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Testing Times

by AFP

Mandel Ngan—AFP

Donald Trump’s Twitter outbursts prove taxing for U.S.-U.K. ‘special relationship’

Donald Trump’s refusal to deal with the U.K. ambassador following the leak of his frank assessment of the U.S. president’s chaotic rule raises a big question: can the allies’ much-vaunted “special relationship” survive?

The Mail on Sunday’s publication of Ambassador Kim Darroch’s confidential cables set off a furious Trump Twitter storm. Darroch had called Trump “inept” and his administration “uniquely dysfunctional.”

Trump tweeted back on Monday that Darroch “is not liked or well thought of within the U.S. We will no longer deal with him.” He also welcomed the “good news” that Prime Minister Theresa May was stepping down in two weeks. He followed that up on Tuesday by calling “wacky Ambassador” Darroch “a very stupid guy.”

All of which creates another headache for U.K. politicians during a tumultuous stretch in which they must decide how—or even if—Britain will leave the E.U. as scheduled on Oct. 31.

The hunt is on for the culprit and the “whodunit” theories are flying. Most concern the nuanced politics at play in the U.K. leadership fight between Brexit-backing former London mayor Boris Johnson and underdog Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

One popular theory says the leak was meant to punish both Darroch and the politician tipped to replace him for allegedly failing to embrace Brexit in full. This would suggest that the culprit was trying to make sure Johnson—seemingly assured of May’s office—picks someone who shares Trump’s far more skeptical view of the E.U. But the leak has also damaged Britain’s foreign standing and some talk is focused on how much an old rival like Russian President Vladimir Putin stands to gain.

“Of course it would be massively concerning if it was the act of a foreign, hostile state,” Hunt told The Sun.

U.K. politicians of all stripes have bristled at the thought of Trump simply shoving their man out of Washington. Whether Darroch can still perform his duties depends on what Trump actually meant in his tweets.

Darroch has already been taken off one White House dinner guest list. But the U.K. envoy will be more concerned about maintaining his private contacts and talking to people in Trump’s inner sanctum.

If Trump means “the whole White House staff is closed to you, including the national security adviser, that would be much more serious,” Britain’s former U.S. envoy Christopher Meyer said.

U.K. diplomats worry that the publication of what Downing Street described as Darroch’s “unvarnished” views will put off others from reporting similarly delicate matters. “The damage is to the confidence of civil servants to put their frank thoughts to ministers,” former Foreign Office number two Peter Ricketts wrote in The Guardian.

Ricketts also expressed concern that “Britain’s reputation as a country that knows how to keep its secrets” might suffer. Hunt agreed that it was “very important” that U.K. ambassadors all over “continue to give us their frank assessments.”

The scandal piles on the pressure for the next U.K. leader to either bow to Trump’s pressure or stick by London’s envoy. “Removing Darroch swiftly from office would be seen as a humiliating cave-in to a bullying foreign power,” the Politico news site wrote. “But voicing support for the beleaguered ambassador risks damaging relations with Trump from the outset.”

The choice is made all the more important by the next ambassador’s role in negotiating a new U.S. trade agreement that can mitigate the potential damage of Britain’s split from the E.U.

The “special relationship” term has always been more widely used in London than in Washington. The United States also enjoyed “special” ties with countries such as Israel and neighboring Canada.

But London provides Washington with a vital and reliable European ally that has been by its side through two world wars. The two provide each other with intelligence and share the same global security vision that has spanned decades and which is almost certain to last. “The relationship with Washington is based on strong and deep shared interests,” Ricketts wrote. “Those are unchanged by the leaks.”

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