Testing the limits of the Special Relationship: London Mayor Sadiq Khan (right) has said that the UK should cancel an upcoming state visit by President Donald Trump. Reuters

The president’s criticism of Mayor Sadiq Khan’s response to the latest terror attack has put Prime Minister Theresa May in a very tight spot.  

President Trump should not get a state visit to Britain. So said London Mayor Sadiq Khan last night, following Trump’s Twitter comments castigating Mayor Khan for his response to the horrific attacks in London on Saturday. Talking to Britain’s Channel Four News, the mayor said:

“I don’t think we should roll out the red carpet to the president of the USA in the circumstances where his policies go against everything we stand for…. When you have a special relationship it is no different from when you have got a close mate. You stand with them in times of adversity but you call them out when they are wrong. There are many things about which Donald Trump is wrong.”

Trump’s response so far to the London attacks has gone down extremely badly with the Londoners Mayor Khan represents, drawing scorn even from Britain’s most right-wing newspapers. They came just three days before an election in which the government’s muted response to Trump has in itself become a potential vote-loser. The issue is also a telling bellwether detailing just how complicated Britain’s international position has become after last June’s Brexit referendum.

The Trump-Khan spat kicked off on Sunday when the President published the following tweet, apparently lambasting Mayor Khan for apathy.

Mayor Khan had in fact used the words “no reason for alarm,” and, as the most cursory of Google searches would have revealed, he was addressing a completely different issue. The mayor’s statement was aimed at reassuring Londoners about the far greater numbers of police on the streets after the attack; he didn’t want residents to mistakenly assume another attack was underway. There’s a chasm of difference between this and what Trump implied Mayor Khan was saying.

Given Trump’s daily barrage of quasi-sensical tweets, it’s tempting to dismiss the misquote as just another exercise in covfefe. But think for a moment what he was trying to do. In the aftermath of a terrifying, truly upsetting attack, the American president was attempting to undermine public confidence in London’s response—to make people here feel less safe, sadder, and more afraid. He was using seven deaths and numerous grave injuries as a ploy for the meanest of ends—to lash out at someone he dislikes for having made “rude comments” about him last year.

To Londoners, the president’s character reveals itself as like a Russian doll. You think you’ve got the measure of its incredible smallness, then another layer is whisked off to reveal an even more miniature sense of decency beneath.

Mayor Khan’s criticisms also have a weight beyond his political power. They show that in the current political climate, a mayor can actually inflict meaningful political damage on an American president, at least by providing a pressure valve for the disgust of the many citizens he represents. Criticizing Trump costs Khan nothing in support, and shows the flexibility that municipal leaders have to say things that are more taboo for national figures. Khan’s comments also have their effect on Britain’s national politics too—they amount to an explicit attack on what’s seen as Prime Minister Theresa May’s conciliatory, hand-holding relationship with an unreliable ally. In the run-up to Britain’s national elections Thursday, they reveal that May has been backed into a corner in the run-up to Brexit—partly by Trump himself.

A year ago, America was billed by the campaign to leave the E.U. as a major player in a future global network for Britain. “Leave” campaigners painted a bright future for an Atlanticist Britain, where the U.K. spurned regional connections to become a truly global hub, as connected with faraway Australia or California as with those complicated French or Dutch just across the water. No matter that President Obama made it clear that this fantasy was not shared across the pond, the idea played well to many Britons’ undying imperial delusions of their country as an equal player in a global big boys’ club.

Less than a year later, the world looks very different. With Trump in the White House, Britain’s Atlanticist posturings seem a little tortured. His every excruciating gaffe makes May’s government squirm afresh. They know how much the president is despised in Britain, even by much of their own conservative power base. They must grin and bear it nonetheless, because now that they’ve burned their bridges with their former E.U. allies, they can’t afford to antagonize anyone else and isolate the country even further. When the French, Germans, and Italians join forces to publicly condemn Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, May’s government stayed silent. When Trump attacks London’s Muslim mayor,  May belatedly expressed very muted disapproval, apparently prompted by public exasperation at her silence. Mainland Europe’s governments are quietly planning for a world where the United States can no longer be trusted as an ally; Britain, meanwhile, stands alone, the vassal of a chaotic, part-spent force.

If May survives Thursday’s election (and conventional wisdom suggests that she will, just), it will still be as a weakened figure. As Trump’s stock as a statesperson has descended to new lows, May’s has fallen with it, entangled as she has become in a series of complex international struggles where she seems to lack both room for maneuver and the personal capacity for frankness. Mayor Khan’s comments may well reflect a growing attempt to sidestep a national government that can no longer be relied on to fully express ordinary people’s concerns.

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