Donald Trump could harm the US/UK relationship with his chaotic administration and is just as “unpredictable” for Britain as for the rest of the world.
These are the warnings from former British ambassadors to Washington, in a series of candid interviews with HuffPost about just how different the 45th president is to his predecessors and what that means for diplomacy.
Theresa May urged Trump not to impose the tariff in a phone call earlier this month.
While the US International Trade Commission could veto or water down the Department of Commerce, former ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer said it showed: “Once you get into hard numbers and tough lobbying by an American interest, sentiment doesn’t play a very big role.”
He added he suspected Trump had not immersed himself in the detail of the issue, saying: “Bombardier, he probably thinks this is some military aircraft he’s going to use against North Korea.”
Speaking to HuffPost, the ambassadors called Trump a “scary” throwback to ideas that fuelled the Nazis’ rise, the first “unstable” president since the Second World War and a risk to America’s “moral authority” to rein in foreign dictators.
While they did not feel Trump threatened the traditional channels through which ambassadors communicate - they rarely speak directly to presidents - they said his angry and erratic style, particularly on Twitter, would change the job.
Peter Jay, who served under Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s, described how Carter spoke with Prime Minister James Callaghan “converse promptly, candidly and without misunderstanding”.
He added: “It is not clear that the ‘organisation’ of the present White House can be reconciled with such good communication.
“If not, the relationship between the United States and Britain – and many other important relationships - may be impaired.”
Meyer, who was ambassador in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, said said the two presidents he knew - Bill Clinton and George W Bush - were “both orderly, rational people who ran tight ships” that ensured he always knew “what the lines of command and control were. You knew who to go to to get things done.”
Meyer contrasted this with Trump’s “chaotic and disorderly” approach and called him the first president of the post-war era who is “unstable”.
Sir Peter Westmacott said Barack Obama amazed him with his ability to “find the words and acts necessary to bring the country together”, while Trump’s tweets “can cause confusion when senior members of his administration are conveying different messages”.
He added Trump could cost America “the moral authority to call to order autocrats behaving badly” abroad.
Here is what the ambassadors had to say.
1. Sir Peter Westmacott ...
Trump came to the Oval Office with the reputation of a brash showman. As president, like Obama, he has become more of what he already was.
Learning what the President thinks via Twitter is a novel experience, and can cause confusion when senior members of his administration are conveying different messages.
Trump’s election, like the UK referendum result last year, was in large part due to a surge of populist discontent that took political elites in both countries by surprise. Donald Trump appeals to voters who feel he understands them and speaks their language, and have no problem with his impulsiveness.
America’s system of checks and balances, and vibrantly free press - despite the President’s assaults on “fake news” - constrain his freedom of manoeuvre. But I worry that America could lose the moral authority to call to order autocrats behaving badly in countries with less resilient institutions.
Theresa May moved quickly to get into the new president’s good books. All British prime ministers do that. This one was keen both to bank Trump’s support for Brexit and to move beyond the critical comments she and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had made about him during the campaign.
The challenge ahead is to see whether, despite his protectionist instincts, Trump will agree to the quick free trade agreement Mrs May wants.
But public opinion in the UK saw no need to offer him a state visit before he had shown that he deserved it, and the British Government has since had to distance itself from the positions he has taken on a number of issues, including Muslims, climate change and racism.
The challenge ahead is to see whether, despite his protectionist instincts, Trump will agree to the quick free trade agreement Mrs May wants so she can declare Brexit a success; and whether the weak government she heads, wholly absorbed with Brexit and increasingly absent from the stage of world affairs, will be able to resume its traditional role as America’s foreign and security policy partner of choice.
Barack Obama said that being president didn’t change you, it just magnified who you already were. In his case, we saw a naturally cautious constitutional law professor, talented orator and community organiser adapt, and magnify, those roles when he moved into the White House. I was struck by his ability at moments of national tragedy to find the words and acts necessary to bring the country together.
Donald Trump came to the Oval Office with the reputation of a brash showman who played brilliantly to his base. As president, like Obama, he has become more of what he already was. For all his skill as an orator, Obama preferred policy to politics. Trump is the opposite - he prefers campaigning to governing and his own instincts to the advice of experts.
2. Sir Christopher Meyer ...
We have had to come to rely on the so-called grown-ups who are actually running the foreign policy and security machine.
The new element in all this, which is a novelty for the entire world, not just the UK, is the unpredictability of what Trump is going to say. The tweet factor is the new thing everybody...
Our man in Washington will be getting up very early in the morning and looking at the president’s tweets. In the old days, the first thing you’d do when you got up was read the Washington Post. Now first thing you do is read Trump’s tweets. You take it from there.
You kind of separate Trump from the grown-ups - the Generals and Tillerson are the grown-ups. Then there’s the president. In the past, the president and the grown-ups were part of a single organic unit. What we have now is a president who goes in one direction and the grown ups who go in another. That is a structural problem for everybody in the universe who has to conduct relations with the US.
