President Donald Trump sat down with British Prime Minister Theresa May today (Jan. 27), in his first meeting with a major world leader since taking office.
Trade, a key concern for May following her nation’s vote to leave the European Union, the future of NATO, and Russia highlighted the agenda.
Trump broke with his past rhetoric on lifting sanctions against Russia for its hostile actions in Ukraine, telling a press conference after the meeting with May, “As far as the sanctions, very early to be talking about that.”
Yet Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s counselor, left open the possibility of lifting sanctions, saying it was “under consideration” in an interview on Friday morning. Trump will speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday.
Trump’s more favorable position toward Putin has stirred some concern among European allies, who fear the U.S. will cozy up to Russia, leaving NATO and the eastern bloc vulnerable.
But Trump seemed to take a more balanced tone on Friday, saying, “I’m not good, bad, or indifferent about Putin. Sometimes I get along with people, sometimes I don’t.”
May is more skeptical about the Russian leader. In a speech to Congressional Republicans at their retreat in Philadelphia on Thursday, May said, “With President Putin, my advice is to engage but beware.”
But she added, “There is nothing inevitable about conflict between Russia and the West. And nothing unavoidable about retreating to the days of the Cold War.”
As for Russian sanctions, May said, “We believe the sanctions should continue. We have been very clear that we want to see the Minsk agreement fully implemented. We believe the sanctions should continue until we see that Minsk agreement fully implemented.”
The Minsk agreement is a roadmap agreed to by Russia, Ukraine, Russian-backed rebels, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
May has also said she believes the West should engage Russia from a “position of strength.”
Cipher Brief experts agree. At a Russia panel that The Cipher Brief hosted on Thursday as part of its Georgetown Salon Series, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, commented, “It would be great if [CIA] Director [Mike] Pompeo went to the President and said I’m going to go to Russia, what do you want me to do? And the President gave him a letter [of demands]. The Russians respond to that. And it’s what we want – it’s not what they want.”
Mowatt-Larssen – a retired career CIA intelligence officer who also served as the Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy – added, “I don’t have any doubt that the President could put together a list of things he wants the Russians to do, and that’s what you have to present them with.”
On NATO, Trump’s comments that the alliance is “obsolete” and that the U.S. may only uphold Article 5 if NATO members spend at least two percent of GDP on defense seemed a bit obsolete themselves after Friday’s press conference, where May said that Trump told her he was “a hundred percent behind NATO.”
NATO’s former Supreme Allied Commander, Admiral James Stavridis, told The Cipher Brief he has spoken personally to Trump about NATO, “and I feel confident that he will accept NATO as a strong and vibrant partner … he’ll look at it as a businessman, and he will put pressure to get more resources from the Europeans. But my sense from my conversation with him is that he understands the value of NATO.”
May will also advocate for increased defense spending amongst the allies. During her speech Thursday, she said she is committed to demanding that all of her fellow European NATO members spend two percent of GDP on defense, and that they spend 20 percent of the defense budget on equipment. The UK is one of only a few European allies that meets the two percent criteria.
Both Trump and May seem eager to engage in a bilateral trade agreement. In an interview with The Times on Jan. 16, Trump said the U.S. and UK will be able to complete a trade deal “very quickly.” May, in her speech to Congressional Republicans, said she is “delighted” that the new administration has made a trade deal one of it “earliest priorities.” And on Friday, she said, “I am convinced a trade deal between the U.S. and UK are in the interests of both countries.”
However, Sebastian Dullien, an economist and senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The Cipher Brief a deal may not be so easy. “May hopes that she will get the ability to negotiate FTAs [free trade agreements] with other countries, but it remains to be seen whether this can compensate for the additional costs: Trump has already stated that he is only going to sign trade agreements which are clearly beneficial for the U.S. Trump has also threatened to pull out of the WTO [World Trade Organization] if it is an obstacle for his trade plans. This could reduce the WTO to irrelevance. Britain risks being left out in the cold without any deep trade agreement.”
“With Trump in the White House, these are testing times for an open and liberal world trading system to start with. It is more likely that Britain will struggle in such an environment rather than excel,” added Dullien.
Moreover, the U.S. and UK cannot begin negotiating a deal until Britain finishes its negotiations with the EU on leaving the 28-member bloc.
On Tuesday, the UK Supreme Court ruled the UK Parliament must vote to approve the triggering of Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty to begin the EU withdrawal. This throws into question the timing of when Article 50 will actually be enacted.
Phillip Souta, the head of UK public policy at law firm Clifford Chance, told the AP, “Parliament remains divided and the outcome of the negotiations remain unknown … Defeat in the House of Lords would not stop Brexit from happening, but it could delay it until mid-2020.”
Yet the British government has said the Supreme Court ruling will not delay Prime Minister May’s plan to start Brexit talks with the EU by the end of March.
The government formally introduced to Parliament on Thursday the bill seeking authorization to start the formal Brexit process.
Trump, who has previously expressed his support for the UK leaving the EU, commented on Friday, “I think Brexit is going to be a wonderful thing for your country. You’re going to have your own trade deals, have your own identity, I think it will go down that it will be a fantastic thing for the United Kingdom. I think in the end it will be a tremendous asset, not a tremendous liability.”
Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.