Donald Trump’s state visit this week to the UK is being promoted as a celebration of a close alliance tempered through war.
It could be more accurately described as a personal lap of victory for the US president, performed largely at the expense of his hosts.
Trump arrives in London having survived Robert Mueller’s last blow, a verbal recap of the special counsel’s finding that the president could neither be charged with crimes nor exonerated.
The president is now on the counter-attack and may well use his visit to repeat his claim – called “utterly ridiculous” by GCHQ – that UK intelligence helped spy on his election campaign.
The rich pageantry that the British monarchy supplies will not only distract from the lingering clouds of suspicion, but send a bright red, white and blue message of reassurance to the Trump faithful that, while his domestic enemies might yap at his heels, he is still treated like royalty in foreign capitals.
“What he wants is the adulation,” said Thomas Wright, the director of the centre on the US and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “He wants the protocol and the grandeur and to be at the centre of it all. It is how he sees global diplomacy. It’s going from palace to chancellery, meeting leaders and looking the part.”
For that purpose, the UK visit could not be more perfect. On Monday, the Queen will greet Trump ceremonially in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. He will inspect a guard of honour and there will be royal gun salutes fired from Green Park and the Tower of London.
There will be afternoon tea and banquets and then, in Portsmouth, the martial grandeur of the Royal Navy.
Trump is bringing his extended family, including the heirs to his fortune and political power, Donald Jr, Eric and Ivanka. The most powerful of them, Ivanka, will attend a “business leaders” breakfast on Tuesday with her father in the company of Theresa May and the Duke of York.
The scenes will eventually be marketed by his business empire and his re-election machine in the same way: the House of Trump and the House of Windsor, the top luxury brands of their respective nations, sitting down to make deals in the most sumptuous settings.
In effect, the British royals will be serving as co-stars and extras in stock footage for Trump’s 2020 re-election ads. The only royal with experience of acting for a living, Meghan, the American-born Duchess of Sussex, is thought to be staying away.
She is on maternity leave after having baby Archie, but she has called Trump “divisive” and “misogynistic” in the past. In return, he declared her “nasty” in a pre-departure Sun interview.
The former Conservative foreign secretary Boris Johnson, whom Trump has consistently backed over May, and who he has said would do “an excellent job”, is tipped as most likely to succeed her. The Brexit party leader, Nigel Farage, another Trump favourite, emerged victorious from the European elections, while the hardest of all Brexits remains a likelihood. The US president is winning all his bets in the UK, and it would be out of character if he did not remind the hapless outgoing prime minister of that fact.
Johnson and Farage were expected to attend a banquet thrown at the US ambassador’s London residence, Winfield House, on Tuesday night, though Farage claims he has been banned from meeting the president by the May government. Trump was coy on whether he would meet them but gave them a resounding shout-out last Thursday as “two very good guys, very interesting people”.
In an interview with the Sunday Times, Trump called on Britain to leave the European Union without a deal if Brussels refuses to meet its demands, and urged the government to send Farage into the negotiations.
The state visit is an opportunity for Trump to double down on his bet on Brexit, with the ultimate aim of striking his own bilateral trade deal with an amputated and weakened Britain.
“This is not about seeing where the UK is vulnerable in a post-EU environment and buttressing it; I think this is using US trade leverage to get as many gains as possible,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
That leverage will be used to peel the UK away from EU regulations to fall in line with US standards on food, healthcare and banking. The US president will be coming to press home his advantage.
“Trump is pursuing a predatory approach to Brexit,” Wright said. “It’s an opportunist strategy to take advantage of Britain’s vulnerability.”