Donald Trump is singularly ill-equipped to be president... Everything we feared during the election campaign has come to pass and maybe even worse...
There was a view, it was more a wish, a forlorn hope, that, during the campaign, when one excess followed another, that, once confined within the discipline of the Oval Office, we would see a different kind of Donald Trump: more disciplined, less narcissistic, less obsessed with instant reaction on Twitter.
None of that has come to pass and various attempts have been made to discipline have proven more or less failures over the last few months. He is exactly who he was during the campaign and he shows no signs of - how can I put it? - seasoning - in the way you would expect a president to be...
We’ve never seen his like before in the Oval Office. He does seem well disposed towards the United Kingdom. But whether he’s going to cut us any special favours is moot.
He’s been wayward and inconsistent on foreign policy and possibly dangerous... If you’re the president of China, you are saying to yourself: ‘Is he reliable?’ ‘No’. ‘Is he predictable?’ ‘No’. ‘Is he friend or foe?’ ‘Sometimes he seems like an adversary and sometimes he doesn’t’.
For the first time since the Second World War, [you have] a president who is unstable and unfit... It makes the Russians and Chinese jumpy. It’s added to the instability of world affairs and that is what is dangerous.
We’ve never seen his like before in the Oval Office. He does seem well disposed towards the United Kingdom. But whether he’s going to cut us any special favours is moot. By and large, the US doesn’t cut anybody any special favours when its national interests are at stake... He is as unpredictable for a close ally like the UK as he is for the world at large.
We have had to come to rely on the so-called grown-ups who are actually running the foreign policy and security machine...
[Trump is] largely ignorant of the detail of foreign affairs. He doesn’t seem to show much interest in learning it. From time to time, he makes extraordinary mistakes in public because he’s not on top of his brief...
When a new UN security resolution was agreed increasing sanctions on North Korea... that would’ve taken a lot of behind the scenes quiet diplomacy to get that outcome. It wouldn’t just have been [UN ambassador Nikki] Haley, it would’ve been Tillerson as well.
Trump is like someone arriving from the planet Mars. Bush and Clinton were themselves very different characters but they were both orderly, rational people who ran tight ships... You knew what the lines of command and control were. You knew who to get to get things done.
Trump is undisciplined, he’s a narcissist, he’s a Tweeter. He’s very, very thin-skinned. He lives in the adulation of the moment. None of those things applied to Clinton or Bush. They both ran very orderly administrations. You knew what the lines of command and control were. You knew who to get to get things done... With Trump, it’s been much, much more chaotic and disorderly.
3. Peter Jay ...
'The job of an ambassador is to work to achieve constructive and good relations between two countries. At this moment, that must be an exceedingly difficult.
Protectionism, nationalism and sabre-rattling are dangerous messages, however retransmitted.
That said, it helps hugely if heads of government can converse promptly, candidly and without misunderstanding, whether directly or through reliable ambassadors. President Carter and Prime Minister James Callaghan, like some but not all of their predecessors and successors, had such a dialogue.
It is not clear that the ‘organisation’ of the present White House can be reconciled with such good communication. If not, the relationship between the United States and Britain – and many other important relationships - may be impaired.
Trump is scary. I was born just before the Second World War and was eight years old in 1945. I spent much of my adult life reflecting on the events of the 20th century. If there were two things that seemed to have brought the world very nearly to extinction in the first half of that century, it was nationalism and protectionism... The two great monsters... which above all else had to be avoided in the future.
It is not clear that the ‘organisation’ of the present White House can be reconciled with good communication. If not, the relationship between the United States and Britain – and many other important relationships - may be impaired.
Most of American leadership and wise policy after 1945 was designed to create a world in which nationalism was kept in its proper place and in which protectionism was ruled out.
When I listened to President Trump’s inaugural speech, I heard two words screaming at me from every second sentence and they were nationalism and protectionism.
Jimmy Carter was an extremely hard-working man who loved evidence and facts and hated politics. Odd thing to be elected president if you hate politics...
Trump is a man who exists entirely, it would appear, for the purposes of making statements which get attention and ratings, get people excited and angry.
There’s no concern whether they have any rational basis at all. To me, Carter, who I much admired and liked, and Trump are about as different two human beings can be.
[Trump] makes the danger of conflict and war much greater... I can only say I’m grateful I am not the British ambassador to Washington. The job of an ambassador is to work to achieve constructive and good relations between two countries. At this moment, that must be an exceedingly difficult task to perform...
I read in a newspaper [current ambassador Sir Kim Darroch] said was very difficult to send interesting reports on what’s going on in Washington to London when London can read it on Twitter.
I think explaining what is going on in Washington would be now as difficult or defiant of any rational analysis as anything I can possibly think of.
I have profound respect and liking and trust in the US constitution. Though I believe the United States and the world is going through a very dark period of danger so long as Trump is president, I still have a strong belief that political sense will reassert itself and the America I know and live and admire will re-emerge from these shadows.