expansion - a position in line with Britain’s own policy.

For all this, May has been rewarded with the first invitation to the White House.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning on visiting Trump in February. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto have been promised time slots in the coming 10 days.

But the very first official foreign visit to Pennsylvania Avenue goes to May, who is expected there this Friday.

In honor of the occasion, a bronze bust of Winston Churchill has already been wheeled into the Oval Office and put on display (questions of whether temporarily or permanently, and alongside or instead of a different bust – that of Martin Luther King - have been the stuff of two days worth of press conferences by Trump’s team).

And a colorful character - Woody Johnson, the billionaire scion of the Johnson & Johnson industrial dynasty who owns the New York Jets – has already been nominated as the next U.S. ambassador to London.

May, who has her own divided nation to lead, and who has, like Trump, also been trumpeting a “my country first” stance - is expected to use her Washington visit to lay the groundwork for a future trade deal in preparation for Britain leaving the European Union.

Until Brexit formally takes place, the U.K. remains a full member of the EU – and as such May cannot sign any agreements with the U.S. - its biggest single export market country.

But she can certainly start discussing such agreements, shoring up support and gathering promises – which will, in turn, give her leverage in upcoming Brexit negotiations with Brussels.

Two major issues expected to be on the trade agenda, according to media reports, are the cutting – or even dropping – of tariffs on items Britain and America already export to one another, and an exploration of ways to make it easier for U.S .citizens to work in the U.K., and vice-versa.

Another agenda item to be raised will be NATO, which Trump seems to see as something of an obsolete organization, and who reportedly is hoping May will help force its members to pay for much more of their own defense.

May, who has committed to spending at least two percent of GDP on defense – and urges other members to do so, too – said this weekend she plans to carry a message to Washington about the continuing importance of NATO, according to a spokesman for her office.

There will be talk about Syria, too, May has said, as well as about Russia and terrorism.

But what she does not intend to bring up is anything to do with sexism, despite the close to two million people who joined women’s marches around the world on Saturday to protest against Trump – including more than 80,000 people in London, among them the city’s mayor Sadiq Khan and his wife Saadiiya.

Tens of thousands of others demonstrated across the U.K., from Cardiff to Belfast to Edinburg to Leeds, Liverpool, Bristol and Manchester. 

“I would hope when she meets Donald Trump she will, in no uncertain terms, tell him his misogyny during the election campaign... is simply not acceptable,” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said to Sky news on Sunday. He added that he hoped May would follow up with some more scolding with regard to Islamophobia, too.

But it seems there will be none of that, for now. According to May, the mere fact that the coveted first official Washington visit is going to her, a female prime minister is, in and of itself, the “biggest statement” she could make about the role of women in the world.

And while she will not be shy about raising concerns about Trump and his attitude towards women - she has done so in the past, she assured the BBC’s Andrew Marr - her conversations Friday would concentrate on “pressing global issues.”

“I will be talking to Donald Trump about the issues that we share, about how we can build on the special relationship. It’s the special relationship that also enables us to say when we do find things unacceptable,” she told Marr. “Whenever there is something that I find unacceptable, I will say that to Donald Trump.”

Britain being the first European nation to have their leader called into the Oval Office by a new U.S. president has long precedent: Prime Minister Tony Blair was the first to meet with President George W. Bush in 2001 and Prime Minister Gordon Brown was again the first in 2009, when President Barack Obama took office.

But May has outdone them all by being the first world leader, European or other, to be extended such an honor. British papers have been reporting that Trump is so keen to reprise the tight Reagan-Thatcher relationship that he already refers to May as “My Maggie.”

Such a cosy start was never a foregone conclusion, nor will keeping it up necessarily be an easy task.

In fact, there were initially a few nail biting weeks, where May could easily have worried that Trump preferred her far right wing rival, populist anti-immigration politician Nigel Farage.

The former independence party leader was the first Brit to meet with the new president elect, who, in turn, was so impressed he suggested the British send Farage over to Washington as ambassador.

And it was not just Farage. May would have had good reason to feel insecure that Trump preferred any number of others to her: The president elect called 10 world leaders, including Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Turkey’s Reccep Erdogan, Shinzo Abe of Japan, Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull and South Korea’s Hwang Kyo-ahn, not to mention Israel’s Netanyahu, before reaching out to her in November. 

Once May got through he reportedly suggested that, “If you travel to the U.S., you should let me know.”

It surely did not help May’s case that her foreign minister, Boris Johnson, accused Trump, way back during the Republican primaries, of being “out of his mind” and of possessing “a quite stupefying ignorance.”

And while Johnson has since changed his tune - Trump, he recently stated, is a  “dealmaker” - not all of May’s top political advisors, aides or party members have changed theirs.

George Freeman, the head of May’s policy board, tweeted that the inauguration speech was “unusually and deliberately divisive and confrontational.”

Conservative MP Johnny Mercer, tweeted, in reference to the brouhaha over the size of the crowds on Inauguration Day: “Straight from Pyongyang. Day one; lost the plot.”

And yet another high profile member of May’s Conservative party concurred. “Almost unbelievable speech by the President without grace or magnanimity,” tweeted MP Sir Nicholas Soames, who, among other things, is Churchill’s grandson. Clearly the whole bronze bust changeover overture was lost on him, too. 

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