Donald Trump, the president of the United States, hailed “the greatest alliance the world has ever known” after meeting British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday.
On the second day of his state visit to the United Kingdom, Trump also said the National Health Service (NHS) should be included in any post-Brexit trade deal with the US.
“I think we’re going to have a great and very comprehensive trade deal,” Trump told a gathering of press and officials at London’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, a short walk from the prime minister’s residence at Number 10 Downing Street, where the two leaders held talks in the morning.
“Everything with a trade deal is on the table,” added Trump. “The NHS or anything else, and a lot more than that, everything is on the table, absolutely.”
The remarks echoed much-criticised comments made by US Ambassador Woody Johnson at the weekend.
“Immediately, Theresa May had to row back and say that was just part of a negotiation process,” said Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee, reporting from Downing Street.
“She knows that selling off any part of the National Health Service to American pharmaceutical companies is just absolute dynamite, and no politician here could countenance it. And this will be seized upon by anti-Brexit people here to say ‘if that’s the sort of trade deal that the US wants, is it worth bothering with at all?'”
Everything with a trade deal is on the table. The NHS or anything else, and a lot more than that, everything is on the table, absolutely
Donald Trump, US president
Trump also said reports of protests against his presence in London were “fake news”. He said he saw “thousands of people cheering” and waving the American flag when travelling through London yesterday.
“Where are the people protesting?” he asked. “There was tremendous spirit, tremendous love.”
Al Jazeera’s Paul Brennan was reporting from among the demonstrations on Tuesday morning.
“There certainly were protesters,” he said from Trafalgar Square. “Not as many as in 2018, when an estimated 250,000 turned out, and it is difficult to put an estimate on it, but definitely between 10 and 20,000 people.”
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who boycotted Monday night’s state dinner thrown in honour of the president, addressed the rally of protesters and said he would never support a US trade deal that threatened the NHS.
“Protests are certainly smaller than when the president first visited,” added Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee. “But if you take the polling as a guide, then Donald Trump is still very, very unpopular here in the United Kingdom.”
The morning’s meetings were more in-depth than many had expected. In recent days, expectations of a grand summit had been downplayed by British officials following Theresa May’s announcement of her resignation last month.
“Theresa May has no real power any more, so it’s curious to see what exactly she can do,” said Al Jazeera’s Paul Brennan.
“But there is, of course, the matter of continuity. There will continue to be a relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States under a new prime minister, so they’ll be talking about all number of things, including Iran.
“Britain is one of the countries that still supports the Iran deal, which the US has pulled out of. There are concerns about food standards, and there are concerns that if Brexit does go through, that there will be a need for a trade deal, so some of the fundamentals of those talks might be started today as well.”
In the press conference following the meeting, Trump praised May’s failed efforts at getting a Brexit deal through parliament.
“The deal is teed up now, and I don’t think you’ll get the credit you deserve,” he told May.
“I believe the prime minister has brought it to a very good point, and something will definitely happen.”
May and Trump glossed over the topics of Iran and China, and couched much of their prepared statements in the diplomatic language surrounding the commemorations of the Second World War’s D-Day landings.
But the public remarks will be most remembered for Trump’s comments about the potentially “phenomenal” trade deal.
“The question is: Does Donald Trump have the power to unilaterally get a trade deal with the UK? And the answer is no, because any such deal has to go through Congress,” said Lee.
“And if the UK imposed a hard border with Ireland as part of Brexit, for example, that deal would be likely be blocked by Congress.”
Mark Shanahan, head of the University of Reading’s politics and international relations department, said the “special relationship” had been “a myth propagated by both sides when it’s been useful”.
“The relationship between the US and UK started with a war 240 years ago,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Some see Donald Trump as interfering too much in domestic politics, though populists over here, including such people as Nigel Farage, see him as an inspiration.
“He’s talking a good game, but he talks at a surface level – there’s not a lot of depth or intellect behind his statements, and he doesn’t have the power to push this trade deal through. This will be a Congressional deal if and when it happens.”
Trump ended the conference with one last interjection in domestic British politics, when asked if he would meet Boris Johnson or Michael Gove, two of the leading candidates, along with Jeremy Hunt and at least 10 others, to replace May as leader of the Conservative Party. On Saturday, Trump had appeared to endorse Johnson for the top job, and he has previously met Gove, when Gove interviewed him in the presence of Rupert Murdoch for Murdoch’s The Times newspaper.
“I know Boris, I think he’ll do a very good job,” he said. “I know [Foreign Secretary] Jeremy [Hunt], I think he’ll do a very good job. I don’t know Michael.”
The president then turned to Jeremy Hunt, sitting in the front row of the audience. “What do you think, Jeremy? Think he’ll do a good job?”