This wasn’t the way it had been meant to be. When Theresa May had invited the US president for a state visit, she had pictured herself standing next to him as almost an equal. The prime minister who had delivered Brexit, now poised to negotiate a free trade deal with the United States. Two leaders ready to the carve up the world in their own image. Instead, she was now barely even a supplicant. More like a woman without a shadow. The woman who wasn’t really there, at the press conference no one really wanted. The point at which politics disintegrates into existential ennui.
Shortly after 2pm, May and Donald Trump took up their positions at the two lecterns set up in the Durbar Court of the Foreign Office. The prime minister spoke first. She tried to sound upbeat, but her voice rarely strayed beyond a flat monotone. She may still have a few weeks left in No 10, but mentally she has checked out already. The epitome of demob unhappy.
Time outruns us all. The early part of May’s speech was on the impermanence of power. How she and Trump were only temporary guardians of the special relationship. An annihilation of the self. There was no real way back from that and her subsequent attempts to define her legacy were as unconvincing as the achievements themselves. A rare moment of self-knowledge. She had said too much. She hadn’t said enough.
Once May had finished and offered the president a handshake, Trump took centre stage. But even he could barely raise a pulse. His mind was elsewhere – reliving the Disney fairytale of meeting the Queen and thinking ahead to more important engagements later that afternoon. Who wouldn’t want the wellness spa experience of Piers Morgan crawling up their ass? Sycophantic colonic irrigation – and he barely made it through his script, time and again stumbling over words. English is the president’s second language. Bollocks being the first.
There was time for some trademark bluster. He and May were probably the biggest business leaders in the entire world. Make that the universe. The US-UK relationship was the greatest alliance ever seen. But even then, his words came with a certain fatigue. As if he was merely going through the motions of being polite, unsure of why the man who made a point of never getting involved with stone cold losers had found himself on a platform with one.
Things perked up a little when a few questions were invited from the media and the Donald went semi-feral. Sure, he still hated Sadiq Khan – the man should be nicer to him – and he also had no time for Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader had requested a meeting – something Corbyn had forgotten to mention when he had turned down the state banquet and had given one of his trademark shouty speeches at a protest rally – but Trump had turned him down. He didn’t know him and he didn’t like him. So there.
But even this felt underpowered. As if Donald Trump was cosplaying Donald Trump. Of course there were lies. These always priced into every appearance of the US president. He insisted there had been thousands of people cheering for him. There were 100 at most. He was adamant there had been no protesters when there were tens of thousands. #FAKENEWS.
He repeated his claim that he had predicted Brexit when the reality was the result had already been declared when he spoke to the media. There was a time when some would have laughed and others got angry, but now no one cared. Certainly not enough to challenge him. There was nothing at stake. The press conference of no more significance than a pre-season football friendly. Trump’s post-truth, alternative facts were no worse than any other reality.
Throughout all this, May largely kept silent. As if actively airbrushing herself out of history. There was one surprising moment when she insisted she had always been a woman of her word – anyone remember the 2017 general election? – but otherwise looked blank, her eyes lost in a private pain. So she just sucked up the humiliation of Trump patronising her by saying what a great job she had done, when only the previous week he had given interviews in which he had rubbished her completely. “You did tell me to sue,” she eventually pointed out.
“Sure,” Trump replied, unaware Brexit wasn’t just another business deal. “I’d have sued and settled, baby”.
Just when it seemed as if the formalities were over and Trump could get on with his family holiday, May could not prevent herself digging her own grave a little deeper. A final act of self destruction. The US president hadn’t heard the question about the NHS and she could have escaped unscathed; instead she made a point of repeating the question to him.
Trump responded eagerly. Everything was on the table in a future trade agreement. The NHS included. May had effectively exposed the Tory party deceit of a straightforward post-Brexit deal with the US. There was no easy trade deal to be had. There was no promised land. Barack Obama had been right all along. If the UK wanted to move from the back of the queue, it was going to have to beg.
Not that Trump cared. He had things to do, people to meet. Starting with Michael Gove, a person he couldn’t remember having met despite having been the subject of a skin-crawlingly toadying interview with him. All Brits looked much the same to him. Same as the Mexicans. Alas, poor Michael.
With that, the press conference ended. A car crash enacted in slow motion throughout. An event that had been meant to celebrate the ties between two countries but had only served to diminish them both.