hen President Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May awkwardly held hands this January, it appeared to be the beginning of a potential friendship and the continuation of a wartime-forged special relationship that has connected both countries for almost a century.
But the prospects of that friendship were thrown into uncertainty on Wednesday, after Trump retweeted three videos promoted by a British far-right group. In an unusual rebuke, the spokesman for the British prime minister responded to the retweets, saying that it was “wrong for the president to have done this.”
Trump quickly fired back, relying on his preferred social media platform Twitter rather than a spokesman. “[Don’t] focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine,” Trump wrote in a message, which he initially sent to the wrong “TheresaMay” — a user with the same name who had less than a handful of followers at the time.
What motivated Trump to suddenly lash out against the British prime minister is unclear, but his personal attack fits a pattern that has emerged since his inauguration in January. Despite some initial clashes and disagreements, Trump appears to have found common ground with many male world leaders: He watched a military parade with France’s Emmanuel Macron, praised Canada’s Justin Trudeau for “doing a spectacular job” and bonded with the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, who sang a love song for Trump during the president’s visit. And then there’s his well known admiration for Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
But when it comes to female foreign leaders, Trump — who has faced multiple sexual misconduct allegations and was recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005 — appears to have behaved more aggressively.
The number of female government leaders insulted or attacked by Trump keeps growing. In mid-November, Trump told New Zealand’s new leader, Jacinda Ardern: “This lady caused a lot of upset in her country,” according to the prime minister’s account of the conversation. (Ardern said that she responded by saying: “You know, no one marched when I was elected.”)
Merkel, Ardern and May have all spoken up when they deemed the president’s behavior unacceptable and none of those female leaders tried to bond with the president the way many of their male counterparts have. Neither do they play golf nor appear to find military parades particularly intriguing, in order to please the world’s most powerful man.
During a Merkel visit to D.C. in March, a visibly unenthusiastic Trump was filmed as he — deliberately or accidentally — ignored calls to shake Merkel’s hands in the Oval Office. The symbolism of that scene wasn’t lost on anyone: He had previously called Merkel a “catastrophic leader” and the “person who is ruining Germany.” To Trump, his former Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton was to be denigrated as “America’s Angela Merkel.”
The feelings were probably mutual: Merkel never attempted to charm Trump, especially given that a vast majority of Germans are opposed to Trump’s presidency and any such efforts would likely backfire domestically.
Trump has mostly responded with political muscle flexing: When Merkel indicated that Europe could no longer rely on the United States this summer, the U.S. president threatened Germany with economic repercussions over the trade deficit. So far, however, Trump has not followed through on his threats.
At the time of Trump’s dispute with Merkel, British-American friendship still appeared to prosper, although there were already initial signs of a growing estrangement. During their first meeting in January, May had invited Trump to come to Britain on a state visit, but as Britons’ backlash against Trump’s policies mounted in the following months so did opposition to his trip to Britain. The queen made no mention of it during a closely watched speech in June and the trip was later downgraded to a “working visit.”
Trump reportedly asked May to swing the public mood in Britain in his favor to pave the way for his visit, but resistance here against him remains strong.
The growing rift between Trump and May became more apparent in September, following a terror attack on a London subway train. After Trump appeared to speculate about possible perpetrators, May said that it was not “helpful for anybody to speculate on … an ongoing investigation.”
Wednesday’s Twitter outburst probably won’t help matters either.